Liberal Democrat

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 Britain needs Labour to find its feet — fast

Why Britain needs Labour to find its feet — fast

Simon Hughes addresses parliamentary candidates, June 2010

Simon Hughes — a one man conscience of the coalition — addresses Lib Dem candidates.

BBC News – Will geeks inherit the earth?. Like it or not (and I don’t), our electoral system is locked into “us” and “them”. Government and official opposition. That’s how the system works and, though I believe it’s time to change it, as long as it is the system (to paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force), we have to make it work.

Until three months ago, we had the luxury of two opposition parties. The system didn’t really cope with that particularly well, and the electoral framework creaked under the weight of it. But it meant that legislation, policy and rhetoric were put under powerful scrutiny.

Journalists, of course, argue that they are the real scrutiny on government, which is why freedom of the press is so essential to democracy. As an aside, the same newspapers which bleat longest about this tend to be the ones that exercise the maximum of power without responsibility, and complain the loudest at any attempts by the BBC to increase its journalistic reach. But that is an aside. Journalism does play an important role, but the very fact that journalists are not offering to form the next government limits that role severely: anyone can pundit (Michael Gove, when still a journalist, introduced himself and some of his colleagues to me once as “the punditing classes”), but, like an irritating teenage back seat driver, one tends to pay less attention if the critic has never actually put themselves forward for a driving test.

Which brings us back to our two-way / three-way system, which has suddenly become a one-way system. Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining that Liberal Democrats are in government. We knew this would push us back down in the polls. We knew we would have to swallow some policies which we found unpalatable. But we also knew that to abrogate the responsibility, play no part in government, and limit ourselves to the role of endless back-seat motorist, would do the nation no good.

But, perhaps in this at least we were deceived: we imagined that Labour would quickly reinvent or at least reassert itself, find a leader to rally around, and start asking the questions of government which we would be asking if we weren’t in it. This is not a function of there being a leadership contest. David Cameron and David Davis made considerable use of their own leadership campaigns to get some substantial barbs into the then Blair government. In a certain sense, it gave the party a free shot at goal, because it would be committed to the point of view of only one of the contenders. One might imagine that by having five contenders, Labour would be able to launch a veritable broadside of witty, incisive and damaging attacks.

But they have not. We are all worried about cloned animals entering the British food chain, but with four identikit contenders and just one token ‘other’, Labour has taken political cloning to a beyond-GM level. Far better it would have been for just one Miliband, one person representing an entirely different perspective (old-fashioned left-winger, anyone? anyone?), Diane Abott, and no others. The public can’t really cope with five options, even if the Labour faithful can get all passionate about the benefits of one ex-Oxbridge ex-policy advisor with two or fewer children over three others of the same type.

I am not looking for a decent opposition in order to bring down the coalition. Far from it: I want the coalition to succeed, and Britain needs it to succeed. But it will succeed better if properly scrutinised by a considered, passionate and informed opposition that can command the public’s respect. At the moment — for all their policy credentials — the Labour gang of five cannot even command the public’s interest.

It is left to Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes, party deputy leader, to carry on as a one man opposition within the government, a conscience for the party and the coalition.

This can be sustained — but only for a short while. We desperately, desperately need Labour to find its feet and fulfil its system-ordained purpose.

Political parties worry about being endlessly condemned to opposition. But that is not the worst place to be. Far worse for them, and Britain, to be self-condemned to offering no opposition.

Or none that serves any purpose.

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.

What happens next?

What happens next?

Launching the election campaign May 2010

Martin Turner, Nick Lane and supporters launch the General Election campaign in Stratford on Avon

The election is done, the coalition — for better or for worse — is bedding in. Nobody got exactly what they wanted, but what they are getting is a lot better than it might otherwise have been. The economy is in growth, the markets are beginning to stabilise.

Many people have been asking me about my future as a candidate, so let me explain exactly what the process is within the Liberal Democrats. I remain the candidate for Stratford on Avon until the end of December. On the first of January 2011, all Lib Dem parliamentary candidates cease to be candidates. There will then be a period of about two years in which key seats advertise for candidates, and select on the basis of applicants. Seats which are held by sitting MPs don’t go through this process, but all other seats, no matter how established the candidate, do this. All local members are entitled to vote, and, in most cases, a two week selection campaign is concluded with a hustings.

In the mean time, we are continuing to enjoy living here in Marlcliff, and I continue to be involved in district affairs, such as the Fire Service, noise abatement, and the local Lib Dems.

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