It is a bit late for the press to be discovering rights

British newspapers will struggle to persuade readers to join them in righteous indignation over Leveson's proposals.

It is not at all surprising that the British press collectively rejects the idea of a law that might change the way journalists are expected to behave. The spectrum of published opinion starts with extreme contrition on behalf of the industry for terrible past deeds done, coupled with mealy-mouthed opposition to the remedy Lord Justice Leveson proposes. Then, at the other end, there is mealy-mouthed contrition and extreme opposition to Leveson.

The underlying point is always the same. It is that the press should be given time to get its own house in order before the chloroform of state intervention is uncorked. That is a natural enough position for journalists to take. It is my own instinctive position. The free press becomes conceptually less free when the boundaries of its legitimate activity are codified in law. Whether or not it would actually be less free with “statutory underpinning of an independent regulator” that Leveson envisages is a different matter.

But the argument isn't really about what the immediate outcome would be. To hacks themselves, their editors and proprietors this is a point of principle – pristine and immutable. Whatever statutory instrument Leveson devised, it was always going to look like a thin end of a wedge – or perhaps a slippery slope – to the affronted guardians of free speech.

British journalists might have a problem persuading their readers to join them at the giddy heights of moral indignation. Why? Well, for one thing, as advocates, the papers themselves are hardly without interest in the case. Titles that carried out vicious, cynical intrusions into the private lives of people sometimes experiencing harrowing trauma are now the ones most frothily resisting Leveson’s proposals for redress. In most people’s conceptions of justice, the accused does not get to decide where the boundaries of reasonable punishment lie.

But there is another reason why certain newspapers might struggle to mobilise the nation onto the barricades in defence of a lofty principle. The conservative press in particular has not, in recent years, had much truck with the sanctity of abstract rights when they interfere with the delivery of popular outcomes. Whether it is the case of Abu Qatada, tediously difficult to extradite because evidence used against him might have been tainted by torture, or the issue of prisoner voting rights, or the various debates that were had under the last government about anti-terrorism laws or, indeed, any judicial ruling that appears to reward villainy by recognising the intrinsic humanity of the accused, the British popular press has often – although not exclusively – chosen the path of raw populism and expediency.

I don’t for a moment want to equate phone hacking or breaches of the PCC code with acts of terrorism. That would be ridiculous. The point is not about equivalence of offence or some hierarchy of rights and freedoms. It isn’t even a point about consistency. It is simply an observation that, over a number of years, certain British newspapers have aggressively debunked the idea that a theoretical line drawn in the democratic ether should be a significant barrier to doing whatever it is politicians want to do. Now we the media are conjuring such a line and urging the politicians not to cross. Why would anyone listen?

Billboards in Wapping advertise the Sun. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.