Monday, 18 March 2013

Cameron concedes to the left's war on private media

Let's be clear.  Some journalists broke the law.  

The McCann's sued for libel and won a six-figure sum, because of what the Daily Star and Express printed (although Portuguese press were far less generous).  Phone hacking of Milly Dowler's phone was utterly vile, particularly because Police knew about it and did nothing, yet her were allegedly offered a seven figure settlement.  Those acts, trespass and theft are all illegal.  There are means to address this.  Where the press broke the law, the issue is not a lack of law, but the unwillingness of the Police to enforce it.

So the Leveson inquiry was undertaken, and a lobby group was built up around demanding press regulation.  Its leading front man was Hugh Grant, whose main complaint against the press was he was caught receiving oral sex from a prostitute.  However, that campaign, "Hacked Off" soon turned into a parody of itself.  There was a strong undercurrent of specific prejudice against Rupert Murdoch and by inference his newspapers (The Sun and The Times).   Leftwing politicians jumped on board, with the Labour Party playing the same game.  It became war against one newspaper group, not the dominant media outlet in the UK by any means of course - that's the state broadcaster that criminalises anyone who doesn't pay for it - the BBC.

After Lord Leveson produced his report, which notably gave scant attention to online media, including blogs and social media (which was partially a blessing, but spoke volumes about his ability to really take a strategic view of where media regulation fits into a world where anyone can be the media, with very little effort), the Prime Minister's first reaction was to support a new industry established regulator, but not one established by statute.

Then came out the wolves.  Nothing focused Labour politicians, and to a lesser extent Liberal Democrats, so much as to paint the whole issue as a simple one of bashing the Murdoch press.  It went like this.

- Newspapers are bad, some journalists did bad things, you can't trust them, they can't control themselves (unlike the beloved state owned BBC you're all made to pay for, which you all love, of course).

- Newspapers are owned by people who only want to make money and don't care what happens to the people they hurt.  Especially Rupert Murdoch.  He's bad (not because he doesn't support us anymore, no, never).

- There are so many victims we have to stand up for.  Blank out their own successful lawsuits.  Blank out the Police connivance with these practices, because people like the Police.

- The Conservatives are in bed with the Murdoch press, probably so they can hurt the poor, enrich themselves and their friends, ruin the economy and win elections.

-  There needs to be a new law to control the press, to stop it printing bad things and doing bad things (that are already illegal).

-  A new law can guarantee newspapers can print what they like, except what the regulator will say is wrong.  That wont reduce what newspapers will print.  It guarantees what we call "free speech".

David Cameron, to his credit, fought this.  He supported the press coming together and creating a new independent industry-managed supervisory entity, that was not a creature of statute.  Meanwhile, Hugh Grant and his friends wouldn't let go, hand in hand with Labour, implying the government was just an arm of Rupert Murdoch's empire.

Finally, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour entered "all party" talks to reach a compromise, after Hacked Off had already been outed for having threatened senior Labour MPs with a press release that would excoriate them for being gutless.

However, Hugh Grant need not have bothered, the spinelessness resides in Number 10.  For David Cameron has caved in to accept "a little legislation", and while the parties were negotiating, the Hacked Out lobbyists were in the room with them.  No think tanks, lobbyists or other interests were allowed.  Apparently the transparency Hacked Off advocates doesn't apply to its own backroom deals with politicians, that affect not only an entire industry, but laws that bind us all.

What is the UK to get?

- A new law to underpin "Royal Charters";

- A Royal Charter to create a "recognition body" to oversee a press regulator;

- The Royal Charter will require two-thirds of MPs and peers to amend it (and presumably repeal it);

- The law to implement this will be a small amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, one that is already being used to set up a "green investment boondoggle bank" (so not drafted in haste is it now?);

- Newspapers that don't join up, will be liable for exemplary damages if a claim is upheld against them, as the Crime and Courts Bill is amended to do this (along with setting up a national crime agency);

- Newspapers could be fined up to £1 million and directed to publish apologies, on the front page if necessary;

- Newspapers could be directed to "leave people alone", whatever that means.  Is it different from court orders against harassment?

- Alleged victims will have a complaints system they can pursue without going to court.   There will be no costs at all, to complain, regardless of whether one wins or lose.  Consider how many politicians, celebrities and nutcases will now abuse it.

- The Royal Charter states it covers "websites that provide news-related material, published in the United Kingdom", whatever that means.  Presumably I'm doing that right now, maybe if I published it on my New Zealand blog it wouldn't count.

So a new system has been proposed, by all three main political parties.  No discussion paper, no single piece of legislation, but a patchwork of bills currently going through Parliament getting amended to push this through quickly.

It theoretically means someone can complain, today, about your blog, twitter account or whatever, and you'll pay the costs to respond to it, and they will pay nothing.

Consider that existing law, made it nigh on impossible for the press to seriously investigate and publish allegations about deceased BBC superstar and serial sex offender Jimmy Savile.

What should happen?

The braying crowd should be ignored.  

Freedom of speech does not require a law.   It could do with a written constitution to strike out law, but it doesn't need a statute.  Indeed it is defined by not having a law.   There aren't laws to enable me to live my life the way I wish.  Freedom is like that.  It only needs laws to stop people.

The press may wish to set up a new supervisory body that newspapers can choose to sign up to, that can be the gold standard for press ethics.  However, nobody should be forced to do that.

Media is changing, fast.  The UK has some of the world's toughest laws on defamation, and as newspaper circulation numbers continue to drop, amateur journalism continues to grow, as individuals write what they wish.   

Despite the rhetoric of some on the far left, the Murdoch press is not dominant.  The Sun sells well, but no newspaper in the UK has anything remotely like the penetration of the BBC.  2 million read the Sun, but 9.3 million watch the BBC News channel in the UK and 5.46 million watch a single BBC late news broadcast.

However, this was never about dominance. 

It was always ostensibly about "justice for the victims", but many of them have successfully won lawsuits or substantial settlements.  

What it really has been about is settling scores.  For certain celebrities to exercise power their money hasn't been able to buy (or rather it has through lobbying) and for politicians to exercise power and point score.

So we'll see, we'll see what happens when the first blog is subject to a complaint, when two-thirds of politicians amend the Royal Charter to "professionalise" journalism, of all kinds.

For me, I'll await to see if UKIP has the courage to say no to any of this, not that it will make any difference.  The Conservative Party has surrendered press freedom to avoid taking flak from Hugh Grant and Ed Miliband.

May as well be governed by Labour.

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