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Democracy is shooting itself in the foot with this emotional Leveson debate

15 March 2013

The breakdown of cross-party talks today seems to be creating a make or break moment for the basic principle of press freedom. But Cameron’s proposal to hold a vote on Monday is also adding a certain confusion to the brinkmanship.

The basic principle is clear: newspapers and other print media are subject to the rule of law but specific laws for the press should remain the tools of authoritarian not democratic and rights-abiding states. There are some (if not enough) public interest defences for occasionally breaking a law but MPs vote on laws, and print media are subject to those laws.

If MPs vote on specific press laws – including on the detailed characteristics of an independent regulator for the print media – they are not ensuring its independence, rather they are introducing political control. Politicians, as we knew well long before Leveson’s inquiry, court the press, they criticise the press and they attempt to influence the press – for the simple reason that the press (unlike broadcasters) can and do back one party over another, support or criticise party and government policies, and sway votes. The press hold politicians to account – they must not be, even slightly, under the thumb of politicians.

The shambolic, and now failed, process of cross-party talks on Leveson in the last three months shows only too clearly, that politicians are deeply partisan and strongly, and emotionally, opinionated on press regulation. In a calmer atmosphere, with less accusation and rhetoric on all sides, alarm bells would be ringing at this demonstration of exactly why party politics should be kept a long way away from control of the press. Nor would a cross-party consensus be more reassuring – countries like Hungary pull off two-thirds votes to control media, courts, constitutions and more.

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Since Leveson published his report, Cameron has – more or less – stood up for the principle that parliament and politicians should not vote on press regulation. The Royal Charter muddies this water somewhat – it introduces a political say although not a vote. Yet Clegg and Miliband have continued to demand a vote on statutory underpinning – even for the Royal Charter. And so the cross-party talks collapsed, and now Cameron is giving parliament a vote on Monday.

It is a risky, and potentially confusing, move. With the Lords, led by Lord Puttnam introducing a wrecking amendment into the Defamation Bill – so threatening its passage through the Commons – Cameron is rightly worried his legislation programme as whole may start to be taken hostage. A vote on Monday in favour of the Royal Charter approach to establishing an independent regulator would resolve the issue – it would be a compromise but not as bad as a direct statute underpinning  a regulator.

Cameron plans to add this Royal Charter to the Crime and Courts Bill, which sounds remarkably close to the statutory underpinning that Clegg and Miliband are so loudly demanding.

And if Cameron loses the vote, does he then give in, and say Leveson, Miliband, Clegg and Hacked Off can have their way – and have statutory underpinning for press regulation? Or does he continue to defend the fundamental right to freedom of expression including a free press. The whole point of universal rights is that parliaments don’t and can’t vote to change them: a majority vote to suspend or ignore a right is to treat rights like any other policy, as a political football. That is why countries sign up to human rights charters like the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (even if Theresa May doesn’t quite get that, David Cameron has seemed to up till now) – these conventions underpin democracies, help to stop the tyranny of the majority.

Meanwhile, the pro-Leveson voices are further clouding the issue by claiming – quite wrongly – that Cameron’s proposals are exactly what the press barons want, and will allow a soft-touch self-regulation system to continue. This is simply nonsense – Cameron’s Royal Charter will introduce an independent regulator (with no serving editors or members of the government on the board) with a much wider remit and more powers than the old system.

It is a debate where emotional claims are far outstripping any serious or reasoned discussion – and it is in that atmosphere that parliament will vote on Monday, a vote that  may go down in the historical record, as the day when British democracy shot itself in the foot and voted against press freedom.

Kirsty Hughes is chief executive of Index on Censorship.

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  • Barakzai

    Geoff103’s analysis here of what the future holds is measured and persuasive. That that future should belong to the Milibands, the sneering Ballses, Byrne, Burnham et al is a depressing prospect, one whose roots were shaped with cynical precision from 1997 onwards by the insidious propagandists of statism, Mandelson and Campbell. I take some solace in the unpredictability of politics, however: would anyone in late 1945 have predicted Churchill returning to power in 1951 or that within 5 years of Kinnock’s crassness in 1992 labour would win big?

    What isn’t comforting is the predictability of the harm which a Labour government composed of the heirs to Brown will inflict on the country after the next GE.

