We need a free press, not a calm, pretty one

The cross-party plan for press regulation is unlikely to work, nor should we let it. Anyway, those proposing greater regulation of the press overestimate its influence and underestimate the good sense of their readers.

The press in this country is not pretty, but it is free.

That was Ian Hislop's view as the media picked over the remains of the Press Charter regulator, which died on the flow of the Commons yesterday, put to death by Culture secretary Maria Miller in favour of the cross-party Royal Charter.

The worry is that underlying this move to regulate the press is a desire to somehow make us pretty, to smooth the rough edges and make a raucous bundle of publishers just, well, calm down.

It is unlikely to work, nor should we let it.

The objections of the press to the cross-party plan are legion. Firstly there is the principle, that at its very heart it accepts the principle that Parliament should have a hand in defining journalism. For many that is a line that should not be crossed.

We should remember too that the UK sets a template for press regulation across the world, many have used the Press Complaints Commission as their model for regulation and it is worrying to think that some will be casting an eye on a regulator approved by politicians and thinking it to their liking.

Secondly, there is the so-called carrot of reduced arbitration costs for those publishers inside the new regulatory regime. Those outside could face exemplary damages if they lose a libel or privacy case, and possibly pick up everyone's costs even if they win. This is no carrot, it is a stick, you can paint it orange and tell the Press it is a carrot all you want, they know a big stick when they see one.

Thirdly, there is very little in this new regime for regional newspaper publishers. They genuinely believe the new regulator will cost them considerably more than the PCC, which they can ill afford. The reduced costs mean nothing to them, they very rarely fight libel and privacy actions, they settle them. It is worth remembering that the regional press, which outsells the national press and then some every day, did nothing to cause this crisis and the PCC was very effective in regulating it and providing redress to those who complained about local papers.

The behaviour of some journalists, on some papers, that got us here was ethically unacceptable. It was also against the law. If someone is prepared to break the law, there are few ethical codes in the world that will stop them. To expect the Press Complaints Commission, which has no investigators on its payroll, to pick up a ball so comprehensively fumbled by the Metropolitan Police is unreasonable.

Those who say we do not have a free press, but one owned by a few powerful "press barons" make two mistakes. Firstly, they define the press solely by national papers, and tabloids at that. There are a multitude of local papers out there with all sorts of owners, and magazines as well, all of which will come under the new regulator.

Secondly, if they want to fight a war on press ownership, they should do that. They are entitled to dislike the influence wielded by Rupert Murdoch and other owners if they want to, but they ought to be honest and fight a battle over plurality of ownership, not regulation.

The typical journalist in this country has to know a multitude of laws just to do their daily job - libel, contempt, reporting restrictions, copyright, juveniles, sex offences and privacy just for a start. The last thing they need is more regulation and less freedom.

Fundamentally, those proposing greater regulation of the press overestimate its influence and underestimate the good sense of their readers, summed up by Mr Justice Lawton in the trial of the Krays, when he said: "I have enough confidence in my fellow countrymen to think that they have got newspapers sized up, just as they have got other public institutions sized up, and they are capable in normal circumstances of looking at a matter fairly and without prejudice."

If it comes down to a choice between being pretty, or free, we should choose being free.

Maria Miller speaking at the 2013 Conservative Party conference. Photo: Getty
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The 2017 Budget will force Philip Hammond to confront the Brexit effect

Rising prices and lost markets are hard to ignore. 

With the Brexit process, Donald Trump and parliamentary by-election aftermath dominating the headlines, you’d be forgiven for missing the speculation we’d normally expect ahead of a Budget next week. Philip Hammond’s demeanour suggests it will be a very low-key affair, living up to his billing as the government’s chief accounting officer. Yet we desperately need a thorough analysis of this government’s economic strategy – and some focused work from those whose job it is to supposedly keep track of government policy.

