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Rotherham’s ‘political commissars’ reinforce the need for a free press

25 November 2012

11:40 AM

25 November 2012

11:40 AM

‘Clearly she has morphed somewhere in her career from social worker to political commissar.’

These are the words of Minette Marrin, writing of the social worker at the centre of the fostering scandal at Rotherham Council in the Sunday Times. Marrin’s article unpicks Rotherham Council’s position, turns it over and concludes that:

‘[The] thoughtless, obstinate political correctness of the Joyce Thacker (Rotherham’s senior social worker) variety is rampant throughout social services. Many of them are highly politicised in plain party-political terms as well. It’s a national disgrace and a national disaster. In adoption, for instance, it is such misguided attitudes that make it so very difficult for a child in need to find adoptive parents.’

Marrin then goes into the details of Britain’s adoption crisis; yet she might have easily developed the political point. It is shocking (and deeply worrying) that an allegedly impartial government agency can make such politically motivated decisions. It is equally shocking, as James wrote yesterday, that these decisions appear to have been supported on the basis of sound legal advice. I imagine that I’m not the only private citizen who wants to read that advice to see which laws enable executive bodies in a free society to mimic totalitarians by subverting rights to freedom of expression, association and belief, which are enshrined in various sacred documents from the Bill of Rights to the European Convention on Human Rights. (Incidentally, I hope that UKIP bite the bullet and take this grotesque injustice to the Strasbourg Court.)

It is tempting to reject journalists’ fevered claims that freedom is under attack in Britain and, therefore, that the press must not be subjected to statutory regulation. But the Rotherham case suggests that these fears are not misplaced because the story reveals much besides its protagonists’ prejudices: it shows how weak the law-abiding individual has become when he doesn’t hold the majority view.

Matthew d’Ancona has written a column echoing John Milton’s Areopagitica in that he argues that free speech is the basis of a free society, and therefore the freedom of the press is an ‘inviolable’ principle. The World Press Freedom Committee has made a similar claim in a letter to William Hague and other parliamentarians.

The logical corollary of these positions is that individuals (not just journalists) who exercise their general right of free expression thanks to parliament and the courts are not, by definition, free. Under such circumstances, an inalienable right has become little more than a licensed privilege in the hands of self-interested legislators and/or judges. If you think that is an exaggeration, then examine the comments of former Lib Dem MP and Hacked Off campaigner Dr Evan Harris during this exchange with Toby Young on Twitter. Harris implies, for instance, that the specific principles which restrict reporting criminal court cases under the law of Contempt might be further extended (presumably into the civil sphere beyond areas like libel, which already affect newspapers) to make newspapers ‘comply’ with the law. (Law, of course, being made by parliament – well, the executive really – and enforced and made by the courts).

Twitter is, obviously, not the ideal place to make or interpret complex arguments, and perhaps I’m doing Dr Harris an injustice; but it strikes me that his proposals are, unintentionally I’m sure, the thin end of the wedge for public interest publication. It’s bad enough that civil laws appear to allow Rotherham Council’s social workers to behave as they have done; but how much worse would it be if restrictions were placed on reporting the story? And, of course, restrictions carry penalties if they are infringed; penalties that are likely to become harsher post-Leveson. It’s easy to see how the press might become considerably less tenacious if subjected to statutory legislation, even if the intention of that legislation was pure.

The context to the Leveson Report is difficult for the defenders of a free press: abuse was rife; disgust with the press is both real and justified. Victims of abuse will rightly take centre stage next week. A little humility from the press, as Matthew d’Ancona says, would not be a bad thing. Yet the victims have had recourse to the justice they deserve; although, and this cannot be shouted enough, they would have received swifter and more satisfactory retribution had the police investigated alleged crimes more readily. It would also have helped if access to the courts in civil cases was cheaper and easier. But gross failures in the justice system should not give a free people cause to bind its hands.

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