Monday, December 03, 2012

For a free press, with no buts

In the war of words around the Leveson report, too many on all sides have accepted the myth that the UK press is too free and must be tamed

Lord Justice Leveson’s report into media ‘culture and ethics’, widely expected to propose a new press regulator backed by law, will spark a war of words in parliament and across the media. But will it be a phony war?

The trouble is that leading figures on both sides of this battle have accepted the central myth of the Leveson debate: the myth that the British press has been too free to run wild, and needs a tough new ‘independent’ regulator, whether statute-backed or not, to keep it in line.

As spiked has argued from the start of the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry, the truth is that the press is neither free nor open enough, even before a new regulator is appointed to wash its mouth out with soap. This is why we reject all of the options on the table today.

You can use whatever inoffensive-sounding weasel words you choose – statutory backdrop / underpinning / recognition etc – but a law to regulate the press still means more state intervention in a supposedly free press by any other name.

A statute compelling newspapers to sign up to a new regulator would look like a modern version of state licensing of the press. That system dictated that nothing could be published without the permission of the Crown. People went to the Tower and the gallows to fight for a free press until licensing was ended in 1694. Despite what some might like, we are unlikely to see a return to hanging, drawing and quartering for dissident journalists and publishers. But what happens to a newspaper that refuses to pay penalties under the new statutory-backed system? Are the authorities going to close it down?

Many politicians and media figures have latterly come out against the spectre of statutory-backed regulation. Yet the alternatives they propose all accept the basic premise of the anti-tabloid celebrities and crusaders – that tough new measures are needed to tame the press. Thus the proposals for ‘strengthened self-regulation’ backed by Lords Hunt and Black involve giving a new ‘independent’ regulator more power to police and punish the press than are currently enjoyed by the police, and introducing a form of industry licensing whereby those who refuse to sign up can be denied press cards and news sources.

There is no need for scaremongering about Britain becoming Zimbabwe-on-Sea. The danger is not crude censorship or an ‘Orwellian nightmare’ of government-controlled newspapers.

The threat is more insidious: that the shadow of state intervention and the consensus on the need for tougher regulation leaves us with a more conformist, tamer and sanitised press. The mission of the Leveson Inquiry has been to purge the press of that which is not to the taste of those who consider ‘popular’ a dirty word. A conformist culture of ‘You can’t say THAT’ is the biggest threat to press freedom after Leveson, whatever new system of regulation is finally agreed.

The press is already far too unfree, hemmed in by dozens of restraining laws and by informal self-censorship. A top editor has warned of an ‘ice age’ for investigative journalism even before a new regulator is imposed. What we need is more diversity, boldness and troublemaking in the press. The last thing required is another policeman, state-uniformed or not, looking over the shoulders of journalists and editors.

We should defend press freedom and freedom of expression as a bedrock liberty of a civilised society – and defend the right of a free press to be an unruly mess. That some abuse press freedom, as in the phone-hacking scandal, is no excuse for others to encroach upon it. Press freedom is not a gift to be handed down like charity only to those deemed deserving. It is an indivisible liberty for all or none at all.

Amid the three million words spoken at the Leveson Inquiry and the 2,000 pages of Lord Justice Leveson’s report, some key questions have not been aired. Leveson asked ‘who guards the guardians?’. But what about the equally important question: who judges the judges? What gives a Lord Justice the right to propose, and a government to impose, rules under which the press operate in a society where the public should be free to choose for itself?

And why do we need special regulation of a free press anyway? In America, the First Amendment makes it illegal to pass any law ‘abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’. Those few words – inspired by the Puritan revolutionaries of England – say more about the meaning of press freedom than Lord Justice Leveson’s voluminous report will today.

In the post-Leveson debate, almost everybody will begin by stating that of course they support press freedom, before adding the now-obligatory ‘But…’ of one sort or another. It is time we raised the banner for free speech and a free press, with no buts.


Bombshell by Leveson's own adviser: His law to gag press is illegal as it breaches Human Rights Act

But she's banned from telling you what she advised inquiry

One of Lord Justice Leveson’s key advisers last night delivered  the bombshell verdict that his demand for compulsory press regulation would be illegal.

In an exclusive interview with The Mail on Sunday, Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, said any such clampdown would breach the Human Rights Act and be open to legal challenge.

Her intervention is hugely significant because as one of only six ‘assessors’ who helped guide the inquiry and its conclusions, her position threatens the viability of key parts of the report.

As well as her opposition to Leveson’s demand for a law to enact  his recommendations, we can also reveal that she:

*   Rebuked pro-legislation pressure groups such as Hacked Off, led by celebrities including Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan, saying: ‘There has been a great deal of ill-informed debate, with people bandying about terms such as “statutory underpinning” with little grasp of what this would mean.’

*    Has been banned from discussing any aspect of the report’s deliberations under pain of ‘disciplinary action’.

*    Poured scorn on Labour leader Ed Miliband’s ‘hasty and ill-considered’ endorsement of the report.

