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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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