Press regulation – something a liberal party can support?

My reaction to the report of the Leveson Inquiry today was mixed to say the least. On the one hand, any intrusion of Parliament into our free press seems fundamentally illiberal to me – the heavy weight of bureaucracy coming smashing down to dampen our fiercely independent media, which has shown itself more than capable of exposing the very worst excesses in recent times. After all, it was Nick Davies at the Guardian whose reporting exposed the phone-hacking scandal that led to the Leveson Inquiry in the first place. And it was the Daily Telegraph that reported on the shameful abuse of expenses by many of our politicians at Westminster. A free and independent press is crucial to the health of our democracy. Leveson, with its regulatory powers established by the state, seemed to me to risk sending our democracy to A&E.

So this afternoon I had resigned myself to siding with David Cameron, rather than Nick Clegg, as both made their statements to Parliament. I was worried that the Liberal Democrats had gone with what is popular rather than what is right. But for me, Nick was (mostly) right. If the UK is to have any external press regulation, than it must be independent, and it must be “independent for good”. The phone hacking scandal demonstrates that internal press regulation has not prevented gross abuses of trust or power. Nick got it spot on when he said something needs to be done, and to do nothing “would be the worst outcome” of all.

Despite this, for me, and I suspect for many other party members as well, there is still a reluctance to support legislation (in any form) of the press. For one, there is already legislation in place to deal with the crimes committed in the course of phone-hacking, and individuals like Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson are currently being prosecuted under it. If the law had been followed, it is highly likely that phone-hacking would never have happened. But I found comfort in looking at the Irish model. As Nick mentioned in his statement, Ireland is an example of statutory underpinning of press regulation. It is independent and successful, and supported by the press. “The system works”, says Kevin O’Sullivan, editor of The Irish Times.

As liberals, we need to be careful how much we let the state intrude into freedom of the press. The fallout from the Leveson Report is only just beginning. Let Cameron get on his high horse, preaching about basic freedoms. On this one, I think the Liberal Democrats might just get it right.

* Alex Paul is a current student at Edinburgh University and the incumbent Membership Secretary of Liberal Youth Scotland.

* Alex Paul Shantz is a former member of the Liberal Democrats who now lives in Iowa, where he most recently was a field organizer for New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s presidential campaign. Originally from London, he previously worked in public policy in Washington, DC for the Atlantic Council, a foreign affairs think tank.

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  • David Worsfold 30th Nov '12 - 9:01am

    Well said. There are some fundamental flaws in the Leveson approach and some of it is deeply illiberal.

    It is also barely fit for purpose as it fails to get to grips with 21st century publishing. The internet is far more than just “the elephant in the room”, frankly it has already trampled all over his report.

  • David Worsfold

    You manage what you can manage and the internet is unmanageable (unless you advocate the China route).

    A nonsense article based on a very biased reading. Libertarian instead of liberal.

    Perhaps you should remove all the similar statutory regulators underpinned by law (GMC, solicitor’s etc).

    The idea that the current laws are adequate is also flawed – who can afford private libel prosecutions and the criminal law is not suitable for this approach either.

    Funny that for a non-political entity the PCC seems to have an enthusiasm for Tory peers

  • My grandfather fought Hitler so that an Australian-American tycoon could publish stories falsely accusing TV talent show judges of sexually abusing men in night club toilets to sell more newspapers.

  • bazzasc… it’s also funny that for a non-political entity OFCOM seems to have an enthusiasm for Blairites.

    It is not a nonsense article at all… it doesn’t matter how much you say “I love the press”, “I won’t harm the press”, etc. you have to look at the actual content and ignore the rhetoric.

  • Thomas Long

    It does not have to be Ofcom – that could be a sensible decision from Cameron but to put no statutory element it is flawed

    I only have to look at the behaviour of the press under ‘self-regulation’ to know how that will turn out.

