Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press

by Stephen Tall on November 29, 2012

So far I’ve had chance only to skim the summaries of the Leveson Report. But from what I’ve read I find myself agreeing far more with David Cameron’s measured response than with Nick Clegg’s.

Two principles are crucial to me in framing my thinking on this issue:

1) The state should not have power over the press.

2) The press should not have power over individual citizens.

You could call those two principles a level playing field approach. Or even more simply: equality.

Nick Clegg didn’t speak for me today. It is not only a question of Leveson being practical and proportionate. It matters to me whether the proposals are also liberal. I’d hope that might be an important consideration for a liberal politician too.

Fortunately Index on Censorship did speak for me:

Index on Censorship opposes recommendations for the statutory underpinning of press regulation

Index urges that there is a serious, considered debate about Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations. The free speech organisation opposes the statutory underpinning of press regulation proposed by Lord Justice Leveson.

Kirsty Hughes, Chief Executive of Index on Censorship said:

“We consider that the statutory-voluntary approach to independent press regulation would undermine press freedom in the UK. However, we support the proposal for cheap, effective arbitration, which would help victims get swift redress to their complaints.”

I am, it seems, in a minority of Lib Dems – at least vocal ones – who worry about state regulation of a free press. Too many are comforting themselves with the word ‘independent’. As Index says:

Statutory underpinning of an ‘independent’ and ‘voluntary’ regulator is a contradiction in terms. Any law which sets out the criteria that the press must meet, by definition introduces some government or political control of the media. Politicians of all hues have an interest in getting the most positive media coverage they can. Keeping print media independent of government so journalists can report on political debate and decision-making, robustly and without fear, is fundamental. Even “light” statutory regulation could easily be revisited, toughened and potentially abused once the principle of no government control of the press is breached.

It’s a depressing irony that Lib Dems – so quick to mount the liberal barricades when it comes to secret courts or the internet snoopers’ charter – desert them the moment the free speech of a group few of us like is threatened. Hatred of Murdoch and the Mail trumps fundamental liberal tenets.

Nor is it good enough for Lib Dems simply to say we owe it to the victims of phone hacking to regulate the press. First, not all the  victims agree with state regulation. And secondly, since when did we believe victims should set the terms of punishment? Are we going to extend that principle to all other criminal activity, too? We have due process and an independent judiciary for a reason, and it’s what marks out a civilised society.

I’ll end on a positive note. Leveson’s proposal for an arbitration service to enable swift, affordable redress for individuals wronged by the press is welcome. Just the kind of playing field levelling liberals should welcome.

46 comments

New from me > Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/f0jb1U6f

by Stephen Tall on November 29, 2012 at 6:16 pm. Reply #

New from me > Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/f0jb1U6f

by Julian Harris on November 29, 2012 at 6:17 pm. Reply #

New from me > Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/f0jb1U6f

by James Chapman (Mail) on November 29, 2012 at 6:17 pm. Reply #

@sunny_hundal No. Fewer laws. Stephen Tall makes my point well: http://t.co/Nu2VH6tw

by Matthew Sinclair on November 29, 2012 at 6:19 pm. Reply #

New from me > Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/f0jb1U6f

by Matthew Sinclair on November 29, 2012 at 6:19 pm. Reply #

So long as I'm in a small minority of LDs that contains @StephenTall I know I'm in the right place. http://t.co/x03OvDnz

by Mike Bird on November 29, 2012 at 6:21 pm. Reply #

New from me > Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/f0jb1U6f

by Cllr. Rhys Taylor on November 29, 2012 at 6:21 pm. Reply #

interesting – http://t.co/GUi3BEFp – why the Tory prime minister is standing up for liberalism #Leveson

by Caitlin S-C on November 29, 2012 at 6:22 pm. Reply #

RT @stephentall: Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/OXIScAxa

by Andy Barton on November 29, 2012 at 6:23 pm. Reply #

So long as I'm in a small minority of LDs that contains @StephenTall I know I'm in the right place. http://t.co/x03OvDnz

by Andy on November 29, 2012 at 6:25 pm. Reply #

So long as I'm in a small minority of LDs that contains @StephenTall I know I'm in the right place. http://t.co/x03OvDnz

by Tom Papworth on November 29, 2012 at 6:27 pm. Reply #

New from me > Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/f0jb1U6f

by Louise Shaw on November 29, 2012 at 6:29 pm. Reply #

Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press | Stephen Tall http://t.co/Tp4hv2Kj via @stephentall

by Zadok Day on November 29, 2012 at 6:30 pm. Reply #

Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press | Stephen Tall http://t.co/Tp4hv2Kj via @stephentall

by Daniel Furr on November 29, 2012 at 6:31 pm. Reply #

So long as I'm in a small minority of LDs that contains @StephenTall I know I'm in the right place. http://t.co/x03OvDnz

by Stephen Tall on November 29, 2012 at 6:32 pm. Reply #

Is freedom of speech really being attacked here?

