I’m a liberal and I’m against this sort of thing. Leveson-style press regulation, that is (as well as secret courts)

by Stephen Tall on March 17, 2013

Leveson report front pageI’ve got used to describing myself as “a liberal first, a Lib Dem second”. Most of the time the Venn diagram works out pretty well. But not the last couple of weeks.

First, there was ‘secret courts’ and the decision by Nick Clegg, backed by most Lib Dem MPs (though not by party members), to extend legal proceedings which directly conflict with natural justice and that elevate the state above the individual.

And now there’s Nick Clegg’s decision, again likely to be backed by most Lib Dem MPs (and this time probably with the support of the party membership), to support a Royal Charter which extends the reach of the state over freedom of speech.

There are many Lib Dems who’ll protest at me linking the two, who’ll argue that for them the common thread is standing up for the powerless: whether that’s an individual wrongfully tortured by the state looking for justice, or an individual whose life is made hell by the press wanting redress.

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

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.

That’s why I support independent regulation of the press — something that is, in any case, in the press’s own interests if they want to rescue their dire trust ratings — but not any form of state-backed oversight.

That’s why I cannot support a Royal Charter: one step removed from statutory underpinning, but still an invitation for future political interference in a freely operating press, as the pro-Leveson Lord Fowler has highlighted:

The privy council’s guidance is quite clear. “Once incorporated by royal charter, a body surrenders significant aspects of control of its internal affairs to the privy council … This effectively means a significant degree of government regulation of the affairs of the body.”

On Monday, our MPs will vote in parliament on how the press should be regulated. That statement worries me as a liberal. We Lib Dems support the UK’s continuing membership of the European Court of Human Rights not least to encourage other nations to become or continue as signatories and to live up to its standards. What message do we think it sends out internationally for our politicians to be debating how to constrain the press that holds them to account?

There are of course good things within the legislation, notably the provision for a quick, low-cost arbitration process for legal claims which will enable individuals to challenge press excess, and also the way in which it has forced independent regulation on a reluctant press. Its downsides include the (legally dodgy-sounding) proposal for exemplary damages for publishers not signing up ‘voluntarily’ to be governed by the independent regulator.

In truth, though, I’m not as exercised by this post-Leveson imbroglio as I am by ‘secret courts’ — and not just because the press has brought this on itself.

These Leveson-style proposals could have worked in the 1980s when supply of news was controlled by a handful of dominant proprietors. I don’t see how they’re going to work in a raucous Internet age. Politicians can try and shut the door, but most of the horses are already roaming free and utterly uninterested in returning to the stable.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.