  • Mack(Not a Lib Dem) 30th Nov '12 - 9:59am

    “After all, it was Nick Davies at the Guardian whose reporting exposed the phone-hacking scandal that led to the Leveson Inquiry in the first place.”

    Yes, and it was Ed Milliband’s demands for an enquiry that led to Leveson. Let’s not forget that. And now the Tories are set to ignore the sufferings of the press’s victims and bury the Leveson report. Why? Because the Tories are terrified of offending their masters, the Press Barons, whose help and support they will need at the next general election if they are to avoid the humiliation of what happened to them at Croydon, Rotherham and Middlesborough last night.

  • Mack

    This is the point Harold Evans picked up on in the Guardian this morning that Leveson never looked at press ownership

    All these proponents of free speech seem to forget that the press is owned by rich, non-tax paying megalomaniacs – it is there right to do what they want that they are protecting!

  • “And now the Tories are set to ignore the sufferings of the press’s victims and bury the Leveson report.”

    I think the one thing that’s vital is for all sides to take the time to look at the detail properly and consider the implications very carefully.

    I’m no fan of the Conservative Party at all, but knee-jerk reactions and emotive party political point-scoring about “the sufferings of the victims” are the last thing we need.

  • I am genuinely puzzled by all these cries of “illiberal censorship!” and “save press freedom!” in response to the suggestion that the print press should be subject to the same kind of basic regulation as all other major industries in this country. Why aren’t the same people mounting the barricades to protest about Ofcom? Why is it ok to “muzzle” the TV news but not a newspaper? What about the FSA? Surely in a free society we should all have the right to store our money in any bank we choose, and if the bank behaves badly we can vote with our feet and take our savings elsewhere? I have yet to see an article on LDV complaining about how illiberal it is to regulate the banks. What have the press done to merit such special treatment?

  • Mack(Not a Lib DEm) 30th Nov '12 - 11:58am

    @ Chris

    So the sufferings of the victims aren’t of paramount importance? I think Hacked Off would take issue with you there. Not political point scoring at all. Simply humane consideration for the victims who have suffered horrific treatment by an out of control press that thinks its behaviour is above the law when it is in pursuit of sensational stories which are patently not in the public interest. . The recommendations of Leveson would put an end to the sufferings of such people but they would also reduce the press barons’ profits which is why the Tories will do everything they can to kick the Leveson recommendations into the long grass. Doctors are accountable: so are Teachers, Lawyers and a host of others. But not journalists it seems. What makes them so special? Last night on “This Week” in a T.V. studio subject to civilized regulation people were discussing freely whether the press should be regulated. There was no suggestion that they were doing so under duress or that because of the existence of a regulatory body for television they were constrained from speaking out. Why should not such a model of regulation apply to our so called “free” press? If It would deter them from hacking phones, intimidating people’s friends and relatives, raiding their litter bins ,and laying seige to their houses when they are possibly already suffering beravement , then bring it on, I say!

  • “So the sufferings of the victims aren’t of paramount importance?”

    What I said was that it is important to look at these proposals carefully and consider the implications fully – rather than appealing to simplistic, emotive arguments.

    I’m afraid your follow-up comment only confirms what I’m saying, because you appear to be calling for direct statutory regulation of the press on the model of Ofcom, which of course bears no relation to what Leveson is advocating. Of course, “the suffering of the victims must be paramount” is as good a justification for that as it would be for the Leveson proposals – or for a much more draconian clampdown on the press, for that matter.

  • I’m struggling to find a coherent thread through the posts on here to comment on, so I’ll just answer some individually instead.

    – I think the internet is an entirely separate issue, and I agree it is a growing one as well. Beyond some sort of state censorship of it at source though (I’m thinking China here) I struggle to see how any government can regulate or interfere with it in any way. That, of course, is the great advantage of it, but how we interact with the interney is certainly a challenge for society moving forward.