The PCC code of conduct doesn't regulate views, it regulates accuracy. Don't customers who buy papers deserve a good quality service with an accurate and honest approach to news reporting?

by Daniel Henry on November 29, 2012 at 6:40 pm. Reply #

I rather like the old law on Libel wher it didn't matter if what the press said ws true, but if it harmed you with no public interest..

by Graham Gowland on November 29, 2012 at 11:05 pm. Reply #

New from me > Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/f0jb1U6f

by Charlotte Jones on November 29, 2012 at 6:42 pm. Reply #

Cracking post Stephen.

by Carl Minns on November 29, 2012 at 6:49 pm. Reply #

New from me > Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/f0jb1U6f

by Paul Carter on November 29, 2012 at 6:52 pm. Reply #

As liberals, we should stand against oppression of the weak by the powerful. We should not turn our backs just because it is not the government doing it but instead private enterprise.

The Leveson inquiry found that there had been “disturbing and intrusive reporting” and a failure to treat marginalized communities “with sufficient dignity and respect”. The PCC has been characterised by representative groups giving evidence as a “joke”.

Against that background, is standing up for oppressed groups really the less liberal approach? We would clamp down on public bodies that behaved like this, why not private near-monopolies?

by Zoe O'Conell on November 29, 2012 at 6:53 pm. Reply #

What Zoe said. It’s not Liberal to protect the little guy from one big vested interest (the state) but not others (big business, the press, etc.). Surely if you’re in favour of protecting the little guy, you’re in favour of protecting her/him from EVERY overweening overpowerful oppressor?

A statute could (for example) establish an arbitration board to enforce a code which would be completely separate from politicians. This would be a statutory underpinning but it would not be in any way equal to politicians controlling the press. And none of us here wants to see restrictions on free speech – we just want to see those who are defamed able to obtain some form of redress that doesn’t involve being incredibly rich.

by Jennie on November 30, 2012 at 5:59 pm. Reply #

New from me > Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/f0jb1U6f

by bob brown on November 29, 2012 at 7:05 pm. Reply #

New from me > Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/f0jb1U6f

by Kirsty Walker on November 29, 2012 at 7:41 pm. Reply #

New from me > Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/f0jb1U6f

by Derek Brooks on November 29, 2012 at 8:03 pm. Reply #

Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press | Stephen Tall http://t.co/iyI9Dagn via @stephentall

by Stel on November 29, 2012 at 8:09 pm. Reply #

New from me > Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/LQE4onOq

by Stephen Tall on November 29, 2012 at 9:16 pm. Reply #

New from me > Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/LQE4onOq

by Ben McGilvray on November 29, 2012 at 9:18 pm. Reply #

New from me > Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/LQE4onOq

by Charlotte Jones on November 29, 2012 at 9:23 pm. Reply #

'Index on censorship'? A rather more august authority, Amnesty, supports Nick Clegg's view. Are you really saying Amnesty would support government suppression of free press? What they see, as do many many others, is the appalling impact on innocent lives of immoral and unfettered intrusion by the press. They've seen the result of trial by media and it's simply not just and not moral and they understand that legislation is needed to put a stop to it. I agree.

by Paul Zukowskyj on November 29, 2012 at 9:27 pm. Reply #

I just love the idea that poachers should regulate themselves. Doubtless there is some bonkers right winger who will tell us that banking self regulation is the answer to all their fiddling of interest rates.

by Adam Edwards on November 30, 2012 at 6:17 pm. Reply #

It's not like some state bureaucrat is going to be going through everything the press does with a fine tooth comb. Nobody will stop it saying what it wants. It's more like the legislation is there to make sure that the body is officially recognised and given some sort of scrutiny to make sure it actually is independent and not stuffed with tabloid editor's mothers and the like. I thought Leveson's idea was quite clever because it wasn't creating an OFPRESS, but letting the press set it up themselves. The clear steer from Leveson is that politicians and journalists should stay off it.

