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Leader: Against state regulation of the press

The introduction of state regulation, however minimal, would be neither just nor necessary.

The British press has long been allowed to regulate itself but in recent years it has appeared entirely incapable of doing so. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) proved impotent as the phone-hacking scandal unfolded and as individuals such as the McCanns and Christopher Jefferies were casually traduced. Established to act as a watchdog, it has too often operated as a gentleman’s club, run by the media, for the media.

In view of this, a significant body of opinion now argues that any new regulatory regime must be enshrined in statute. If the Leveson report, which was published soon after we went to press, recommends reform along these lines, it will likely enjoy the support of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and at least 70 Conservative MPs: a political coalition large enough to command a majority in the House of Commons. But the introduction of state regulation, however minimal, would be neither just nor necessary. By forcing newspapers to submit to the new regime, parliament would, in effect, reintroduce state licensing, a practice abolished in Britain in 1695 and incompatible with the principle of a free press. This, as John Wilkes declared in The North Briton in 1762, is “the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country”. In those instances where abuse does occur, what is required is not state regulation but better enforcement of the existing law. Phone-hacking and bribery, for instance, are already illegal.

Journalists were once defined as those employed by a private or public media corporation, but in the age of the smartphone and the blog anyone can self-publish. Would “citizen journalists” be required to submit to the new state-backed regulator? If so, the system would prove unwieldy. If not, the print media, already in existential danger, would be further disadvantaged.

The spectacle of state regulation in Britain would also deal a hard blow to those fighting for press freedom in emerging democracies and dictatorships around the world. Fred M’membe, the editor of the Zambia Post, who has routinely been imprisoned on false charges of defamation, has warned that statutory controls in Britain would “spread through Africa like a firestorm”.

But if state regulation is unacceptable, then so too is the status quo. To begin the work of restoring public trust in the press, a new independent regulator, beholden to neither the industry nor the government, must be established. The body proposed by Lords Black and Hunt would go some way to fulfilling this need. Unlike the toothless PCC, the new regulator would have the power to launch investigations into allegations of wrongdoing and to enforce membership through a system of binding contracts. And to ensure genuine accountability, the chair of the new regulator should not be drawn from the press and should be chosen under the Nolan rules guaranteeing transparency and fairness in public appointments.

Alongside this, the UK’s media ownership laws, a subject too often neglected during the Leveson inquiry, must be reformed. It was News International’s overweening dominance of the market that enabled it to remain above the law for so long. Even after the closure of the News of the World, the company still accounts for 34 per cent of UK newspaper circulation and, had it not been for the Milly Dowler phone-hacking allegations, News Corporation would surely have acquired full control of BSkyB to add to its HarperCollins book publishing empire. To ensure that no media organisation can ever wield such political power again, a cap should be placed on ownership as is the case in France.

If the phone-hacking scandal, the event that precipitated the Leveson inquiry, showed the press at its worst, it should not be forgotten that it also showed the press at its best. As the police cravenly echoed the News International line that “one rogue reporter” was responsible, it was left to journalists to expose the truth. It would be a cruel irony if they were now to be shackled by state regulation.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.