    – I wrote the article very much as a ‘first response’ to the Leveson Inquiry, putting down my feelings regarding it as they were last night. I daresay it will change, but what I was mainly trying to capture was the dichotomy I felt between my initial adversion to any legislative regulation of the press and subsequently reading other pieces on it, especially reflecting on the state of things in Ireland and Denmark.

    – I think it is important for the parliamentary party to keep pushing for something to happen as a result of the Inquiry, as Cameron seems happy to sit on it at the moment and use the front of “freedom of the press” (As Catherine pointed out, the press has hardly behaved in such a way as to merit special treatment) to protect oversight of the corruptible behaviour by some papers who happen to support his party.

    – I also think the most important to come out of this was that as a party we need to carefully consider the proposals and ensure any action that comes out of it is liberal and fair. Labour can be relied on for the knee-jerk reaction to it, and the Tories to prevent any change, so the Lib Dems need to keep pushing forward the report and ensure something good comes out of it.

  • Andrew Suffield 30th Nov '12 - 9:18pm

    our fiercely independent media, which has shown itself more than capable of exposing the very worst excesses in recent times. […]. And it was the Daily Telegraph that reported on the shameful abuse of expenses by many of our politicians at Westminster.

    Wait. I know that’s what they want you to believe, but it’s missing a critical detail.

    The Telegraph persuaded (aka bribed) somebody in the bureaucracy to leak them a copy of the report that was going to be published a few months later, and printed it early. That’s all. This isn’t some paragon of investigative journalism and it’s not something that wasn’t going to come out anyway. They didn’t research all these MPs to find out what their expenses had been. They just pinched the story after somebody else did all the work.

    A free and independent press is crucial to the health of our democracy

    Agreed. I wish we had one.

  • Independence of the judiciary is underpinned by statute as a safeguard. Underpinning an independent regulator with a similar framework is not statutory regulation. Slippery slope / thin end of the wedge arguments have not led to the excessive erosion of that constitutional check, nor should we worry that it would limit the freedom of the press.

  • Aren’t we simply allowing the bad behaviour of a section of the press to take us into a legislative solution which we have successfully steered clear of for hundreds of years?

  • Alex Macfie 1st Dec '12 - 11:14am

    China achieves Internet censorship by treating web hosts, including user-generated content and social media sites, as publishers of the content that is uploaded to them, thus making them directly liable for it. So everything uploaded to any Internet site, from a comment on a blog to a video, has to be screened by the service provider to minimize the risk of prosecution over it. This would, of course, make it impossible to run a site like this one. I know that comments here are moderated (and even my comments have occasionally been caught in the keyword-based moderation checker) but that is up to the managers of the site; the Chinese approach is for mandatory moderation according to government-set rules.

    The more sensible approach (and the general consensus in the western world, and enshrined in US and EU law) is to treat web hosts as similar to printers or distributors. This is also implied by the imprint on political campaign websites. It means that as long as the role of the provider is simply to host content, and they remove content once notified of its illegality, they are safe from liability. However, if they have any editorial role in deciding what content to put up (as distinct from moderation) then they are publishers. So the web site of a newspaper has the same liability over content as its print edition.

  • Apparently Mr Cameron fears that a future government might amend a law such as the proposed one in a more illiberal direction. But is it really so much easier to amend primary legislation than it is to introduce a new bill? And a future government could repeal any act or amend it in a more liberal direction (as happened 300 years ago?). His argument is empty , a straw man.

  • I wouldn’t agree that press regulation is “illiberal” if done correctly; there is clearly a need for action to be taken to stop having to resort to an inquiry like this again, or the one on expenses. Like freedom of speech, it isn’t so easy as to just have it there and expect people not to abuse it a little; which is why people get done for inciting hatred and other contemptible things. It is this interference, only small, that allows a liberal society to flourish; tiny restrictions on speech, for example, allows people to be freer as opposed to someone spewing hate that is intended to oppress a group of society. Here, the same; instead of having some journalists listening to what people are saying on the phone, which restricts freedom, we can do something about that. I think

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