    • Paddy

      I’ve still enough faith in the wisdom of the British public to know they will never vote for Miliband.

      Whenever the public see him his ratings go down. Besides someone said he would need £16,000 worth of cosmetic surgery before the leaders’ debates.

  • martinvickers

    Silly, stupid, foreign, human rights, like freedom of expression, and
    enjoyment of property. Bah, who needs ’em. Parliament supremacy’s all we
    proper loyal Brit’s need, right?


  • Theodoxia

    Shooting oneself in the foot was a traditional method of acquiring a self-inflicted wound in order to be invalided away from battle; it denotes cowardice, rather than incompetence. That said, though, I agree with your argument.

  • DWWolds

    This is yet another case where Cameron is on the right side of the argument but is losing the public debate. Someone in his team really does need to get a grip of the communication tactics.

    • Martin Adamson

      I agree. If only David Cameron knew someone he could trust who had some kind of expertise or experience in public relations.

      • Geoff103

        To imagine that smoother and more effective public relations is going to solve this problem is to fundamentally misunderstand the problem. Though I know you are trying to make a satirical point with that post

        The levers of power on the ground have been super-glued to hands of the Right’s opponents. No amount of PR or even electoral success (no matter how remote or distant that may seem right now) is going to shift that.

        Cameron did not gain outright victory in 2010 but the soft Labour left was summarily defeated and yet, their agenda still rules.

        • Martin Adamson

          Oh, dear, I don’t think you quite got my wee joke.

          • Geoff103

            “”Though I know you are trying to make a satirical point with that post””

    • Geoff103

      The time for ‘getting a grip’ has long since past.

      It is now, I believe, impossible for a right-of-centre government (even one diluted in coalition by the LibDems) to govern in this country.

      Even getting past the first hurdle of election is nigh on impossible given the multi-party loose alliance in opposition to the Conservatives but even with a 2010 result, the forces lined up against them render government to its own agenda impossible.

      All the organs of the State, from the Civil Service to all the regulatory authorities, the various levels of the NHS, the charities sector, etc are in the grip of the ‘soft’ Left who will oppose at every turn in the road any deviation from the Statist path.

      Almost all of the issues that currently preoccupy Cameron are the result of maladministration during the years 1997-2010 yet he and his government are getting all the blame.

      Horsemeat in food, NHS deaths, phone hacking, relations with the EU etc. All the errors occurred prior to Cameron taking office and yet on a daily basis, the Coalition takes all the blame and opprobrium. Its efforts to introduce change, cut spending, change the tax regime etc all frustrated and hindered at every turn by all and sundry.

      Leveson is no exception. Neither is phone hacking. The prosecutions for this illegal activity should have been brought back in the early 2000s not now or their lack be the cause of attack on this government.

      I despair. If I were a younger man. I’d leave because any future vote I have is not going to make the slightest difference no matter how many millions join me in choosing the government.

      As UKIP supporters will soon find to their cost.

      • Andy

        I would agree. I would also add that most of the judiciary are also left wing – and I speak from personal experience having met many, many members of the High Court.

        • Nicholas chuzzlewit

          Let us not forget the BBC which is simply the official broadcasting arm of the Labour Party and for which those of us who do not vote Labour still have to pay £150 a year.

          • Geoff103

            We have become East Germany but with better shops.

            • Nicholas chuzzlewit

              Agreed but if we could get rid of the BBC we would at least have another £150 to spend in those shops.

      • Paddy

        “It is now I believe impossible for a right of centre government to govern in this country”.

        That’s because New Labour spent 13 years putting their left-wing pals into every institution in our country…….police, schools, NHS and government departments. They knew exactly what they were doing…..but I don’t know what the answer is.

        Probably not until we see the ugly face of the unions again……miners strike etc., and the younger generation see them for what they are…..controlling thugs.

        • Geoff103

          Don’t hold your breath. Next time, events will be reported by a State-Licensed (ie Left-Licensed) Media. There will be no 2020 version of The Sun and ‘Crisis, What Crisis?’.

          And probably, little or no TV and Radio because there will be constant brown-outs as the windmills won’t keep up with electricity demand.

