Monday, May 07, 2018

Why MPs should vote against "Leveson 2" on Wednesday

This Wednesday, 9th May 2018 MPs will be voting on a number of proposed amendments from MPs, similar to those previously put forward by the House of Lords but later removed, to change the Data Protection Bill so as to force the government to proceed with a further round, sometimes called Leveson 2" of press investigation and regulatory measures.

This would be a disaster for freedom of speech and the press in Britain and I hope and pray that MPs will vote against it.

Let me be completely candid - our press in this country is frequently awful, and I agree with many of the criticisms of the press in Nick Davies's excellent book, Flat Earth News.

I can only imagine one way that our press could be worse - if it was under more state control.

However imperfect journalists and newspapers are - and believe me, I'm not disputing that they make too many mistakes - even well-intentioned attempts to improve journalism through state action are playing a very dangerous game for democracy.

Let me give you a couple of quotes from "Reporters Without Borders" (RSF) on their global press freedom 2018 of which you can find details on their website here.

"More and more democratically-elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion."

The general secretary of RSF, Christophe Deloire, added that

Political leaders who fuel loathing for reporters bear heavy responsibility because they undermine the concept of public debate based on facts instead of propaganda. To dispute the legitimacy of journalism today is to play with extremely dangerous political fire.

These are global concerns about issues of press freedom around the world but it is deeply worrying that in that context Britain could only manage, for the second consecutive year, a pathetic 40th place in the RSF's 2018 index of Press Freedom, twenty or thirty places below most of the rest of Northern Europe. Lower than several of the countries severely criticised in the RSF statement linked to above.

The first Leveson inquiry shone a light into some truly shocking abuses by parts of the media. It is right that this should have happened. But it should not be forgotten that most of the worst abuses brought out by Leveson were already illegal under pre-existing law and were subsequently dealt with by the courts using pre-existing legislation.

Under pre-Leveson law and regulation more than a hundred people were charged, arrested or interviewed under caution, a significant number of journalists and editors,  including several of the most powerful people in the land, found themselves in the dock, and ten who admitted guilt or were found guilty by a jury were convicted and went to jail. Newspapers have paid out millions of pounds in compensation, with the disclosed sums varying between £40,000 and £600,000.

In the first five years of this decade, Britain arrested more journalists than anywhere else in the Western World. And yet there is a powerful lobby calling for tougher regulation of the press.

Those who are calling for stronger regulation of the press, including full implementation of the first Leveson inquiry recommendations and a second inquiry, come into two categories.

The first are those who have been victims or sympathise with victims of bad reporting, which certainly does exist, and who sincerely believe that Leveson 2 and those measures associated with the first Leveson Inquiry which have not yet been implemented will hit bad journalism and encourage good journalism. In my humble opinion these people are well-intentioned but dangerously naïve.

The second category are those who want to shut down criticism of themselves. It would be a lethal threat to democracy in this country if these people get what they want.

The fatal problem with even well-intentioned attempts to curb the press is that it never stops at good journalism. As Nick Cohen describes in his excellent work,

"You Can't Read This Book,"

measure which are intended to give the victims of lies some redress are all too often used to suppress the truth.

This is particularly true of some of the legislation which came out of the first Leveson Inquiry, particularly Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, a strong contender for the dubious distinction of being the most iniquitous piece of legislation ever put on the British statute book.

Section 40 is not currently in effect because, thank God, it has to be triggered by the government and successive secretaries of state for Culture Media and Sport have had the sense not to do so. But amendments proposed by the opposition front bench and due to be considered on 9th May would force the government to activate it.

This clause is an attempt to pressure newspapers into signing up to a state-approved regulator - which currently means the Impress organisation whose funding "has been guaranteed by the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust." (a trust run by the family of the former leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley) - because if Section 40 is triggered, any publisher who has not signed up to Impress and who publishes a story about which a complaint is made to the courts, has to pay the legal costs of both sides even if the story is found to be true.

It is difficult to understate what a threat to honest reporting, to freedom of the press, and to British democracy it would be if anyone who doesn't like a story in a newspaper which has declined to sign up to a government-approved regulator could bring an action against that newspaper knowing that the paper would have to pay his or her legal costs even if the story is completely accurate.

That is why I am praying that the House of Commons backs the government on Wednesday and reject the amendments which would set up a "Leveson 2" and particularly those which would activate Section 40.

1 comment:

Chris Whiteside said...

Having lobbied my own MP as I encouraged others to do and established exactly what is being proposed I have made some minor corrections to the above post.

The main substance of the post as originally worded was entirely accurate: there are amendments to the data protection bill being voted on this week which if passed would have exactly the effect described. And the House of Lords did pass amendments which if brought into law would have had an identical effect.

The reason for the reword is that the original House of Lords amendments were in fact taken out of the bill by the House of Commons at a subsequent stage of the bill a few weeks ago.

There are a number of further amendments being voted on this week, some of which, from Secretary of State Matt Hancock, I actually agree with. Others would have same effect as the original House of Lords amendments.

You could get into a logic-chopping game and argue that my original wording was accurate because the new amendments would have the practical effect of reinstating the House of Lords ones, but I thought there would be less risk of confusion if I reworded the post to make it clear that the votes this week are on new amendments tabled by MPs.