The upshot of Leveson — press a part of democracy, not above it

The upshot of Leveson — press a part of democracy, not above it

BBC News – Leveson report: Maria Miller urges swift action by press Lord Leveson has given his report on press self-regulation, and matters must now move swiftly on.

At the outset I need to admit I have not read his 2,000 page report. I doubt many have. In a sense, it is already irrelevant, because what matters now is not what Leveson said, but what government will do about it. We are already looking at the prospect of a bill put forward by the government which will have the support of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but not by David Cameron’s Conservatives. Whether such a bill can actually make it through the House of Commons is another matter.

The upshot of Leveson’s inquiry, though, is to sharpen the question of whether the press is a part of democracy, or above it. The Conservative view is that Parliament should have no role in setting limits to the press — the press needs to do that itself. The Liberal Democrat (and, it seems, Labour) view is that having attempted non-statutory self-regulation, and found it wanting, the case is clear that Parliament should assert its authority.

In a sense, this is the difference between Liberalism and Libertarianism. Liberalism is about maximising the freedoms for everyone, even if this means limiting the freedoms of some. Libertarianism is about refusing to limit any freedoms, even if the upshot is that the rights of some are infringed by the freedoms of others.

No British political party welcomes government by the arbitrary restriction of freedoms. In that sense, Britain is a liberal democracy. The question is, what freedoms must be restricted, to what extent, and by whom.

In most cases this depends on the people exercising them. Although Parliament has the power to legislate on anything, it tends only to legislate either to promote the specific policy objectives of the party in power, or in response to abuse of existing freedoms.

At the same time that we are looking at regulation of the press, we are also looking at the regulation of pay-day loan companies, and at a minimum per-unit price on alcohol. Both of these other issues are the result of abuses. In the case of pay-day loan companies, interest is being charged at many thousands of percent per annum on those least able to manage their own financial affairs. While the responsible end of credit companies have worked hard to assure that people do not put themselves in financial difficulties through borrowing, the pay-day companies have exploited people’s financial difficulties in order to profit from ruinous borrowing. With alcohol, the availability of cheap ways to get drunk at home has had a savage effect on the health and well being of many, and, incidentally, a destructive impact on pubs and restaurants.

We would not be debating any kind of regulation on the press if the existing system of press regulation was working. I’ve commented on that elsewhere, which prompted a long phone call with the communications lead at the Press Complaints Commission who felt I had been unfair. In principle, I agreed with her — when functioning as advertised, the PCC would have done the job. In practice, my experience was I set it out. Leveson seems to have come to a similar view.

The reality is that the vast majority of articles published in the vast majority of newspapers are honest, as accurate as the journalist could make them, provide a valuable service to the readers, and were generated through a legitimate and upright process. The problem is that a small minority of stories were anything but — and it was often those stories which provided the big headlines, the scoops stories and the enormous sales on which some major national titles depended.

The reign of terror inflicted on the JK Rowlings, the McCanns and the Dowlings, among many others, should not stand in any democratic system.

At the moment, no-one is proposing a government-run body to supervise the press. Government supervision of what the press can publish would set our democracy back hundreds of years. We need a free press as part of the way we hold politicians, big companies, rogue traders and pressure groups to account. We are already beginning to see the impact of inadequate protection of the press in the way in which scientific journals are receiving threats of legal action because they are publishing papers with which vested interests disagree. We need more protection for the press to publish those kind of public interest stories, not less.

What we are looking to is an independent regulator with statutory teeth. The possibility, for example, of genuinely large fines that threaten the viability of the most profitable and frequent offenders is something that self-regulation cannot provide. In a self-regulatory regime, a paper faced with a choice between going out of business or ignoring the regulator would — from a commercial point of view — most likely ignore the regulator. Self-regulation organisations are aware of this, and are therefore unlikely ever to attempt to impose tough sanctions that they cannot enforce.

Leveson does not go far enough for the McCanns — as we heard eloquently put by  Gerry McCann on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. He goes too far for David Cameron, who described his proposals as a Rubicon we dare not cross.

It’s easy to dismiss Cameron as making a political judgement to keep his friends in the media on-side. Certainly the investigation, and the arrests which have been linked with the same issues, are difficult for him politically. But his concerns are legitimate. We must not put a tool into the hands of parliament which a benign government will only use for good, but which opens the door for manipulation at a later stage.

Nonetheless, the current situation cannot continue.