I seriously don't actually get why you have a problem with the proposals. I don't think Cameron's objections had anything to do with being liberal – it was about protecting his corporate mates. You aren't like that, though. Do you not need legislation to give the courts power to charge the extra damages if the publication isn't taking part in the regulator? Does it not have to be officially recognised in some way?

by Caron Lindsay on November 29, 2012 at 9:29 pm. Reply #

My concerns are the same as Index on Censorship's (not a right-wing, big business-lover either!) – that light-tough regulation, however well-intentioned and however initially benign, has a habit of creeping into more and more areas of freedom.

The arguments you're making, Caron, are the same advanced by those who advocate secret courts and the data comms bill – "new legislation is necessary to keep us all safe, and don't worry you can trust us not to misuse the powers or come back for more later".

Leveson's done his best to square the circle, but the essential problem remains: how do you compel press into voluntary system without the threat of state regulation?

by Stephen Tall on November 29, 2012 at 9:41 pm. Reply #

Light touch regulation works perfectly well for TV/Radio why should it not work for the press?

by Euan Davidson on November 29, 2012 at 9:55 pm. Reply #

Euan, TV/radio already have an obligation as part of their broadcasting licence to be impartial. The press has no such obligation (nor should they). That makes a huge difference.

by Stephen Tall on November 29, 2012 at 10:03 pm. Reply #

How about fully implementing Levenson, but adding a sunset clause?

by Neil Fletcher on November 29, 2012 at 10:30 pm. Reply #

I think you are confusing Liberalism with Libertarianism. A Libertarian would want a completely unfettered Media, free to do whatever it likes. A Liberal would want Media freedom, but not give it the right to abuse the freedoms of others.

by Neil Fletcher on November 29, 2012 at 10:20 pm. Reply #

“‘Index on censorship’? A rather more august authority, Amnesty, supports Nick Clegg’s view.”

Does it? I can’t find any statement of support from Amnesty online. In fact, all I can find is something on the Socialist Party’s website, supposedly quoting an Amnesty spokeswoman criticising legal restrictions on reporting.

Certainly Liberty, while welcoming the incentives for participation in a new voluntary self-regulatory body, has been very clear in opposing statutory regulation:
“Any possible alternative of compulsory regulation, either for all newspapers or those who will not join the voluntary scheme, would amount to state regulation of the press and in our view be dangerous for free speech and democracy.”
http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/media/press/2012/liberty-responds-to-leveson-report.php

As you probably know, Liberty’s Director, Shami Chakrabarti, was invited to be one of the panel of Assessors which advised Lord Leveson.

by Chris on November 30, 2012 at 12:26 am. Reply #

Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/GnCcJq0M

by BexhillBattleLibDems on November 30, 2012 at 12:42 am. Reply #

Of course we owe it to the victims of phone hacking – and all the other abuses of press power – to regulate the press. Liberalism is about protecting the freedoms of less powerful from bullies. Sometimes that means standing up against an over-mighty state. But sometimes it means using the power of the state to protect

by Richard Dominic Flowers on November 30, 2012 at 6:48 am. Reply #

Also, the press seem perfectly happy to accept state legislation in their favour, e.g. Copyright protection, e.g. Exemption from VAT

by Richard Dominic Flowers on November 30, 2012 at 6:50 am. Reply #

As liberals we should be against unacountable power. that is what the press still is. I tink you are confusing “the state” with “executive political power”. We do not regard the courts as an unacceptable infringement of liberty, just because they derive their power from the state. They are in fact necessary to protect freedom. What Leveson proposes may be impractical – but attacking it on grounds of high liberal principle just doesn’t work. It’s much more complicated than that.

by Matthew Green on November 30, 2012 at 8:38 am. Reply #

New from me > Why is it left to the Tory leader to stick up for a liberal principle: a free press http://t.co/LQE4onOq

by Eilidh on November 30, 2012 at 5:50 pm. Reply #

[...] I’m more than a little sceptical about Leveson: I think he’s firing the wrong bullet (regulation backed by statute) at a target that’s moving out of range (the ‘dead tree press’). However, [...]

by Maria Miller, the Telegraph and Leveson: how statutory regulation begins & how the press is bringing it on itself on December 12, 2012 at 9:45 am. Reply #

[...] I understand that perspective. But as I said when Leveson was first debated in the Commons: [...]

by I’m a liberal and I’m against this sort of thing. Leveson-style press regulation, that is (as well as secret courts) on March 17, 2013 at 8:55 am. Reply #

[...] written here before about my opposition to Leveson-style state-backed regulation of the press so it irritates me to see [...]

by Hollande’s affair – do you care? *Gallic shrug* on January 14, 2014 at 8:17 pm. Reply #

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