WORLD EXCLUSIVE: Melanie Philips stole my Muslim transsexual baby, forcing me to eat my cat, which gave me cancer

The claim that the public benefits from a "raucous press" is almost entirely fictional. In the meantime, the likes of Lucy Meadows are trampled on.

I have never had any dealings with Melanie Phillips, never had a baby and never eaten cat (to the best of my knowledge – although, these days who can say with certainty?). I just thought it appropriate to emblazon a sensational title across the top of this piece, which has nothing whatsoever to do with its content or the truth. My thinking was, in the words of Kelvin MacKenzie, "If it sounds right, lob it in."

This is, apparently, the way in which a "raucous press" must be allowed to behave, otherwise Britain will turn into Iran or North Korea or both at the same time. Essentially, "raucous" boils down to the idea that the public should put up with papers behaving badly, because there are significant benefits. This is the plain argument behind all the elegant rhetoric. And it’s not a bad one, but it must be accompanied by an explanation of the benefits, tangible, rather than theoretic.

There is an unacknowledged tension at the centre of the debate. The free press is already unfree – there, I said it. Ninety per cent of national titles are owned by a very small group of billionaires, the majority of them based abroad. The international Press Freedom Index, compiled largely from the responses of people in or related to the industry, ranked the UK at 29 this year. The top country according to the index is Finland, which has a system of self regulation, fully underpinned by statute, very similar to what is being proposed.

There is a business aspect to what we do. We work for commercial organisations with commercial considerations. The environment is so highly competitive that it can push journalists to excess. It is a great myth to suggest that the public interest is the primary preoccupation of these companies. It may be in the mix – for some more than others – but dominant is the imperative to sell copies and generate website traffic. The public interest and the commercial interest can, and often do, clash. Inside our heads, we might be Superman, vigilante hero from Krypton. To the world, we’re just Clark Kent, salaried employee of the Daily Planet.

If we want people to collectively and individually support a request for special dispensation, we must demonstrate what they might get in return. Otherwise, it is just a carte blanche to vandalise people’s lives for some romanticised past or speculative future good. If we wish to put ourselves forward as defenders of constitutional freedom and democracy, then we have to take that role seriously. Having hissy fits about state involvement in our own regulation, while applauding Theresa May for trying to impose her will on the Qatada case, is hypocrisy. A constitutional role is not a Groucho Marx nose on a bit of elastic, to be worn only when it suits one.

Then, there is the total denial of the cavalier "lob it in" attitude which brought the inhabitants of the Fourth Estate to the cusp of their first ASBO. Such a lack of contrition and reflection is an insurmountable obstacle to rehabilitation. It reinforces the argument that we cannot regulate ourselves. Cheap, personal attacks on celebrities who support statutory regulation are symptoms of our very malaise. Louise Mensch’s "two Churchillian fingers" to Hacked Off, is an insult to the ordinary people who found themselves at the centre of a press feeding frenzy. How can anyone trust an industry to put its own house in order when it suggests, increasingly, that it did nothing wrong?

Many point to the MPs' expenses scandal as the brightest recent example of the press holding the powerful to account. But let us also remember that the story was exposed and pursued largely by papers, which did not engage in the sort of conduct which was the subject of the Leveson inquiry. As a matter of fact, Rebekah Brooks turned down the story when it was brought to her. Perhaps minor celebrity A had been telescopically photographed putting Appendix X into minor celebrity B that day, so space was scarce. The truth is that if anybody illegally hacks the phones of a few hundred powerful people, they will occasionally come up with stories which are in the public interest. It does not follow that this was their motive.

"Anything bad that happened is already unlawful", is a popular argument. But what about the death of Lucy Meadows and the way she was treated by the media? Is that not a perfect example of conduct which may not have been unlawful, but could have been covered by a strong code of ethics? "It’s covered by existing regulation", a colleague suggested (apparently articles 3, 4 and 6 of the PCC code), "the issue, as ever, is one of enforcement, not a lack of rules".

To whom is this plea for better enforcement directed? It can’t be to the police, whom the press had been bribing into breaking the law. It can’t be to the state, which the press resolutely rejects as an overseer. It can’t be to the PCC (or a variation thereof) which has shown itself to be completely ineffective. It can’t be to individuals within the press itself – if there were a general understanding that this kind of reporting is wrong, it wouldn’t have happened. So, who is left to oversee us? We have corrupted, manipulated and undermined all other instruments of regulation, only to bleat about the enforced remaining alternatives.

Membership of the PCC is proof that newspapers accept the principle that they must operate within restraints which go beyond what is merely unlawful. The rejection of a robust way of enforcing such a code shows that they are only happy to do so in circumstances where enforcement is weak and toothless. In other words, we will agree to comply, provided we can get away with not complying. I have a lot of sympathy for constitutional arguments against state involvement. But when the continuum between an unfettered press and self regulation has been tried and has failed, what is left?

We have made it very clear what we don’t like, but not what alternative we propose. This is the question to which I have not yet seen a cogent answer. All I have seen is a cleverly reformulated plea: to continue to be allowed to behave appallingly, to trample the likes of Lucy Meadows, to invade people’s private lives with catastrophic results – all in exchange for some fictional benefit: the vague notion that, while we are looking for cheap smut, we may stumble across something of actual value to the nation.

Former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie leaves the High Court after giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on January 9, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.