It is now the task of parliament to turn Leveson’s proposals into something which does not realise Cameron’s worst fears, but which provides a remedy so effective and substantial that the worst offenders change their practice to something which — in the rush for headlines — does not trample the rights of the innocent in the name of freedom.

Why morality is none of government’s business

Why morality is none of government’s business

David Gauke, Exchequer Secretary, using Tax Ca...

David Gauke, Exchequer Secretary, (Photo credit: HM Revenue)

BBC News – Paying tradesmen cash in hand morally wrong, says minister David Gauke, Treasury Minister, is the most recent Conservative politician to argue the moral case for doing what government wants you to do. The problem is, morality is none of government’s business, and by attempting to take the moral high ground, Gauke is simply ceding it.

In America they have separation of church and state. It doesn’t always work that well, but at least it’s something. In Britain we have a constitutional state church which often seems to have better separation. But it does prompt calls from time to time for the church to stay out of politics which is i) unconstitutional ii) unnecessary and iii) not a good thing. When Thatcher was in power, it was bishops and archbishops who formed the phalanx of the intellectual opposition.

The Americans created a church state divide not to keep the church out of politics, but to keep the state from interfering in the conscience of the individual to worship (or not) in the way that he or she thought fit.

The thing about the state is that it has exactly two functions: executive and legislative. On the executive side it takes our money and spends it (or should) for our collective benefit. Margaret Thatcher never actually said ‘there’s no such thing as society’, but it became a meme because the phrase represented what she seemed to be trying to do. She should have saved her energy. The very fact that we have an executive arm to the state means that there is definitely such a thing, and without it the state has no meaning. We may not agree with what the state does with our money, but the days are long gone when the sovereign gathered in taxation for the exploitation of her or his own agenda without any obligation to the people.

On the legislative side, parliament creates legislation. It doesn’t quite create law, because law is what happens when the courts get round to testing and interpreting the legislation. But parliament does its best.

Unlike medieval sovereigns, that is where the power of the British state stops. It doesn’t own the English language (though the French government believes it owns the French language), it doesn’t control the medals at the Olympic Games, it doesn’t control what goes in history books or in science books, it doesn’t get to control our religion, and it most certainly doesn’t get to set out what is right and what is wrong.

Government does have a connection with morality: ministers and members are enjoined to behave uprightly, and both newspapers and the voters are swift to punish those who do not, especially those who claim one thing and do another. But, like Samuel Rutherford‘s Lex Rex, which set the law above the king rather than the other way around (an innovation in its day), morality governs the conduct of government, not the other way around.
Why is this important? I’m not an advocate of moral relativism and, as a Christian, I believe I am called to obey the law except when it is in direct violation with my conscience. However, what troubles me is that politicians are beginning to equate their own dictats with morality. Why is it illegal to pay traders in cash with the aim of avoiding paying VAT? Essentially, it’s illegal because it’s against the law. That’s all there is to it. Our taxation system is set up to reward businesses that register for VAT and keep their accounts in order so that they can claim back VAT on their costs. It’s not organised to reward businesses which trade in cash rather than through cheques. It’s an entirely reasonable way to go about things, but it’s not the only way, and it isn’t based on a moral foundation. We collectively accept the need to raise taxes to fund society, and we collectively accept the moral obligation. But there is nothing intrinsic about the moral obligation, and we might, collectively, vote out the government at some point and insist that the next government makes cash transactions untaxable, as a way of boosting micro business.
No-one is going to get hurt as a result of Gauke’s tirade. It does no-one any real harm to pay the tax that they owe. The problem is when government starts using the ‘moral’ argument for other things. War in Iraq? Clearly Blair thought it was moral. But what if he thought it was immoral to oppose it? What if he accused those who opposed it of being immoral for so doing? What if school teachers taught children that those who opposed it were by definition bad people? And what happens when a government tells the voters that voting for anyone is an immoral act — a sin?
And what about the other corollary? If government is the arbiter of morality, then, in time, we will come to accept law and morality as the same thing, thereby making anything which is not unlawful also not immoral. But the law is built on behaviour which can be proven to be illegal in court. The conclusion of conflating the two would be to say that anything which you got away with is by definition moral.
Actually, given that very few people trust politicians and the ones who do were going to vote for them anyway, this wouldn’t make that much difference. But what if we collectively accepted the right – indeed duty — of the government in power to lecture us on morality. At a particular point, it would become accepted that it was immoral to vote against the government.
This is, of course, not going to happen. But it is the logical conclusion of the Tory tax team beginning to come up with moral instructions to the public. Not moral argument, which would be entirely proper, but instruction. Like Cameron before him, criticising Jimmy Carr for being ‘morally wrong’, Gauke has stepped into a misuse of authority. We, the people, have authorised him to administer tax affairs, not to be our moral pundit.
Milk saved — evidence of the ‘coalition effect’?

