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Why I am with Cameron on Leveson

By Angela Harbutt
November 30th, 2012 at 8:00 am | 2 Comments | Posted in Media

So here we have it – a tussle about the balance of power between the politicians and the press (neither of which have exactly high trustworthy ratings right now). And a tussle between the Coalition leader and the deputy leader (ditto). Disappointingly, (as a liberal) I find myself agreeing with Cameron on this one . Odd to see the leader of the Conservative party defending the very foundations of liberalism, whilst the leader of the liberals seems to stand firmly in the camp of those wishing to extinguish the freedom of the press. How have we arrived at this place?

On the face of it, with one or two exceptions I have noticed,  I am in the minority within the Lib Dems. Comments such as “If we never achieve ANYTHING else whilst in Government, being there on the day we stopped people like Murdoch being able to hurt again, will be worth it.” …….” I thought we’d all be delighted by the outcome? The press have always disliked us and bullied us” echo a sentiment I have heard more than once today.

Elsewhere the Lib Dem view seems to be that we must impose restraints on the press “for the victims”.

The anti-Murdoch response from the Lib Dems was predictable I suppose. The party does seem to have adopted a general stance, covering many issues, that runs along the line “if we don’t agree with something it should be banned” regardless of the underlying merit (or lack thereof) of the specific policy in question.  And as despicable as phone hacking undoubtedly is, we should not have a “victims  veto” (h/t Mick Hume from Spiked!), where the victims determine the punishment. Bleak days indeed where tribal hatred or popularity contests can veer us so far off course.

This is a time for calm, clear thinking. Not crowd-pleasing gestures to the “victims”, nor relishing our moment to get one over a press that ignored us. We must be very clear what we are sleep-walking our way into.

Leveson is proposing this Government regulate the press – and our “liberal” leader appears to be aiding and abetting this. Any movement towards statutory regulation (which is exactly what statutory “underpinning” is) of the free press is wrong on every level, plain and simple. Once parliament has granted itself such powers, it will, as sure as night follows day, expand them later. Once you open that door – even by an inch- you will never shut it. We have seen with every other piece of legislation , when a door is opened, it will only widen.

Ever thought anti-terrorism laws were intended to evict a heckler from a party conference? No one did – that is the point. I seriously struggle to understand the naivety (because I must believe this is not simple opportunism) of Nick Clegg. Another apology in waiting – but this time there can be no forgiveness. No excuses. Nick may have acquired short term notoriety for reneging on students fees. Small beer to his legacy – the destruction of the fourth estate and abandonment of liberalism.

The reason for Leveson’s recommendation to move to state regulation is because “self regulation of the press has not worked”.

[Never mind that most of the complaints were about criminal activities that, had the state spent more time worrying about doing its job properly,  the police would be less corruptable and politicians less gullable.  The decay of the the moral fibre of our so-called public servants is, and always has been the real issue here.]

In his speech in the House of Commons, Nick said :

“… when I gave my own evidence to the Inquiry, I made the point that, if we could create a rigorous, independent system of regulation which covers all of the major players, without any changes to the law, of course we should. But no one has yet come up with a way of doing that”

Well Nick, try harder. Self regulation has clearly not worked for the press, indeed it does look like the PCC was part of the problem. But self regulation can and does work. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the self-regulatory organisation of the advertising industry in the United Kingdom. It is a non-statutory organisation (so it can’t cannot interpret or enforce legislation) but has a code of advertising which broadly reflects legislation in many instances. The ASA is not funded by the British Government, but by a levy on the advertising industry. It is fast-acting, even-handed, accessible and cheap to use.  Get off your backside and go make it happen. What is so pressing in your diary that you can’t just go find good models of self regulation, and make a new improved PCC mark2 work?

Today I hang my head in shame. The liberal leader’s stance on this is not just embarrassing – its inexcusable.

The dangers of the Leveson proposal are all too evident. Indeed the more one considers the Leveson ideas the more you scratch your head and ask how did we arrive here; how do they imagine it is going to work; and where will it all end?

Who exactly, selects the members who might sit on the regulator “independent of industry or politicians”? Talk of an arms-length body is all well and good – but whoever selects the members defines the nature of the organisation.

What happens when one, or more, elements of the press say no to the cowing of the press? I am not a reader of the Spectator. I was pointed to yesterday’s editorial and I may well sign up today. Why? Read this

“The idea of benign ‘statutory regulation’ was advocated by MPs in 1952 and The Spectator vigorously opposed it then, too. ‘Everyone who really understands what freedom of the press means and cares about it,’ we argued, ‘must resist such a proposal to the uttermost.’

