2011: a year of unintended consequences

From OccupyLSX to Leveson, the British political system is not working well.

There are certain things which are less interesting in themselves than for the impact they have on other people.

Take for example the "Occupy LSX" protest. Whatever the protest stands for -- and there are varied and sometimes conflicting views on this -- its mere existence was enough to cause a mild crisis in the Church of England and to expose starkly the casual idiocy of those who managed a great cathedral. Now it is forcing the opaque and undemocratic Corporation of London to the High Court to defend its attempt to use legal coercion to evict the protest. And so we have the merry spectacle of a powerful and essentially private body -- with no real electoral legitimacy whatsoever -- trying to bandy "public interest" and "free expression" arguments as if they knew or cared what those concepts meant.

Or look at Julian Assange. Whatever the merits of his continual refusal to return to Sweden to be questioned about serious sexual assault and rape allegations, and notwithstanding the silly and counter-productive litigation tactics he adopted at the start of his extradition case, he has now inadvertently got the issue of the illiberal European Arrest Warrant (EAW) regime squarely before the Supreme Court. The question to be decided is a narrow one, and it is more likely or not that he will lose, but there are serious general questions to be asked about the use and misuse of EAWs and -- almost despite himself -- it may well be that this generally irresponsible charlatan will form the basis of a progressive shift in the judicial treatment of these over-powerful legal weapons.

And most of all, there is the Leveson inquiry. It cannot be over-emphasised how this inquiry did not come about as a natural consequence of a working political process. Indeed, had it not been that the Metropolitan police just had to do something back in 2005 when it was obvious the mobiles of the Royal Household were being tampered with, then there would not have been the convictions of Glen Mulcaire and Clive Goodman and -- significantly -- no seizure of Mulcaire's notebooks. In turn, there would not have been any civil litigation which uncovered the "For Neville" email and so no Gordon Taylor case. And without that litigation, there would not have been what was uncovered by last year's New York Times exposé and the dogged journalism of Nick Davies and the Guardian, and without David Cameron's lousy judgment in appointing Andrew Coulson there would have not been a political need to call an inquiry. All for the want of a less clumsy hack of Prince William's phone, the News of the World and the credibility of the British tabloid press were lost.

Along the way, each entity with the formal power and public responsibility to address the unlawful and unethical practices of the tabloid press failed to do so. The Metropolitan police closed down the investigation for no good reason; the Information Commissioner's Office took as little action as it could; and the Press Complaints Commission nodded along to what the tabloids told it. But once the scandal emerged then this lack of activity could not be sustained or justified. Something had to give.

What made the difference was the revelation that Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked. Contrary to the self-serving misdirections of those who appear to have learned nothing from the public outrage, the true significance of that sensational news was not because there had been deletions. It was instead that, at a stroke, it was apparent that hacking was not restricted to celebrities. Anyone caught up in a news story over a five to ten year period may well have had their phone hacked: soldiers, terrorism survivors, grieving or concerned parents, as well as missing school children. The spite and intrusions of the tabloids were no longer the trivial problem of famous people.

However, the true value of the Leveson Inquiry will probably not be in its proposals. No two media pundits seem to agree what would work to make the tabloid press ethical. It certainly would not be new laws and codes and enforcement bodies: all those were in place, and the abuses happened anyway. So the Leveson Inquiry undoubtedly will not so much be important for what it proposes, but what it has allowed to be revealed about others -- currently the tabloids, and soon the police. It will show what was actually going on all the time, whilst the formal public bodies did nothing to stop it.

There is something rotten about a political system where the true nature of power relations -- the very stuff of politics -- is routinely exposed by external events. No political system is perfect; but it is not wrong to expect a political system to be able to work in some fashion. Power will always tend to corrupt, and those with power will always tend to abuse it. One good test of a mature political system is to recognise and check these tendencies. But few, if any, would say that the British political system is now working at all well.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder