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Laurie Penny on why British journalists are taught to be dishonest

Free speech is shackled by the UK's libel laws.

The first thing I learned in journalism school was not to say anything bad about the police. If I did, even if I'd seen abuses of power with my own eyes, I could face a suit for damages that would ruin me, my editors and whatever paper had been unfortunate enough to publish my work.

Nick Cohen's new treatise on censorship, You Can't Read This Book, airs one of the more painful secrets of the British press - the slide, especially over the last 15 years, towards a culture where archaic libel laws give the wealthy and privileged "the power to enforce a censorship that the naive supposed had vanished with the repressions of the old establishment."

I recently spent some time in the United States, where the cultural attitude to freedom of the press is rather different. A country that produced Fox News and allows presidential attack ads to run on television can hardly be held up as a gold standard for fair and unbiased reporting, but if American journalism lacks deference, British journalism is crippled by a surfeit of it.

Where writers in the United States are used to having their articles cross-referenced by fact-checkers for accuracy, journalists in Britain have our work picked over by lawyers. I found myself blushing when I explained to fellow writers covering police brutality at Occupy Wall Street that where I come from, it does not matter whether or not what you write is true so much as whether or not it is actionable.

Actionability, moreover, is relative. It's about money as well as legality. The decisions writers and editors make about what to publish inevitably depend on whether the potentially aggrieved party is wealthy enough to sue. This means, in practical terms, that journalists can and do say pretty much anything we like about, for example, single parents, immigrants, the unemployed, or benefit claimants. Last year, however, when a group of chronically ill and disabled benefit claimants set up a small website campaigning against Atos Origin, the private company running the controversial new welfare tests, the French company lost no time sending out intimidating legal letters.

The real problem here is not just censorship, but self-censorship. Cohen points out that British journalists, campaigners and others learn to modify our speech before it ever reaches the point of contention. I will never forget being quietly reminded by other activists, on a demonstration against corporate tax avoidance last year, to chant "tax avoider!" not "tax dodger!". The imprecision of "dodger" might have given grounds for a suit, and we'd already spent all our money on the placards.

These were young people quite prepared to be arrested in the course of a peaceful protest. The risks of a defamation action, however, were much too high. Under British civil law, the burden of proof in cases of libel or slander is on the defendant, not the claimant - if you're sued, you have to prove that what you said isn't libellous, and defendants must pay some court costs whatever the verdict. The price of losing a libel case often runs into millions, so editors, activists and journalists are forced to take steps to avoid them at any cost.

In the British media, the cost of courage is prohibitively high - so young journalists are taught to be duplicitous from day one. We are taught, or we learn on the job from decent editors shackled by the threat of libel costs, to withhold or obscure what we know in case it inconveniences the rich and spiteful.

What could be more dishonest? Without a change in the law, journalists will continue to learn deference and duplicity in the very profession many of us entered to expose such things.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Ukip's "integration agenda" is another lurch away from the mainstream

Ukip's only chance of survival is on the nativist fringe. It won't be a happy - or successful - existence. 

After Ukip leader Paul Nuttall failed to steal a famous by-election victory in Stoke-on-Trent, his party’s militant tendency offered a prompt and simple diagnosis: the party was just too nice.

Two months on, with Nuttall now pledging to ban the burqa, sharia courts, new Islamic schools, subject girls from at-risk backgrounds to yearly female genital mutilation checks and make race an aggravating factor in some offences, they are unlikely to making those same complaints. Of the many criticisms one can make of the controversial policy blitz, a surfeit of niceness isn’t one of them – even if Nuttall is comparing himself to Gandhi. But what explains Ukip’s lurch deep into Breitbart territory – and what does it mean for the future of the party?

It’s tempting to chalk this one up as a victory for the hardliners who derided Nuttall – who, absurd though it seems now, was Ukip’s unity candidate – and his attempts to court women voters with a softer, “Nicekip” platform. It’s true that Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, loathed by the fags-and-flags wing of the party for their wet anti-Faragism and prim sensibilities, are safely gone. Liberated from the strain of, erm, having an MP, the true believers have taken back control.

That neat analysis quickly falls down when one takes a look at the chippiest defenders of Ukip’s new “integration agenda”: Suzanne Evans and Patrick O’Flynn. Once the pair were at the vanguard of the push to unseat Farage and chart a friendlier tack into Tory seats in the Shires. Now they try and spin policies that could be justly criticised with a favourite Carswell slur – “ugly nativism” – as a sort of noble muscular secularism. That they of all people are endorsing the new line underlines just how much trouble Ukip are in. Deprived of their ownership of Brexit, the party has little, if anything, left to offer the political mainstream.

