Leveson, the Lib Dems, and press freedoms

By lunch-time tomorrow, Lord Leveson’s report on press standards will be public. Downing Street continues to insist that the Prime Minister has not taken a firm decision on how to proceed with the report’s recommendations. The straws in the wind suggest otherwise. Most senior Conservatives, Michael Gove and William Hague among them, have been vocal in rejecting statutory regulation. Some Tories do support a firmer legal framework that would introduce statutory regulation for the press. But the bulk of support within the party is for an approach that stops short of legislation whilst moving the industry away from self-regulation.

Labour leader, Ed Milliband is calling for Leveson’s findings to be implemented without knowing exactly what the report will recommend. Tensions do exist within the Labour Party on the matter, with former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, gathering support for a letter opposing increased regulation. Despite this, the party appears to generally favour bringing the industry to task.

Of particular concern to government sources is the very real prospect of Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, supporting a different approach from that of his coalition partners. Lib Dem sources are clear that the party favours stronger legal regulation for the press. There is little doubt that, should the Tories and Lib Dems fail to agree a common approach, a serious clash between the government parties is looming.

That the Liberal Democrats are so freely supporting a tougher regulatory framework is something of a surprise. Few could ignore the egregious abuses carried out by some journalists and newspapers. The public and political revulsion at press malfeasance is why the Leveson inquiry was established. But the party that espouses liberal belief should surely be arguing for maintaining freedom of the press to as great an extent as possible. Instead, having abandoned bandwagons for principles earlier in this Parliament, the Lib Dems now appear to be be abandoning principles to hop on the latest bandwagon.

It is difficult to conceive of another European liberal party calling for constraints on a free press. Germany’s Free Democrats, Denmark’s Venstre, or Sweden’s Centre Party all look like an uncomfortable fit for a party calling for more state control of the press. Yet that is exactly what the Liberal Democrats are likely to be advocating by tomorrow afternoon.

Some senior party members, as highlighted in today’s Financial Times, recognise that the future will be more nuanced than that which Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband appear to desire. John Hemming, a Lib Dem MP is quoted in the FT as saying ““Nick Clegg has made a mistake in nailing his colours to the Leveson mast without knowing which way the ship is sailing.”

The winds do appear to be blowing in a prevailing direction. Most people expect Lord Justice Leveson to recommend some form of statutory regulation. A ‘pre-proposal’ from Lord Black, a former Director of the Press Complaints Commission, recognises that the current system requires change but rejects new legislation. No one disagrees that change is needed. The shape of that change is what will define press freedom in the UK for generations.

Suggestions that statutory regulation would empower the Mugabes and Assads of this world to enact tighter state control of the press under cover of ‘Britain is doing it’ are overblown. Tyrants need no empowerment, nor no fig leaves of cover to take whatever actions they want. Instead, there is a strange dynamic at work when a party that traces its roots to one of the West’s classical liberal forces supports the erosion of a fundamental tenet of liberal belief. Freedom of the press is no guarantee of a democratic society. But a democratic society that undermines press freedom in any way undermines the values on which it is based.

Some will argue that newspapers and journalists bear responsiblity for any future statutory regulation. This argument is false. Newspapers and journalists have seriously, perhaps irrevocably, damaged their standing in British society. Leveson uncovered not only press-hacking but corruption and other criminal acts. It is crucial that we remember all of the actions uncovered were criminal. Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson must yet defend themselves in a court of law.

That the industry’s attitude allowed media ethics – and common decency – to be so contemptuously ignored by some, will need to be addressed. Regulation will not do that. All industries suffer from the actions of selfish or compromised people. Regulation of the banking sector has not prevented selfish or unpleasant attitudes from taking hold. Yet the press needs to be able to investigate and act in a way that will question, and upset, politicians. And the press plays a more critical role in democracy and civic life than banks.

Instead of beating the popular drums for short-term revenge, the Liberal Democrats should be advocating the virtues of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. To do anything else tramples on its liberal heritage. We can recognise that the press has to change. We can even blame journalists and newspaper editors for bringing us to this point. If we end up with statutory regulation, it will be because politicians have introduced it. And because the party that should be defending an open and free society, will, most likely, be at the forefront of undermining it.

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