What will happen to the Illiberal Party?

Ed Miliband makes progressive noises on civil liberties

If the Labour Party had won the general election, the UK government would now be moving on to the final imposition of a deeply flawed national ID Card scheme.

It was only the Labour Party's defeat that prevented this calamity from occurring.

Indeed, on that issue as for many others, it would be more accurate to describe the Labour Party after 2001 as the Illiberal Party. It was not the first period in office of an Illiberal Party: Pitt the Younger and Lord Liverpool presided over similar administrations either side of the Napoleonic Wars. But this Illiberal administration was perhaps the worst of the modern age.

And presumably every delegate at the Labour conference campaigned and voted for the re-election of this Illiberal Party. Had each of these delegates had their way, the Illiberals would be continuing their relentless assault on domestic civil liberties. Policy would still be made at New Scotland Yard and walked across Victoria Street and down Strutton Ground to the new Home Office. Prison would still be "working" and Ken Clarke would still be in business.

Now Ed Miliband, in his first leadership speech, appears to be telling his party members that they were wrong to be so illiberal for so long and in so many ways:

"My generation recognises too that government can itself become a vested interest when it comes to civil liberties.

I believe too in a society where individual freedom and liberty matter and should never be given away lightly.

The first job of government is the protection of its citizens. As Prime Minister I would never forget that.

And that means working with all the legitimate means at our disposal to disrupt and destroy terrorist networks.

But we must always remember that British liberties were hard fought and hard won over hundreds of years.

We should always take the greatest care in protecting them.

And too often we seemed casual about them.

Like the idea of locking someone away for 90 days - nearly three months in prison - without charging them with a crime.

Or the broad use of anti-terrorism measures for purposes for which they were not intended."

These are fine sentiments: an overall admission that the government of which he was a member just went too far.

To say such things must be a good start. Former ministers can and sometimes must disown their own periods in office - one thinks of Thatcher moving on from Heath's economic policies after 1975 - and it may well be that Miliband is signalling such a break.

It may even be that Miliband will seek to attack the Coalition on civil liberty issues from the Left. If so, that would be refreshing contrast to the awful precedent of Tony Blair's years in opposition, when as shadow Home Secretary and Labour leader he continually attacked the Major administration from the Right and got plaudits from the tabloids for doing so.

However, one must read carefully what Miliband says. He admits to excess; but it is less clear what he thinks to be appropriate. When he states "the important things we did like CCTV and DNA testing" is he saying that the surveillance society is the one we shoud live in? Is he commending the routine holding of DNA of suspects, declared to be illegal by the European Court of Human Rights? Is he actually saying anything progessive at all?

The truth is that the Labour Party - with the honourable exceptions of Roy Jenkins and others who moved onto the Liberal Democrats - has never "got" civil liberties. In a similar way the Conservatives have never really "got" the Welfare State. They may mean well and say sometimes what others want them to say, but their hearts and minds are just not engaged.

These reservations apart, at least Ed Miliband is making the right sort of noises. And all those at the Manchester conference - who only months ago were urging us to re-elect their Illiberal Party - now seem to like these noises. So let's see how those noises convert into detailed progressive criticism of Coalition policy.

 

David Allen Green is a writer and lawyer. His Jack of Kent blog was shortlisted for the George Orwell Prize in 2010. He blogs for the New Statesman on legal and policy issues.

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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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

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

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era