That is what The Spectator will now do. If the press agrees a new form of self-regulation, perhaps contractually binding this time, we will happily take part. But we would not sign up to anything enforced by government. If such a group is constituted we will not attend its meetings, pay its fines nor heed its menaces. We would still obey the (other) laws of the land. But to join any scheme which subordinates press to parliament would be a betrayal of what this paper has stood for since its inception in 1828.

So what happens if others follow the Spectator’s spectaculary bold and brilliant stance? Will the face-off end up in editors and journalists refusing to be cowed? Refuse to pay fines? Challenge the regulation ? Go to prison ? If this is where we are heading then I am signing up to the fight. And I am firmly on the side of the Spectator. And if that means prison so be it.

And how do you define which organisations/ titles are required to adhere to the “voluntary-statutory” regulator ? The Daily & Sunday Express, Scottish Daily & Sunday Express, Daily & Sunday Star and others are currently exempt from PCC rulings – because they have opted out.  How do you deal with them ?

And whilst I am on the “practicalities” Leveson has virtually ignored on-line blogs and news sites. As they grow, will we see calls for sites such as Britain’s best-read political website, Guido Fawkes or Spiked! rolled into the regulators sphere of control? Guido Fawkes, is domiciled in Ireland – does Spiked have to do likewise? Will blogs such as this one ultimately come under the inspection of a press regulator?

Ok, I am now getting far ahead of where we are today. Many will say that this will never happen. But whichever way you look at this you see opportunities for regulatory creep and political interference. Do we really trust politicians to show restraint? History says we must not.  And the suggestion of a “First Amendment style” protection of the freedom of the press enshrined in the statute currently is a meaningless token gesture.  What will it realistically offer that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights” does not already provide? You know the answer.

We all have sympathy for those that have suffered at the hands of the print press. We have just as much sympathy for those that have suffered at the hands of the BBC. Why treat the organisations so differently if there are no agendas or scores to settle?

As a party that has fought id cards, detention without trial, state surveillance and rendition, so must we fight the gagging, taming or cowing of the free press. Wrong-doing of the press must be dealt with through the courts, but we cannot allow a handful of political careerists and bitter celebs, to appoint themselves judge and jury.  We will fight the key Leveson proposal to regulate the press with all our might. We will fight the demands  to rush to legislation. Nothing good came out too much speed. Reflect Nick. Please.

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Super Liberal Women

By Sara Scarlett
August 1st, 2011 at 5:00 pm | 8 Comments | Posted in Media

For a while I was hesitant to contribute my thoughts on the latest feminist furore de jour. I feel as though I have said everything that needs to be said; government is not responsible for the self esteem of young women. To be fair, the advertising industry, should be commended for making some significant progress.

Jo Swinson is now persuing some ‘war on pink’ nonsense. I really do wonder what type of women she thinks she is representing when she goes on these crusades though. Are there really women and young girls who fall to pieces upon glimpsing an overly airbrushed ad? Do they crawl weeping to the telephone to make a complaint to the ASA and then drag themselves to the bathroom to purge themselves of every last morsel? Is every woman in the country becoming Daily Mail columnist, Liz Jones? (I think you’ll agree that’s a frightening prospect.) What has happened to womanhood?

Feminists have never been particularly good at making women feel anything other than angry and miserable and I think Swinson is falling into the trap. She has got some ads banned but she is not projecting another appealing feminine ideal (and that’s not really her job either…). The feminist solution used to be dress like a man and cut your hair short – as if femininity and assertiveness are in someway mutually exclusive. Everytime I hear the phrase ‘real woman’ it is accompanied by a picture of some overweight, miserable looking creature in dungarees. If that is real then I want to be ethereal, unreal, surreal. Or better yet, let’s drop this ‘real woman’ crap and think about what is the Super Liberal Woman? I hope she is a healthy, althetic, feminine, interesting and assertive individual who laughs heartily when she sees a ridiculous ad in a magazine, then goes about her daily business (and dreams at night of 4% flat rate of income tax…).

There will always be a media ideal of feminine beauty. The truth is that women have the freedom to pick as much of it or as little of it to aspire too as they so wish. The emphasis should be on teaching girls and young women how be strong when they are made to feel bad about it – not insulating them from it – because you never truly can.

Media failure that is truly shocking

By Angela Harbutt
July 15th, 2011 at 6:00 pm | 8 Comments | Posted in Debt, Media

A new publication was launched earlier this week “Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes: Big steps to a smaller state“,  calling for a radical downsizing of the public sector and giving an indication of the corresponding tax cuts that would be made possible as a result. The media coverage was, as you might expect, mixed. The Guardian headline read “Thinktank advocates abolition of the NHS and slashing overseas aid”  whereas the Daily Mail had a somewhat different take on the issue “You call those ‘savage cuts’? Actually they are dangerously pathetic” . No surprise on the line taken by either of those papers – no change there then.

