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I was listening to the wireless the other day (last Monday 18th March perhaps) when I heard the right horrible D Cameron announce that a Royal Charter had been created to ensure that the press would always behave beautifully in future under a powerful scheme of self regulation, in the form of a Royal Charter, up to which they (the papers) would all voluntarily sign. The only actual legislation he said, would be a single clause setting out that the Royal Charter could never be changed. All this sounded sort of all right, if perhaps a little too good to be true.
I then heard Cleggy (the deputy PM not the Summer Wine character) agree with DC and say what a wonderful arrangement this was - OK, I'm thinking, they have to appear to agree sometimes, even when they don't, after all they are supposedly in coalition.
But then up steps Ed Miliband (leader of the opposition and Minister of State responsible for the impossibly expensive, almost certainly futile and probably unnecessary Climate Change Act 2008) who also chips in with agreement. So, now I know something is wrong. We have an adversarial form of government in this country, and all the most noticeable participants seem to believe that the only way forward is to oppose whatever your opponent has said, whether it has any merit or not.
I wonder who or what is being stitched up by this utterly uncharacteristic, sickly sweet and therefore deeply suspicious right honourable member outpouring of admiration and agreement.
A brief casting about on the internet gives us the clue - who is being stitched up is the press - The Newspaper Society has a long list of the failings of the proposals.
What is being stitched up is not only the freedom of the press but also our democracy. This article in the Telegraph sets out the way in which parliamentary procedure was bull dozed. I admit that the Telegraph may not be the most unbiased of commentators so I have checked the source documents. These are the 'Manuscript Amendments' passed on Monday last (18th March 2013). Couched in the most hideous multiple negatives so as to be all but incomprehensible they were also not made available to MPs prior to debate, nor as this quote from Hansard sets out was the Royal Charter
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sorry to do this, but it is all very well to talk about the publication of the draft charter, but it is not available in the Vote Office or in the Library. The Clerk has a copy of it but hon. Members do not have copies of it. It is an odd way of doing business for us to debate something that we have never had an opportunity to see.
The Speaker's reply is no more comforting
If copies [of the Royal Charter] are not so lodged, they most certainly should be. I can deal only with the exigencies of the situation as they arise.[ ...] . The responsibility now is for the House to move on to debate the matter.
Also, I wonder if OpinioN8 might ever be a 'relevant publisher' responsible for the costs of any litigant taking action against it, even if proved to be entirely innocent.
This government has pretended not to legislate to interfere with the freedom of the press, but actually it has. And it has set up a body which can tell the press what to print. As did Castro and Lenin and Big Brother.
When Milton wrote Areopagitica, his plea for freedom of publication, he was questioning the divine right of Kings to order society and rejecting the censorship set up under the Inquisition. Voltaire's satire Candide rallied against the auto-da-fe's of the Spanish Inquisition and repressive influence of the Catholic Church. Thomas Paine's 'The Rights of Man' advocated universal suffrage and progressive taxation to alleviate poverty. Their themes are transcendent of time and nation, and all three writers led lives in fear of imprisonment and exile.
Now there are bits of Leveson that I missed, but I don't remember there being any enquiry about the freedom of journalists writing about these great themes in society. It seemed to be much more about the nascent sexuality of a young singer, the unfortunate tragedy of a child belonging to a telegenic couple, as well as any number of romantic liaisons by young actresses. I've not heard anyone suggesting that the press might face an exemplary one million pound fine for questioning the succession to the throne, for example.
So that's why I do find protestations against Leveson so utterly hyperbolic, and considering the struggle those writers who did so much to establish freedom of publication, also somewhat insulting to their memory. Indeed the vast majority of UK journalists seem to be simply editorial servants to their proprietors.
To me, the question of the ownership of the mainstream media is what so much of this is about. We have the plenipotentiaries of Sark and media magnate of New York who seem only interested in journalism as a means to exercising power in the UK, without going to the bother of being elected, and indeed without being taxpayers or residents. The reaction to Leveson seems to be directed not at the content of his proposals, but at the suggestion that the owners might have to carry an apology when they get their facts wrong. Of course, this would break the aura of omniscience that these proprietors arrogate to their publications.
Equally, the behaviour of journalists from some mainstream titles seems to show little interest of freedom of speech, if that involves the expression of a contrary view. If you read Delingpole or Phillips on climate change, you don't get them saying something along the lines of 'imputation of causality from interpretation of multivariate time series data will always lead to a lively intellectual debate', but you get selective quotation of facts and personal excoriation of those who disagree with them.
I have known some individuals who have been 'put through the wringer' by the British press, and the level of distortion of fact, together with an unremitting judgmental attitude that even St Peter would consider harsh, leaves me with little respect for the qualities of current journalism.
No, the current proposals are not going to tell the press what to print. They are merely going to require it to take a bit more care in being accurate in what it does print. That will be no bad thing.