At the heart of her objections to the Leveson report is that any new law that made the government quango Ofcom the ‘backstop regulator’ with sweeping powers to punish newspapers would violate Article 10 of the European Convention On Human Rights which guarantees free speech and is enshrined in  Britain’s Human Rights Act, too.

She said: ‘We were chosen as advisers because of our areas of expertise. Mine is human-rights law and civil liberties. In a democracy, regulation of the press and imposing standards on it must be voluntary.

‘A compulsory statute to regulate media ethics in the way the report suggests would violate the Act, and I cannot support it.  'It would mean the press was being coerced in being held to higher standards than anyone else, and this would be unlawful.’

On Miliband, she commented on the fact that when he made his promise to back the report on the day it was published, he could not possibly have read or weighed up the contents of its 2,000 pages.  ‘He should have been more careful about what he said,’ Ms Chakrabarti said.

‘To declare his full support so early, when he cannot have read it, was hasty. He should have reflected on it. This is a policy that must not be rushed.’

Ms Chakrabarti and the other assessors were hand-picked by David Cameron to help guide and advise Leveson on his inquiry and report.

Another assessor, George Jones, the former political editor of the Daily Telegraph, shares her view that there should be no ‘backstop’ role for Ofcom, as a little-noticed footnote to the report makes clear.

Ms Chakrabarti said that if the recommendation were made law, any publication which became subject to compulsory regulation would be able to challenge it in the courts, and seek a legal declaration that the ‘Leveson law’ flouted human rights.  If the law were not repealed, the publication could seek to have it overturned at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Article 10 states: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.’

Ms Chakrabarti also rebutted Leveson’s claim that a new statute to establish a press regulator is ‘essential’. She said the new regulator does not need ‘statutory underpinning’, and should not rely on approval from Ofcom or any other quango.

Of Hacked Off, Ms Chakrabarti said: ‘I understand that people who have been wronged want action. But they should be interested in outcomes, rather than particular processes.

'The outcome they should be seeking is a free and vibrant press with access to justice for the public when things go wrong.

‘We can achieve this without legislation, which may have serious unintended consequences. Unfortunately, there has been a great deal of ill-informed debate, with people bandying about terms such as “statutory underpinning” with little grasp of what this would mean.’

The important thing, she said, was for the newspaper industry to set up as quickly as possible a new, independent regulator along the lines Leveson recommends, with real powers to punish publications. The debate over whether any change in law was then required should  wait until its structure was clear.

But neither Ofcom nor any other state quango should validate it, she said. ‘I don’t think quangos such as Ofcom are independent enough of the state to be judging press regulation.  ‘Quangos are an emanation of the state, and their members are appointed by Ministers.’

If a quango were to be involved, she added, Ofcom was an especially unfortunate choice, because its existing role in governing broadcasters means it is a ‘regulator of content’.

For example, Ofcom has powers to decide whether programmes breach broadcasting rules on political bias, which have never applied to the press, and to punish those who transgress.

Leveson’s recommendation that Ofcom should be the body empowered by law to decide whether the regulator was doing its job was ‘something I can never accept’.

Journalism, she added, must never become a ‘state-licensed profession’. Some, she noted, had argued that the state does license drivers, implying that licensing for the media would be no more onerous.  ‘But driving a car isn’t a fundamental human right,’ she said. ‘Freedom of speech is.’

However, it is in discussing the politically-vexed issue of whether legislation is necessary at all that Ms Chakrabarti’s views present the most radical departure from Lord Leveson, who believes: ‘It is essential that there should be legislation to underpin the independent self-regulatory system and facilitate its recognition in legal processes.’

But as Ms Chakrabarti pointed out, in the same breath, the judge also said that the law should not determine the structure of the new regulator: that should be left to the press itself. In her view, the new system would work much better without any legislation at all.

She believes that the way to ensure newspapers both join and obey a regulator is through incentives, administered by judges considering legal actions against the press.

In fact, the Leveson report recommends this too, saying that once the new regulator has set up an arbitration system which can be readily accessed by the public, judges should be able to impose big cost penalties on those who ignore it, whether they be newspapers or those who try to sue them.

Yet all this, Ms Chakrabarti said, could be achieved without statute. All that is necessary is for the press to set up the regulator, and then, if sued, to ask the judge to take their participation into account when deciding costs.

‘That would not be statutory regulation of the press, or even statutory underpinning,’ she said. ‘It would be the civil courts giving credit to the press for meeting Leveson’s crucial recommendations, by joining a “club” that was independent and able to provide redress for those with legitimate grievances.’

If, she added, judges proved unwilling to change the way costs are awarded, then it should be possible to amend the Civil Procedure Rules, the ‘White Book’ of regulations for the way civil cases must be conducted.

This would be done by a panel of judges, so again legislation would not be needed. Only if this proved impossible would Ms Chakrabarti countenance a very limited statute on the matter of costs.

Ms Chakrabarti’s view was supported yesterday by Dan Tench, a partner in London law firm Olswang and an expert on media law.

‘She is absolutely right that you don’t need legislation,’ he said, adding that changes due to come into force in April to the way costs are awarded would make it easy for judges to ‘incentivise’ newspapers in the way Ms Chakrabarti suggested.