But the headlines that actually caught my eye – and caused a huge intake of breath – both came from City AM  –  “Public in dark on UK debt” and the editorial “Media is failing public in many ways” . The focus of these two articles was not on the “Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes” publication per se but on the COMRES/IEA survey that ran alongside this story.

That survey suggests a terrifying level of misunderstanding/ignorance about the state of Britain’s finances. One of the most astonishing facts coming out of the survey was that an alarming 70% of those asked believed the government is cutting £350bn from the debt over the course of the parliament – fewer than one in ten people realised that the government is actually adding hundreds of billions of pounds to the national debt.

This is a startling revelation. We are not talking about people “getting the gist” ..but being out by a billion or so. If this survey is correct, then we are talking about the vast majority of the British electorate having completely the wrong idea about where we are financially and what we still have to face.  

How can the public determine which spending policies are right for the country if they are blind to the actual state of the finances? How can democracy be expected to operate when those voting are so ignorant of so many of the essential facts?

Alistair Heath suggests that it is the media must take much of the blame. And he is almost certainly correct. Coverage of the spending cuts has been, if anything excessive. We have all enjoyed ding-dong after ding-dong with politicians facing one another, special interest groups and indeed highly paid journalists to discuss Britain’s finances.

And yet the sum total of all that “shouty television” is a population which thinks this government is doing the precise opposite of what it is actually doing. That is truly shocking.

If the state of affairs is truly as the COMRES/IEA poll suggests, the BBC, whose remit is to educate and inform, must be sitting very uncomfortably today. Not only are we, the people, paying for the BBC to educate and inform us – but BBC is the dominant news provider in the UK. (Figures below from Conservative Home – click here for information on BBC’s dominance of other media).

The BBC must surely move, and move fast, to assuage our fears concerning the ignorance of the nation or, if COMRES/IEA survey is correct, to put this woeful state of affairs to rights. If it does, then the IEA may well  “extend the frontiers of the very limited debate we have on public expenditure” in more fundamental ways than even it may have intended.

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Rupert versus the volanco

By Andy Mayer
July 15th, 2011 at 10:51 am | Comments Off on Rupert versus the volanco | Posted in Media

I am currently observing the decline and fall of the Murdoch Empire with a flickering 3G card ensconced in cottage near a sleepy Cornish hamlet. Observing the Westminster village take on the media village from this outsider’s redoubt is interesting.

News filters through that News of the World staff have been offered up to assuage the angry volcano gods of Parliament. Having not seen eruptions subside, the village Chief tain has generously allowed his high priestess to hurl herself into the caldera as well to protect the inheritance rights of his son, whilst postponing his mooted takeover of the prime real estate in the path of a lava stream.

Meanwhile he and his empire are under investigation by various witch doctors for selling juju-juice unethically obtained from the gall-bladders of goats by non-licensed practitioners operating outside the code of conduct of the snake-oil merchant’s guild.

That the Chieftain’s aides were often slipping the same witch doctors canisters of the stuff to treat their patients whilst the village guards were bribed with nuts and berries not to notice, is off course entirely beside the point. The witch doctors have a score to settle after various friends of the Chieftain exposed their practice of demanding extra offerings for rituals of dubious worth.

The long oppressed pygmy tribes, more frequent victims of the Chieftain’s disdain than wrath, are cock a hoop. They are claiming credit for being right about the Chieftain all along, despite spending a vast amount of their own energy trying to attract his attention with primitive dancing displays and occasionally writing op-eds for his village newsletters.

I think it unlikely then that this crisis will see the pygmies taking over the village, and even more unlikely that any dilution in the power of the Chieftain will lead to a flowering of pygmy-friendly pluralism. Village feuds have a habit of turning into long-running tit-for-tat vendettas and power struggles rather than holding hands around the camp-fire in a show of mutual respect.  

The illicit trade in gall-bladders should, we all hope, subside. It is at any rate already illegal in the village and persuading the guards to enforce tribal law by hurling a few of their dozy leaders and most egregious nut-crunchers in the volcano should help revitalise their love of justice.

Whether the Chieftain and his empire will survive remains an open question. His pending grilling at the hands of the various tribal councils for the effective redistribution of tar and feathers should not prove fatal, but will impede his movements. His reputation for being master of this volcano has gone, but then there are other villages. Sometimes it’s best to just get in the canoe and paddle to a different island.