The consequences have been felt more keenly inside the party than in the country, where Ukip has plunged to below 5 per cent in some polls. Plenty would argue that the party – even at their high watermark around 2014 – never operated within the mainstream currents of political thought anyway, instead dragging the Tories to the right. But it was always an uneasy and at times barely coherent coalition between the authoritarian and libertarian right, united only by their rejection of Europe. For the latter, Ukip isn’t about opposition to the sensibilities of polite society but compatibility with them. Theirs is a focus on grammar schools, hard graft and flat taxes, not smearing Romanians and hanging child murderers.

Whatever the likes of O’Flynn and Evans say, though, Ukip has now ceded that libertarian ground it once had claim to. Disgruntled and departed Kippers point to Nuttall’s loss in Stoke-on-Trent Central as the reason why.

“Since the focus on the EU has gone, and after the election in Stoke, there have been people within the Ukip NEC trying to drive the party towards the far-right,” says Tariq Mahmood, a practicing Muslim and self-styled libertarian who stood for the party in neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent South in 2015. He has since joined the Conservatives, and complains that efforts to court the aspirational middle classes and British Muslims (among whom he says Ukip are now “100 per cent” finished) have been jettisoned in favour of what an essentially nativist platform. While Ukip stress that their beef is with cultural practices and not Islam, Mahmood believes that argument is a mere figleaf - and Ukip, he says, know the distinction will be lost on many people. 

“It was an uphill struggle even previously to try to persuade individuals that we were a libertarian party and that we were not hostile to any individual belief,” he adds, ruefully. “Now, with what Peter Whittle and Paul [Nuttall] have said on integration, and with the prevailing mood with the NEC, the strategy seems to be to create division.”

The logic behind this ideological retrenchment is clear enough. Though Ukip stood in 624 seats at the 2015 election, insiders acknowledge that they are unlikely to reach anywhere near that total this time. Its chances of winning even one seat are perilously slim, as is painfully clear from Nuttall's prevarication as to whether he'll stand or where exactly. Resources will instead be poured into a handful of target seats that broke heavily for leave last June, and the party’s (white) core demographic courted much more ruthlessly. 

But those resources, historically scant anyway, have been depleted by its rightward lurch: both Mahmood and Owais Rajput, a former parliamentary candidate in Bradford East, speak of a flight of Asian members from the party. “There’s nothing left for me, other than to resign. It’s not only me – there are lots of other British citizens of Muslim faith who are following me as well,” he told me on the day Ukip dropped its new policies. “Their policy, long-term, is to try to create division in local communities, which is very, very dangerous.”

Both agree that Ukip’s future is as an ethnic nationalist party, which Nuttall and those around him have vigorously denied. But if that is the party’s strategy, it’s a witless one. Ukip has already swallowed most of those votes already, as the decline of the British National Party shows, and the electoral ceiling for those politics is a low one. The party may well tighten its grip on its small demographic core, but will hasten the flight of softer members and voters to the Tories.

Its breakneck change of pace will also bodes ill for its survival as a cohesive fighting force. There will inevitably be further tension among its febrile cohort of elected politicians. Nuttall’s foreign affairs spokesman, West Midlands MEP Jim Carver, this week resigned his post in protest at the burqa ban proposal (“I’m an old liberal,” he told me. “You’ve got to have that freedom of choice.”). He insists he won’t be quitting, and likened Ukip’s internal wrangles to those in other parties. “What you’ve got to is call out people you disagree with,” he said. “Look at the stick that people like Tom Watson is getting from Momentum! This isn’t just happening in Ukip. There’s a tug of war going in all political parties.”  

But Carver is a Ukip member of abnormal vintage, having joined the party in 1996. For others the allegiance cannot and will not hold as the party’s public face gets uglier and its electoral positioning even more uncompromising.  As the exodus of its 2015 supporters to the Tories shows, Ukip’s electoral cachet is a much more ephemeral thing than the parties of old. Senior figures protest that policing Brexit remains key to its policy platform.

Its new strategy underlines how the party cannot remain a broad church defined entirely by its opposition to Europe. “All I know,” Carver told me, “is that I’ve got to be true to my principles”. Recent events prove for most of the wetter wing of his party, that will mean leaving.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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