Friday, 30 November 2012

Government interference: Conservatives have double standards

On the same day as most of the print media cheer David Cameron for setting his face against any laws to ensure the press meets its own code of conduct, there is a report that Theresa May wants to be as statist as Labour when it comes to state snooping on the Internet, including emails and Worldwide Web access. Nick Clegg and the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party are proving as robust over the Data Communications Bill as they are over Leveson.

Actually, the support for Leveson's "statutory underpinning" is not 100% on the LibDem benches. John Hemming, MP for Birmingham Yardley, asked the deputy prime minister yesterday: "Why do we need legislation, ministerial involvement through Ofcom and implicit licensing for news printed on dead trees, but not for news displayed on computer screens?". On the other hand, 40-odd Conservatives are said to favour Leveson's back-stop in spite of their leader's misgivings. If Labour is truly united behind Ed Miliband, then there is theoretically a majority for Leveson in the House. However, as we have seen with Lords reform, it is not enough to have a clear majority in favour of legislation if one or more of the party leaders are not willing to see the business through. We are promised a draft Bill on Leveson within a fortnight; it remains to be seen whether either a timetable or a guillotine motion will be applied to it against the virtual certainty of a filibuster by opponents of Leveson.

This split in the legislature is reflected in the pages of the Independent. Editor Chris Blackhurst asserts that legislation is not only unnecessary, but undesirable, and media editor Ian Burrell clearly agrees with him. Former editor Simon Kelner feels that the press has already had its drink in the last chance saloon. Columnist Joan Smith welcomes the Leveson report and feels let down by the prime minister. Steve Richards attacks David Cameron but does not come down on either side of the legislation argument.

It is probably obvious by  now that I side with Nick Clegg over the statutory back-stop. What finally convinced me was a interview on Good Evening, Wales with Joshua Rozenberg the lawyer/journalist. He pointed out that the legal profession, which once operated unchecked under its own rules, is now regulated by a very similar mechanism to that proposed by Leveson for the press. The Legal Services Board has a duty to see that the Bar Council (barristers) and the Law Society (solicitors) properly apply the rules they themselves have drawn up.

Where I agree with John Hemming (and with Conservative MP John Baron who put the point explicitly yesterday) is that many victims feel aggrieved because they are unable to seek justice through the legal system, which is often considered too complex and costly. Legal aid is not available for defamation cases. Ideally, there would be such strong disincentives to lies being printed in the first place that there would be no aggrieved victims.

Much has been made of the fact that the chair of Ofcom (which body Leveson sees as the equivalent of the Legal Services Board) is appointed by the minister in the Department of Culture Media and Sport. The judge is, however, open to the possibility of another organisation seen as less close to government doing the job. I suggest that another solution would be an amendment to the legislation relating to Ofcom so that the appointment is made by a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament rather than a government minister.

The press in this country - including, yes, its equivalent on the Web - is the last unregulated profession. What Leveson proposes is the same light touch as lawyers themselves have submitted to. Thinking of the memorable words that Rudyard Kipling suggested to his cousin Stanley Baldwin about power without responsibility, even harlots are more regulated than the press.

1 comment:

Frank H Little said...

Mark Pack has a reminder that party politicians are already involved in the Press Council.