Liberal Heroes of the Week #32: Index on Censorship & Jonathan Dimbleby. (The Villains are Cameron, Clegg and Miliband)

by Stephen Tall on March 22, 2013

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

hero - index - mar 2013

Index on Censorship

“The voice of free expression”
Reason: for campaigning against state-backed regulation of the press

Many folk who’d consider themselves free speech liberals have found themselves conflicted by the debate over press regulation and the Leveson Report. It’s not hard to see why given the choice of victims, with the Dowlers / Jeffries / McCanns pitched against the Murdoch / Dacre / Brooks of this world. Instinctively, most have sided with the little guys against the press barons. In itself that’s understandable.

But as this week’s Economist points out the debate over press regulation is essentially a battle between two concepts of freedom: freedom from intrusion and freedom of speech. If you believe the former is more important, state-backed regulation of the press holds no fear. If you believe in the primacy of the latter, then the idea of MPs deciding who should be regulated and how is anathema.

Index on Censorship has been the leading campaign group sticking up for freedom of expression, highlighting the profound flaws in the Leveson Report and now in the latest Royal Charter proposals backed by the three parties:

“In spite of David Cameron’s claims, there can be no doubt that what has been established is statutory underpinning of the press regulator. This introduces a layer of political control that is extremely undesirable. On this sad day, Britain has abandoned a democratic principle.”
Kirsty Hughes, Chief Executive

Here’s what Index’s Chair, Jonathan Dimbleby, had to say about it:

“As Chair of Index on Censorship, I have to report that the Index board of trustees – who all occupy senior positions in roles both within and outside of the media — is dismayed at the course of developments that have been taken in establishing a new press regulator. The board has the gravest anxiety at the residual political powers the now expected outcome and system will give to politicians. The two-thirds block on any changes to the royal charter could be abused in the future — not least when today’s emerging consensus shows that the parties can come together in both houses to agree on press regulation.”

Far too many people — left, right and liberal — have welcomed Leveson and the Royal Charter as their moment to stick it to the press, to make sure the Dacres/Murdochs/Brooks of this world no what it feels like to have power wielded against them. However understandable the emotion, crackdowns on free speech are no way to right wrongs. Instead of curtailing the press’s power we meed to find ways of boosting individuals’ power, giving them access to low-cost tribunals which allow the challenging and defending of contested speech without being bankrupted.

villain - leaders - mar 2013

David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband

Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Leadr of the Opposition
Reason: for their cack-handed approach to the press regulation legislation

Not all liberals will agree with Index or me in opposing state-backed press regulation, I realise. But perhaps we can agree that Sunday night’s shambolic late-night talks are no way to create workable legislation? While David Cameron delegated to a mustard-trouser-wearing Oliver Letwin the negotiations on the Tory side (keeping in touch by text message), Labour and the Lib Dems were holed-up with the Hacked Off campaigners scribbling statute on the back of envelopes, accidentally creating laws which will regulate much of the Internet unless some equally scrabbled-together amendments are accepted next week. All three party leaders were complicit in this farcical display which made The Thick Of It look like a tight, well-ordered ship.

* You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.