Ms Chakrabarti said it was also clear there could be more than one regulator, and that other such ‘clubs’ could also be established for internet bloggers or Twitter users – who could thus also benefit from the court incentives.

She added that the Leveson report had come at a time when media freedom is already under threat, with the government fighting to introduce more secrecy to British courts.

She said. ‘Investigative journalism is under attack, and it’s a shame the media have not paid as much attention to these measures as they have to Leveson. Their effect, if enacted, will be chilling.’

Finally she revealed she was ‘sadly disappointed’ Ed Miliband was so vocal about the Leveson Report – while remaining silent on a Bill opening the way to ‘secret courts’ and  the ‘snoopers charter’ which would give security agencies owers to spy on people’s use of the internet.

‘When Ed Miliband was elected party leader, he promised this would mark a new era of Labour concern for civil liberties. I’m still waiting for that. I would like to see him be  much more robust on these issues.’


British Welfare State has ballooned to over 12 times its original size, figures reveal as Chancellor prepares benefits freeze

The cost of the Welfare State has risen 12-fold in real terms since its introduction, figures reveal today – as George Osborne prepares to unveil a benefits freeze.

Figures released by the Department for Work and Pensions to mark the 70th anniversary of William Beveridge’s landmark report on welfare, show the cost of the modern system dwarfs that of his original vision.

They come as the Chancellor puts the finishing touches to next week’s Autumn Statement on the economy, when he is expected to announce a freeze in the value of most benefits apart from pensions and disability payments.

The move is part of Mr Osborne’s drive to tackle Britain’s budget deficit. He is also expected to ease pressure on family budgets by cancelling the 3p rise in fuel duty due to come in next month.

The new figures reveal that benefit spending has increased dramatically since Beveridge’s proposals were introduced in 1948, rising from the equivalent of £13.5billion in today’s prices to £165.5billion this year – more than a 12-fold increase.

Even given the huge growth in the economy over the past seven decades, the increase in the cost of the benefits system has been dramatic.

In 1948 spending on benefits accounted for 10.4 per cent of Britain’s total income, against 24.2 per cent this year.

Jobseeker’s Allowance has almost doubled in real terms from £37.30 a week for the 1948 unemployment benefit to £71 today. At the same time the basic state pension has almost trebled from £37.30 to £107.45.

Yet over the same period the price of a pint of milk has fallen in real terms from 57p to 46p.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said the soaring cost underlined the fact that the welfare system had lost touch with Beveridge’s original vision of ensuring ‘freedom from want’.

‘Beveridge’s pioneering vision for welfare has been completely lost,’ he said. ‘The system is complicated, expensive and open to abuse.

‘Our reforms will restore confidence and bring the benefits system back to Beveridge’s founding principles.

‘We will deliver his vision of a Welfare State that provides a safety net for those who need it, without stifling incentive, opportunity or responsibility.’

In October, Mr Duncan Smith said that spending on benefits and tax credits had risen by more than 60 per cent under the previous Labour government – spiralling even before the recession, when growth was booming, jobs were being created, and welfare bills should have been falling.

By 2010, the extra spending was costing every household in the country an extra £3,000 a year in tax, helping to increase the budget deficit..


No more “bride” & “groom” on marriage certificates in Washingtom State

The words “bride” and “groom” – along with “husband” and “wife” are about to become archaic language in Washington state as officials prepare to remove the terms from marriage and divorce certificates.

Tim Church, a spokesman for the Wash. state Health Department, told Fox News they will likely be removing those words in favor of more gender neutral terms.

He said the changes are necessary in response to the same-sex marriage law that takes effect Dec. 6.

“We’ve been quickly moving ahead to change our marriage certificate to make sure it fits for everyone who is going to be using it,” he told Fox News.

The words “bride” and “groom” could be replaced with “Spouse A” and “Spouse B” or “Person A” and “Person B,” Church said.

The department has been taking public input but the state’s secretary of health will ultimately decide which terms are used.

“People are just happy we are aware that the form needs updating,” Church said. “One (person) expressed concern that she sees forms that she does not see herself in – and she’s forced to make a choice on a form that is not a perfect choice for her.”

“We want our form to work for everyone who is getting married,” he added.

Peter Sprigg, of the Family Research Council, said it’s no surprise that traditional marriage terminology is about to be censored in Washington state.

“It is one sort of symbolic indication of how radical a change the legalization of same-sex marriage is,” Sprigg told Fox News. “Symbolically, they are doing away with the whole concept of bride and groom, husband and wife – at least in the eyes of the law.”

Sprigg suggested the heterosexual couples could challenge the new terms by simply crossing out the new language and inserting the old.

“I wonder if the state would accept that,” he asked. “If not, it would suggest this movement is intent on being even more totalitarian.”



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the  incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of  other countries.  The only real difference, however, is how much power they have.  In America, their power is limited by democracy.  To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already  very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges.  They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did:  None.  So look to the colleges to see  what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way.  It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH,   EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICSDISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL  and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine).   My Home Pages are here or   here or   here.  Email me (John Ray) here


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