Wednesday, 27 March 2013

License to kill free speech

IT is sad but now inevitable that Britain is destined to become one of the most repressed and secretive countries in the world. It is already plummeting down the United Nations chart of nations where freedom of the Press is respected. By the time the Government has finished implementing its version of the Leveson report, complete with licensed media, and the police have finished Operations Elveden and Weeting, then we will truly be languishing in the lower regions of the lowest division. It comes as no comfort to me that I have watched this state of affairs unfold over the decades I have been a working journalist. Too much of my time and energy has been wasted trying to prevent the inexorable progress of the press shacklers. There was a time when publicity was courted by politicians, police and any organisation on the side of good. There was a conspiracy of consensus between those who valued the glue that held society together. If people transgressed what was commonly seen as decent behaviour they could expect censor and exposure in the media. Slowly over the years, the cult of the individual has overturned this arrangement. Human rights legislation, the data protection act and the obsession by a House of Commons dominated by lawyers to introduce laws which line their profession’s pockets have led to current proposal that any publication which doesn’t sign up to the Government’s license risks being priced out of existence. There are so many ironies in this that it is hard to know where to start, or finish. Let’s stick to three. One, when I directly handled complaints at a major city daily newspaper, 95% of them were about statements made in court. Readers would berate the newspaper for reporting, accurately, what had been said by lawyers in mitigation for their clients. The most vociferous MP in his attacks on the media, Clive Soley, was of course a lawyer. So lying lawyers fed a lawyer’s campaign to vilify the media. Two, an obsession with privacy, stoked by the famous and influential, has come hand-in-glove with the explosion of social media, which in the words of the founder of Facebook, are leading to a world in which there is no such thing as privacy. Three, in a world in which everyone can be a publisher, through the likes of Facebook or Twitter, Lord Leveson’s report totally ignores the new media. So we are left with laws drafted and aimed specifically at the established print media and the journalists who work for them. For more than 300 years journalists in this country have had to follow laws and conventions that apply to the whole population. Now we enter a brave new world when this is no longer true. There are already a couple of dozen laws, civil and criminal, that can be used to prevent publication, including defamation, contempt, prejudice, data protection, secrets acts and child protection. Many of these are right and proper in a civilised society. Knowledge of them is essential for professional journalists and comprises most of their training needs. What the Government plans to do now is penalise those who actually understand restrictions of free speech, and give unfair advantage to the bloggers and other rabble-rousers who haven’t got a clue. Any perusal of social media would expose how dangerous this is, with racist, bigoted, prejudicial and downright offensive remarks on every site. None of the above is supposed to excuse the phone-hacking or bribery of police officers and others for information, if that is what happened. This is criminal behaviour, for which there are perfectly good laws which could have been applied to bring the perpetrators to book. To use a few cases where the police and politicians were too weak or corrupt to intervene to justify laws aimed specifically at muzzling or curtailing the Press is both bizarre and deeply troubling to anyone who believes in freedom of expression.

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