Liberal Heroes of the Week #23: John Kampfner, Nick Cohen & Fraser Nelson

by Stephen Tall on November 30, 2012

ImageWelcome to the 23rd in our series, Liberal Hero of the Week, chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum. ’Liberal Heroes’ showcases those who promote the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — highlighting individuals regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism then they’re in contention.

kampfner cohen nelson

John Kampfner, Nick Cohen & Fraser Nelson

Journalists: former editor of the New Statesman (John), columnist for The Observer (Nick) & current editor of The Spectator (Fraser)
Reason: For championing a free press from their respective liberal-left and right-wing perspectives.

Lord Justice Leveson has delivered his report on media standards. It is an elegant read which does its best — but fails — to square the circle of how you can get the press to regulate itself without government interference. Sir Brian’s proposes an independent and voluntary system; but authorises the state to regulate those newspapers which don’t agree to this system. As the curate might have said of this Inquiry egg, “My Lord, I assure you that parts of it maintain a free press!”

Much of the debate has been sterile. The knee-jerk of much of the ‘progressive left’ (including many Lib Dems) has been instinctively Statist, with Leveson seen as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to stick it to Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail, those two liberal bête noires. The equal and opposite knee-jerk of some on the ‘conservative right’ has been outrage at the temerity of a judge interfering in the business of their natural supporters, no matter what abuses they’ve committed against individuals such as the McCanns and Christopher Jefferies.

My view is two-fold:

1) The press should be free and any attempt to regulate it whether explicitly (through an Ofcom-type structure) or implicitly (as Leveson proposes by compelling voluntary cooperation backed up by legislation).

As I wrote here on LibDemVoice:

Of course Britain would not become Zimbabwe if there were independent regulation of the press. But there are many more subtle ways than that in which pressure can be ‘brought to bear’ to ensure compliance. And I don’t want a compliant press.

John Kampfner, whose liberal-left credentials are impeccable, has been one of the few voices in progressive politics sticking up for freedom of expression. As he brilliantly argued in The Guardian this week:

I suspect some of those around Leveson, and around the Hacked Off campaign really do cavil at the thought of an impolite media. Why could they not all be more like the Guardian or FT? Why can’t free speech be my kind of speech? With some statutory checks and balances in place, maybe it will be, they hope. Sadly, most of those determined to apply new constraints on the media hail from the centre-left. They are concerned less with the process of an open media and more with the outcome of a liberal society. … A raucous, argumentative society is a healthy society. Journalists already preen too much and probe too little. That is the unfortunate state of affairs, even before Leveson issues his proclamation.

2) But individuals need to have affordable forms of redress to ensure that those parts of the media which have shown themselves to be scandalously contemptuous of the rights of ordinary citizens are empowered to take action.

As I also argued on LibDemVoice:

What I want to see Sir Brian Leveson proposing are are ways of making it easier for private individuals to stick up for themselves without the need for a state-created regulator

Nick Cohen — a polemicist regarded by the right as on the left and by the left as on the right and who occasionally also manages to be simultaneously liberal — addressed this very well in The Guardian last weekend:

The government must tackle the costs lawyers impose. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right, without it religious freedom and democratic rights to assess the powerful fail. Yet the natural born billers of the English law are an obstacle to justice. We need cheap tribunals, as they have on the continent. You should be able to sue without worrying that you need £250,000 in the bank before you go to law. Equally, a journalist, blogger or tweeter should be able to defend the truth of what he or she writes without the legal profession pricing them out of the courts. … England should uphold the principle of equality before the law by having cheap and accessible means of challenging and defending contested speech.

That’s why I’m nominating John Kampfner and Nick Cohen as liberal heroes of the week.

But what of Fraser Nelson? Even before Leveson had reported, he’d declared The Spectator would play no part in any form of statutorily-regulated system:

“If the press agrees a new form of self-regulation, perhaps contractually binding this time, we will happily take part. But we would not sign up to anything enforced by government. If such a group is constituted we will not attend its meetings, pay its fines nor heed its menaces. We would still obey the (other) laws of the land. But to join any scheme which subordinates press to parliament would be a betrayal of what this paper has stood for since its inception in 1828.”

I don’t relish Fraser’s tone. The abuses by our free press detailed in the Leveson Report require, I would suggest, a more reflective tone. As its circulations plummet, the press desperately needs to find ways of restoring trust in its product. Those who really care about the survival of the press would be better off focusing their energies on correcting their trade’s decades of self-harm.

But — you know what? — I don’t have to care for Fraser Nelson‘s chippy tone. So long as he and The Spectator behave within the law he has the right to say what he wants, how he wants. For drawing attention to that fact, he is also a bit of a liberal hero this week.

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