Milk saved — evidence of the ‘coalition effect’?

Cows, Marlcliff BBC News – Downing Street rejects child milk scheme cut suggestion. David Cameron has come out against UK Health Minister Anne Milton’s proposal to scrap free milk for under fives. Of course, we will never know the real reasoning behind this U-turn, but the following factors are certainly at play:

  • Nobody likes to be seen taking milk from small children
  • Conservatives are still occasionally reminded that it was Margaret Thatcher who took the milk away from the children last time
  • It’s a gift to Labour leadership contenders — in fact, David Miliband had already described the proposal as a ‘cruel cut’.
  • The Liberal Democrats are restless. In a coalition where both parties are required for the coalition to happen, one restless Lib Dem MP counts the same as eight restless Tory back-benchers.

Whatever the real reasoning — and David Cameron may not himself understand all the factors which led to a Tory minister being unceremoniously stamped on — I see this as a sign that coalition politics is working for Britain. Whichever way you look at it, Cameron is showing sensitivity to what ordinary (non-Tory) people think. It’s a fair bet that the vast majority of people who will benefit from this are not Tory voters. Where under-5s are deprived of milk, the chances are that it’s linked to inner-city deprivation, not to countryside middle-class angst.

Whether this may reduce Cameron as a strong leader in the eyes of the world (seriously, he may have been reduced over the last couple of weeks, but not because of milk), it shows that our government is, at least in some sense, acting as our government. This by contrast with the Thatcher government, and, lest we forget, the Blair-Brown government, which felt free to act with impunity, especially when its decisions affected people who didn’t vote for it.

Incidentally, Anne Milton was probably right in her claim that the scientific evidence doesn’t actually support free milk. But educating politicians to make evidence based decisions as opposed to merely acceptable ones is probably a battle for another day.

Nonetheless, we progress.

“Stupid” goes to ethics committee

“Stupid” goes to ethics committee

Councillor John DixonLib Dem Cardiff Councillor John Dixon must have been surprised to be called to book over declaring that Scientology was “stupid”. The fact that he did it on Twitter was probably enough to raise this to a national news story. But it is disturbing that a councillor can face censure for a remark like this.

What Dixon actually tweeted was: “I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.”

Harmless, one would think, albeit not especially amusing. But this kind of thing is really very mild compared to the polemic which has done Richard Dawkins very nicely in his books, and far less hurtful than the daily knockabout on the subject of religion that takes place on countless websites across the net.

Lest we forget, Scientology is not an officially recognised religion in the UK. But even if it were, most faith groups take a certain amount of ribald criticism within their stride. Dixon was not putting up satirical cartoons of the Prophet, nor was he running an ad campaign mocking the crucifixion. Sacred symbols were not being abused, sacred texts were not being criticised: no deities, real or imagined, were hurt during the making of his tweet.

If he is indeed censured for this (though, if they have any sense, the ethics committee will recognise this as a legitimate comment and let it go, before they themselves become a laughing stock) then we have gone far too far down a path of political correctness over freedom of speech. Was John Dixon inciting religious hatred? Hardly, since Scientology is not officially a recognised religion under UK law. But even if it were, would he be inciting it? I doubt that the term would constitute incitement.

During the General Election, the leader of Stratford on Avon’s ruling Conservative group labelled me and my views ‘stupid’ four times in less than thirty seconds, live on BBC Radio. I thought it was a bit rude. But why, as a recognised British citizen, should I enjoy less protection than an imported American organisation which is not even recognised for what it claims to be?

In a world where our every off-hand comment is now tabulated and Googled, we need to come to a new understanding of what is acceptable and what is not. There has to be an understanding that there is a hierarchy of off-handedness. A statement published in a book for which money is paid is of a different level from a remark in live interview broadcast on local radio, and this is again different from a brief Tweet or a FaceBook one-liner.

Dixon would not have faced this kind of censure if he had written an opinion piece in a published newspaper attacking Scientology.

He should not face it for a Tweet.

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