It seems to me there are four key dynamics the Budget must address:

1. British spending power

The spending power of British consumers is about to be squeezed further. Consumers have propped up the economy since 2015, but higher taxes, suppressed earnings and price inflation are all likely to weigh heavily on this driver for growth from now on. Relatively higher commodity prices and the sterling effect is starting to filter into the high street – which means that the pound in the pocket doesn’t go as far as it used to. The dwindling level of household savings is a casualty of this situation. Real incomes are softer, with poorer returns on assets, and households are substituting with loans and overdrafts. The switch away from consumer-driven growth feels well and truly underway. How will the Chancellor counteract to this?

2. Lagging productivity

Productivity remains a stubborn challenge that government policy is failing to address. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the UK’s productivity performance has lagged Germany, France and the USA, whose employees now produce in an average four days as much as British workers take to produce in five. Perhaps years of uncertainty have seen companies choose to sit on cash rather than invest in new production process technology. Perhaps the dominance of services in our economy, a sector notorious hard in which to drive new efficiencies, explains the productivity lag. But ministers have singularly failed to assess and prioritise investment in those aspects of public services which can boost productivity. These could include easing congestion and aiding commuters; boosting mobile connectivity; targeting high skills; blasting away administrative bureaucracy; helping workers back to work if they’re ill.

3. Lost markets

The Prime Minister’s decision to give up trying to salvage single market membership means we enter the "Great Unknown" trade era unsure how long (if any) our transition will be. We must also remain uncertain whether new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are going to go anyway to make up for those lost markets.

New FTAs may get rid of tariffs. But historically they’ve never been much good at knocking down the other barriers for services exports – which explains why the analysis by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently projected a 61 per cent fall in services trade with the EU. Brexit will radically transform the likely composition of economic growth in the medium term. It’s true that in the near term, sterling depreciation is likely to bring trade back into balance as exports enjoy an adrenal currency competitive stimulus. But over the medium term, "balance" is likely to come not from new export market volume, but from a withering away of consumer spending power to buy imported goods. Beyond that, the structural imbalance will probably set in again.

4. Empty public wallets

There is a looming disaster facing Britain’s public finances. It’s bad enough that the financial crisis is now pushing the level of public sector debt beyond 90 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP).  But a quick glance at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s January Fiscal Sustainability Report is enough to make your jaw drop. The debt mountain is projected to grow for the next 50 years. All else being equal, we could end up with an incredible 234 per cent of debt/GDP by 2066 – chiefly because of the ageing population and rising healthcare costs. This isn’t a viable or serviceable level of debt and we shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that many other economies (Japan, USA) are facing a similar fate. The interest payable on that debt mountain would severely crowd out resources for vital public services. So while some many dream of splashing public spending around on nationalising this or that, of a "universal basic income" or social security giveaways, the cold truth is that we are going to be forced to make more hard decisions on spending now, find new revenues if we want to maintain service standards, and prioritise growth-inducing policies wherever possible.

We do need to foster a new economic model that promotes social mobility, environmental and fiscal sustainability, with long-termism at its heart. But we should be wary of those on the fringes of politics pretending they have either a magic money tree, or a have-cake-and-eat-it trading model once we leap into the tariff-infested waters of WTO rules.

We shouldn’t have to smash up a common sense, balanced approach in order for our country to succeed. A credible, centre-left economic model should combine sound stewardship of taxpayer resources with a fairness agenda that ensures the wealthiest contribute most and the polluter pays. A realistic stimulus should be prioritised in productivity-oriented infrastructure investment. And Britain should reach out and gather new trading alliances in Europe and beyond as a matter of urgency.

In short, the March Budget ought to provide an economic strategy for the long-term. Instead it feels like it will be a staging-post Budget from a distracted Government, going through the motions with an accountancy exercise to get through the 12 months ahead.

Chris Leslie MP was Shadow Chancellor in 2015 and chairs Labour’s PLP Treasury Committee

 

 

 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour’s backbench Treasury Committee and was shadow Chancellor in 2015.