Leveson: The latest press disinformation campaign

The noise about supposed Leveson "outrages" is getting worse, says Brian Cathcart.

Three weeks ago the great former Sunday Times editor Sir Harry Evans accused the national press of gross distortion and staggering misrepresentation in their coverage of Lord Justice Leveson’s report. Well, since then it has got a lot worse.

The papers have turned their megaphone up even louder and, using a range of distortions, misrepresentations and downright lies, they are trying to drown out all reasoned discussion of the Leveson report in the hope that it will vanish for good.

Most of the noise is not about regulation, which is the core of the report. Instead it is about other supposed Leveson outrages relating to whistleblowers, journalistic sources and other matters.

The aim is to muddy the waters around press self-regulation. Editors and proprietors want to conceal the fact that they are engaged in disreputable secret negotiations with ministers for the purpose of sabotaging Leveson.

Before looking at the misinformation campaign, we need to look at what is happening about the Leveson recommendations on regulation.

You may remember that the judge offered papers the chance to set up their own independent self-regulator. But to protect the public and ensure that this self-regulator did not just turn out to be another Press Complaints Commission, he also proposed the establishment of a "recognition body" which every three years would check that the self-regulator met various basic standards.

Although Leveson said this recognition body must be totally independent of both the press and politicians, and must be backed by statute, David Cameron promptly threw a spanner in the works by coming out against any legislation. So now instead Conservative ministers want to create the recognition body by royal charter.

They published their draft of this charter last week and it was a scandalous document, because ministers had secretly allowed editors and proprietors to rewrite it to suit their own interests. If that royal charter were adopted, the press would escape accountability.

If you were an editor you would want your readers looking elsewhere while you engaged in such a disgraceful political fix, and this is what is happening. The megaphone has been turned up, and we are having distractions shouted at us.

Now let’s deal with the distractions in turn.

1. Whistleblowers

We are told that Leveson’s proposals mean it will be harder, or even impossible, for whistleblowers to bring stories of wrongdoing to the press. This is completely false, and you can read a full explanation here. In brief, Leveson in his report declared that whistleblowing was "justified and legitimate", although he pointed out that in the case of the police service it might be a good idea if staff also had the alternative of reporting misconduct internally, rather than their only option being to go to the press. That’s it.

2. Journalistic sources

Several papers have said that Leveson’s recommendations on the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) pose a serious threat to the confidentiality of journalistic sources. Again this is a perverse reading of the report, as explained fully here. Leveson writes (part J, chapter 2, paragraph 9.3 onwards) of submissions by the Metropolitan Police making the case that under PACE "journalistic material" is too often kept beyond the reach of police officers conducting investigations. The Met suggested changes to the law.

Leveson says that since he has heard no other views on this besides the Met’s he can’t make a clear recommendation. Instead he tells the Home Office, "without pre-judging any conclusion", that it should "consider and, if necessary, consult upon" possible changes to PACE. And the Home Office has duly said it will consult, specifically inviting comments on the impact of the suggested changes on the protection of journalistic sources.

So Leveson did not recommend making it easier for police to seize documents from journalists. He said he had only heard one half of the story and gently suggested to the Home Office that it should consider getting the whole story. This the Home Office has begun doing.

3. Exemplary damages

Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for an independent press self-regulator would not compel news publishers to participate. Instead he proposed a number of sticks and carrots, including some in relation to exemplary damages in court which have been described as Draconian, illiberal and in conflict with the Human Rights Act (HRA). All of these descriptions are misguided, as is explained here. No paper that observed a self-regulator’s code, or that avoided behaving in an outrageous and illegal fashion, would ever even face the risk of such damages (which are not in themselves new). Nor, according to our legal advice and the government’s, would the proposals breach the HRA. (And if by chance editors are right in believing they breach it, then they will be able to challenge it successfully in the courts, so they have nothing to worry about.)

As a more general point, the sticks and carrots are a substitute for compelling papers to join a regulator, something that editors strongly opposed. Are they now demanding that the sticks be made of rubber?

4. Data protection

Leveson makes recommendations for reform of the Data Protection Act, which, as he demonstrated at length, has failed to protect the private information of ordinary people in the way it was supposed to. In particular, its sweeping exemptions of news organisations allowed the abuses seen in the Motorman scandal, and its feeble penalties meant not only that offences went unpunished but also that it was barely worth mounting prosecutions in the first place.

Leveson’s proposals on data protection are characterised by some newspapers and some journalists as Draconian. They are not; they are meant to protect ordinary people. Are they a threat to investigative journalism? Some say that they are, and we will no doubt find out, because the Ministry of Justice, which has responsibility for any legal changes, has said that it will consult on any amendments before taking any step towards amending the law. If there really is any threat to serious journalism in what they propose, Hacked Off will be among those opposing it.

5. Arrests of journalists

Yes, journalists continue to be arrested in the police investigations into hacking and alleged corruption. This has nothing whatever to do with Leveson, who made no comments or recommendations about active police operations in his report. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service are presumably doing their jobs, and if by any chance they are exceeding their remit they will doubtless get in trouble for it – the journalists, after all, have lawyers to represent their interests, indeed many of them have very expensive lawyers paid for by News International.

6. Arbitration

Leveson proposed an arbitration service that would give redress to ordinary people who feel they have been wronged by the press, while at the same time sparing them the effort and the vast expense of fighting a case through the courts. This simple idea is now portrayed as too expensive for newspapers, and particularly regional newspapers. This is a misunderstanding, as is explained in full here. The scheme would cost most to those papers that used it most, and those would not be regional newspapers. And it would normally spare newspapers the far higher costs of going to court. Suggestions that papers will be flooded with arbitration claims are not supported by any evidence (and they hardly say much for papers‘ confidence in the quality of their journalism).

7. The Defamation Bill

The claim is made that a hard-fought campaign for much-needed reform of our libel laws is about to be derailed by Hacked Off among others, by the use of a series of Leveson-inspired wrecking amendments to the current Defamation Bill. Nonsense again.

Hacked Off supports the Defamation Bill and we had no role whatsoever in the cross-party amendments adopted by the House of Lords that are intended to introduce parts of the Leveson recommendations. We were surprised by the terms of the amendments and in debate some sympathetic peers tried to alter them at our suggestion, but it was too late.

At the same time, we sympathise entirely with the frustration of peers (they voted two to one for the amendments) at the failure of government to implement the Leveson recommendations. If, as a result of the amendments, the Conservatives now abandon the Defamation Bill entirely, that will be entirely their responsibility, and also a sign that ministers are afraid to face any vote in the Commons relating to Leveson.

Brian Cathcart is director of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart. This post originally appeared on hackinginquiry.org, and is crossposted here with permission.

Lord Justice Leveson. Photograph: Getty Images

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

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