Does anyone support the coalition's lobbying bill?

The coalition has succeeded in uniting the TUC, the Taxpayers' Alliance, Labour List, ConservativeHome, Caroline Lucas and Zac Goldsmith against the legislation.

With remarkable ineptitude, the government has succeeded in uniting an extraordinary coalition of political interests against its lobbying bill. Both the left and the right are concerned that the bill (which covers just 1% of lobbying activity) will gag charities, NGOs, think-tanks, trade unions, blogs and other groups by imposing new spending limits on political campaigning in the year before a general election and redefining as electoral activity anything that could affect the outcome of an election (such as criticism of government policy) even if it not intended to do so.

Any organisation that spends more than £5,000 and that engages in political campaigning will be forced to register with the Electoral Commission (with all the accompanying bureaucracy) or or face being shut down. 

As I explain in my politics column in this week's NS, the bill is primarily intended as an assault on trade union funding (Unison was the largest third-party spender in 2010).

 Masterminded by George Osborne, the legislation is designed as a pre-election gift to Tory candidates who have long complained about the union-funded phone banks, leaflets and adverts enjoyed by their Labour counterparts. The bill will reduce the total cap on third-party expenditure in the year before a general election from £989,000 to £390,000 and the cap on constituency spending to £9,750 and broaden the definition of spending to include staff time and office costs, rather than merely the "marginal cost" of leaflets and other materials.

Behind the legalese, the implications are dramatic. The TUC has warned that it could be forced to cancel its 2014 annual congress and any national demonstrations in the 12 months before the next election to avoid breaching the spending limit. 

But so sloppy was the drafting of the bill (ominously for the coalition, it is being piloted by former health secretary Andrew Lansley) that it's far from just trade unions that are concerned. While the government is still likely to pass the legislation in time for the 2015 election, it will now likely only do so by making significant amendments.

Here are some members of the eclectic coalition demanding immediate changes. 

Zac Goldsmith

Douglas Carswell

Ed Miliband 

Caroline Lucas

Guido Fawkes

Labour List

"This whole bill is a brutal attack on free speech and the ability of any group that isn’t a political party to campaign. It utterly destroys any argument that Cameron truly wants to see a Big Society – and it’ll crush those who want to see a real political debate about issues that matter at election time."

ConservativeHome

"The Bill is so loose in its language and so vague in its drafting that anyone who spends over £5,000 on anything that can be in any way said to potentially affect an election will be caught up in the rules it lays out."

The Taxpayers' Alliance

"The bill is a serious threat to independent politics that will stifle free and open democratic debate."

38 Degrees

"The proposed gagging law would have a chilling effect on British democracy and our right to speak up on issues that matter to us."

Greenpeace

"The most pernicious assault on campaign groups in living memory."

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady

"It's an open secret at Westminster that this rushed Bill has nothing to do with cleaning up lobbying or getting big money out of politics. Instead it is a crude and politically partisan attack on trade unions, particularly those who affiliate to the Labour Party.

"But it has been drawn so widely that its chilling effect will be to shut down dissent for the year before an election. No organisation that criticises a government policy will be able to overdraw their limited ration of dissent without fearing a visit from the police.

"Of course not everyone agrees with TUC views and policies, but I expect there to be wide revulsion at this attack on free speech worthy of an authoritarian dictatorship. This will not just gag unions, but any group or organisation that disagrees with government - or opposition - policies."

The British Medical Association

"The new rules are complicated and will create uncertainty for organisations trying to comply. Worryingly, there are fears the Bill could affect the ability of organisations to speak out. Given all the recent reviews that have taken place in the NHS about patient safety, it would be very regressive if organisations were unable speak out about poor care in the run-up to an election.

"Needless to say, if the Bill is passed, its impact could be deeply disturbing, especially as it raises concerns about what this would mean for freedom of expression — and it is hard to see how that would benefit democracy."

Helen Mountfield QC, Matrix legal chambers 

"This uncertainty about what the law requires is likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, by putting small organisations and their trustees/directors in fear of criminal penalty if they speak out on matters of public interest and concern."

National Council for Voluntary Organisations

"At the moment you have to intend to influence an election to be in trouble. But the wording is being changed to ‘if you have the effect’ of influencing an election. What is really dangerous about this is that you may not intend to influence the outcome of a local election — yet the punishment is you could go to prison. We think this legislation will make people frightened of speaking out."

The Electoral Commission

"The Bill both widens the scope of the current rules on non-party campaigning that affects parties and groups of candidates, and imposes some additional controls on such campaigning. In our view, as drafted, the Bill raises some significant issues of workability that you may wish to explore at Second Reading.

Areas that you may wish to focus on in particular include that:

• the Bill creates significant regulatory uncertainty for large and small organisations that campaign on, or even discuss, public policy issues in the year before the next general election, and imposes significant new burdens on such organisations 

• the Bill effectively gives the Electoral Commission a wide discretion to interpret what activity will be regulated as political campaigning. It is likely that some of our readings of the law will be contentious and challenged, creating more uncertainty for those affected. While we as the independent regulator should be free to decide when the rules have been broken, and how to deal with breaches of the rules, we do not think it is appropriate for us to have a wide discretion over what activity is covered by the rules

• some of the new controls in the Bill may in practice be impossible to enforce, and it is important that Parliament considers what the changes will achieve in reality, and balances this against the new burdens imposed by the Bill on campaigners."

David Cameron with Leader of the House of Commons Andrew Lansley, who is piloting the lobbying bill through parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

GEOGRAPHY PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES
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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