Leveson: (Probably) not the end of the world as we know it

This post was written by Owen on November 29, 2012
Posted Under: Media

So, as expected, the Leveson Report is proving pretty unpopular in some circles. Most of the objections seem to centre round his lordship’s proposal that self-regulation of the press should now have “statutory underpinning”. This would mean that the way the chair and board of this body are to be chosen would be established in law, and newspapers which signed up to be members of the new proposed regulatory body would be legally compelled to comply with that body’s findings (such as paying any fines it levied). This, the stout-hearted defenders of free speech proclaim, cannot be allowed to stand. It’s state interference in the free press – the hallmark of tyrants. Sure, Lord Leveson explicitly suggests that current MPs and members of the government should be barred from sitting on the new regulatory body’s governing board, and yes, he also states that legislation should be passed which places “an explicit duty on the government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press”, but that, apparently, isn’t the point. The real point, we’re told, is that, in the words of Index on Censorship,

…even ‘light’ statutory regulation could easily be revisited, toughened and potentially abused once the principle of no government control of the press is breached.

Well, maybe. But it’s an odd argument, if you think about it for a moment. Enacting this reform wouldn’t in itself lead to censorship, the reasoning goes, but it puts us in a position where there could hypothetically be censorship at some unspecified point in the future. But if we’re now in a position where it’s possible that Lord Leveson’s reform proposals could be enacted, and enacting those proposals would make it possible for there to be censorship of the press, then it follows logically that we’re already in a position where there might be censorship at some point in the future. If it’s possible to get from point A (the way things are now) to point B (what Lord Leveson wants to happen), and it’s possible in turn to get from there to point C (Orwellian dystopia; all newspapers replaced by a British version of Pravda) then by the principle of transitivity it must already be possible to get from point A to point C. The idea that as things stand censorship is completely impossible but that enacting Leveson’s suggestions will alter this is simply incoherent. Or, to put it in less abstract terms: as things stand at present there’s nothing in principle to stop Parliament passing a law restricting press freedom whenever it feels like it. Sure, there might be other laws it has to repeal first (such as the one stating that the UK is a signatory to that pesky European Convention on Human Rights so hated by Conservatives and, er, the tabloid press) but it could happen. Passing laws that don’t actually censor the press does nothing to alter Parliament’s already-existing ability to pass laws that do precisely that, should it wish to.

What stops actual draconian press laws from being passed at the moment is that it’s politically impossible – if any government tried it, there would be a massive outcry (including, one would hope, from MPs). So perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps the worry is that passing these reforms will contribute to a political climate in the future where it’s easier for a government which is ill-disposed to the press to pass draconian laws restricting its ability to hold the powerful to account. This might be true, but it’s far from obvious that a regulatory body with “statutory underpinning” and a law requiring the government to uphold press freedom would necessarily be more illiberal than the present status quo. As yet I’ve seen no arguments setting out how Leveson’s reforms would have the effect of making actual state censorship more politically viable; it’s just baldly asserted as if it’s self-evident.

This is not to say I’m an unreserved supporter of the proposed reforms; the default presumption should always be against state interference in freedom of speech wherever possible, and Index on Censorship point out that the system of press regulation in Ireland – which heavily influenced Leveson’s suggestions, and doesn’t appear to have had any kind of chilling effect on the Irish mediadoes not legally require that newspapers sign up to it, while Lord Leveson’s proposals arguably do. Nick Davies’ worries which he outlines in the Guardian also seem valid. The widely-reported fact that the victims of phone-hacking and their families want the recommendations to be implemented in full should also not be given undue weight. That the McCanns have suffered greatly at the hands of the tabloid press and deserve recompense is beyond doubt, but it doesn’t follow that they should be the ones who decide how the press is regulated, any more than I would be personally allowed to decide the punishment of a criminal who murdered my loved-ones. If you’re personally affected, your ability to dispassionately consider all sides of an issue is obviously going to be somewhat impaired. It’s a shame too that Leveson says so little about media ownership. At present we have a highly oligopolistic national newspaper market with high barriers to entry (no new national daily paper has been launched in my lifetime), and some recognition of the damaging effect this can have on public life would have been welcome – a point which is well-articulated in the Green Party’s response to the report.

All in all, then, we should be wary of overstating the potential impact of Leveson. It’s highly unlikely to actually lead to state censorship of the press, but equally it won’t do anything to break the stranglehold of the likes of News International on the media market. The tabloids might behave themselves a bit better as far as phone-hacking and subjecting people they don’t like to trial by headline goes (and that at least would be welcome), but as earth-shattering, epoch-defining events go, this probably isn’t one.

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