Learning the American Way

The American Revolution

The First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

For non-UK readers: following an outbreak of “unethical” press behaviour last year, involving widespread hacking and police bribery, Lord Justice Leveson was called upon to chair a committee into press standards and issue recommendations for cutting out nasty journalism. The current Press Complaints Committee has failed to uphold “civil” standards and protect people from the wrath of news empires, we’re told: and for that we need statute to protect us.

But what politicians have refused to make clear is that “press standards” have absolutely nothing to do with crime. Bribery and hacking are already illegal;  the disgrace was that pre-Leveson they hadn’t been enforced. That’s changed. 60 arrests have already been made in the past few months. The problem is not with the press; it’s with enforcement of criminal law.

So – bring on the shambles!

In his wry legal voice, there seemed something politely sensible in Leveson’s suggestion that “an explicit duty for government ministers to uphold and protect the freedom of the press should be enshrined in law as part of any legislation setting up a new watchdog”. Sound good? It does, until the paradox: parliamentary legislation that would regulate the press cannot by its very definition guarantee its freedom. It is impossible. It does not matter whether this watchdog is “independent”; however the committee is composed it will be obliged to enforce parliamentary law. It would mean compulsory arbitration, the prototype for state licensing of publishing which England hasn’t had since 1695 and which every dictator has wanted since 1439.

Leveson InquiryLeveson, Jefferson – they roll off the tongue so well together. But no matter how slimily he posits himself Leveson is not Jefferson. There are some pleasantly superficial parallels with the First Amendment, are there not? Don’t give in: the American Constitution is not the government; it is the (nearly) unalterable document that defines the government and its institutions. The United States, in other words, defines the press only insofar as it tells the government what to keep away from; Leveson wants to bring it under the law’s influence to “protect” it. And the liberal defence is terrifying.

There are worrying omens afoot: the most liberal proposition for press regulation before the House of Commons is that of a medieval royal charter at the behest of a decaying Privy Council. Cameron, our chief oracle and unlikely hero, has managed to string together a deal with Labour and the Liberal Democrats that prevents anything in the press being accountable to Parliament. We are told, probably with more than a tooth of truth, that Cameron was persuaded out of his support for regulation by Murdoch’s grovelling fear of losing his right to unethical behaviour.

But who cares? I’m unashamed to be on the side of Murdoch. He is a symptom of crony capitalism, not a free press. It was either Cromwell or Washington who told us never to take away a liberty in the fear that it might be abused; and it was Orwell who told us that just because the right-wing press says something doesn’t make it wrong. Liberals shouldn’t let their dislike of illiberal publishing magnates cloud the political class attempting to push through the most illiberal law since capital punishment.

Cameron’s royal charter is a bloody mess; but it’s at least a relatively harmless mess. Labour and the Liberal Democrats should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, trying to push through press regulation for the sake of a brief moment of partisan triumph with populism masquerading as the defence of civil liberty.

If I can recommend something more by Nick Cohen.


One Comment on “Learning the American Way”

  1. Tim Joslin says:

    Interesting post, though I’m bemused by the principled opposition to “press regulation”. The world is shades of grey – let’s always be wary of claims of absolute rights. Weighing must always be allowed for.

    The idea in any case is supposedly to regulate by making “self-regulation” (seems oxymoronic to me, but let’s put that to one side) effective, which, if it works, should be indistinguishable from regulation by any other means (like an imperial power appointing local rulers rather than emissaries to run its subject territories).

    Putting “principles” to one side, evaluating the press regulation proposition boils down to two simple questions:
    1. What are the standards the press is meant to uphold?
    2. Is the proposed mechanism an effective way of enforcing them?

    Q1 is answered by clause 8 of Schedule 3 of the Royal Charter, which currently reads:

    “The code must take into account the importance of freedom of speech, the interests of the public (including but not limited to the public interest in detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety, protecting public health and safety and preventing the public from being seriously misled), the need for journalists to protect confidential sources of information, and the rights of individuals. Specifically, it must cover standards of:
    a) conduct, especially in relation to the treatment of other people in the process of obtaining material;
    b) appropriate respect for privacy where there is no sufficient public interest justification for breach; and
    c) accuracy, and the need to avoid misrepresentation.”

    and clause 7 which keeps changing but currently mandates that the:

    “…standards code must … be written by a Code Committee which is comprised of both independent members and serving editors.”

    By clause 8 Parliament is surely laying down the law, since the regulator must comply in the view of the Recognition Panel. On the other hand, I thought we elected Parliament to debate issues such as the detail of the Code – what’s there is too vague and open to interpretation. Specifically, tabloids in particular have a relaxed view of the “public interest”, encompassing, but not limited to, the public being interested, often salaciously. I rather hoped Parliament would provide a little more guidance on this point. Seems to me the politicians are just abdicating responsibility. Bearing clause 7 in mind, I don’t hold out too much hope for the Code not being biased towards the interests of the Press over those of the individual, especially as regards privacy “rights”.

    Regarding Q2, let’s hope enforcement by “self-regulation” works. If it does then in all practical terms it would be indistinguishable from any other form of effective regulation. But I doubt the new framework will be any more effective than the PCC.

    I want my rights (e.g. to privacy) against the powerful and the mob defended by those over whom I have some control (albeit only when acting collectively with the like-minded), not by unelected officials, many with a vested interest in over-riding them.

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