          Fortunately, if not that soon, then a decade or so later I shall be long dead and gone when this comes to pass so the ‘young generation’ who wanted a hand-knitted future with ‘fairness’ at every turn will have brought it on themselves and they can stew in it.

  • In2minds

    I just want the odious Hugh Grant and his ilk to stop talking about the ‘will of the people’. The desire of the celeb, and Tom Watson, would be more honest. The people, as usual, have not been asked

    • Cambridge Tour Guide

      Can someone remind me what Hugh Grant was a ‘victim’ of?

  • Mycroft

    Yes, I’m amazed at the tone of the debate on this. On the Telegraph blogs people are queuing up to ask for first step to be taken toward state control of the press, and abusing Cameron, who is taking a brave and principled stand for once, of acting as agent of the Murdoch press. The mass of people are really not much interested, I think, in the preservation of basic freedoms, it is too abstract an issue for them, they are much are open emotional appeals in relation to specific cases (Millie Dowler etc.) The LIb Dems come out very badly on this, I thought they were supposed to be libertarians.

    • Nicholas chuzzlewit

      A fair and very coherent assessment in my view. Lib Dems as libertarians- hilarious.

    • HookesLaw

      The Telegraph blogs are full of nut jobs and the paper itself is a total joke.

      As you say Cameron is taking an honest and principled stand. You would think decent conservatives would take the hint but we see the likes of Afriyie takes the opportunity to peddle his self serving rubbish.

      The nut jobs do not know which side their bread is buttered and will continue to undermine him. Clearly they are happy in the nice cosy blanket of howling at a labour government rather than taking advantage of a Tory one.

    • TheOtherTurnipTaliban

      You what mate? Have you actually read any of the DT blogs? You will literally struggle to find 1 in a hundred people commenting who are pro press regulation. They see it as a step towards a soviet style politburo, complete control over the press.

      In short the complete opposite of what you said. Ridiculous. Furthermore – excuse my capitals but – SINCE WHEN IN F*** HAVE THE LIB DEMS BEEN LIBERTARIAN? They Libs are the absolute antithesis of libertarian, they are aggressively statist and their solution to everything is more tax and more rules.

      Jesus H…

      • Mycroft

        Yes, I have read through the comments there, and the majority are in favour of the Leveson proposals, and many ascribe Cameron’s stand as being motivated by a desire to curry favour with the press, and the Murdoch press specifically. It is a bit of a joke now to refer to the Lib Dems as libertarian, because they seem just accept any ideas that are fashionable on the liberal left, but the old Liberal tradition really was libertarian, I thought that to be one of its most appealing features. (I don’t really see the point of the LIb Dems, they don’t seems to have any distinctive viewpoint, they’re just a mushy leftist party.)

        • TheOtherTurnipTaliban

          Let me reiterate: They are absolutely not, in any way whatsoever, pro Leveson. Seriously. I have commented there regularly for about 3 years. They absolutely despise Leveson and the idea of any press regulation whatsoever.

    • Andy

      Spot on. It is showing the Labour Party and LibDems as nothing more than a bunch of fascists.

      The very, very last thing we should do is allow politicians to have any say in press regulation. You only have to look at how idiots like Puttman have tried to hijack the Deformation Bill to bring in press regulation to understand how they seek to control the press for their own ends. The Labour Party already owns and controls the BBC, which is how most people get their news, so we should not allow them to control the print media, which is in decline. If we do we will have a one party dictatorship before we know where we are.

  • Russell

    I wish Cameron and others who support his view on press regulation would say clearly on Sky and the BBC that the phone hacking which took place during labours governments was and still is illegal and there are sufficient laws in place to prosecute anyone or any organisation involved with phone hacking.
    To my knowledge the failure to take action on phone hacking was the fault of the police and suppression of prosecution by the labour government at that time, not the fault of the then press regulator.
    The BBC/Channel 4/Channel 5 and even Sky report daily about a bedroom tax (which of course is incorrect) as they did a ‘granny tax’ and headline that Cameron has walked away disgracefully letting down victims of phone hacking (Hugh Grant/Dowlers/Other celebs and ‘hacked off’ socialist pressure group).
    Where is the response from Cameron and the Conservatives on this matter and many other falsehoods spread by the media?.

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