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Democracy is shooting itself in the foot with this emotional Leveson debate

15 March 2013

9:46 AM

15 March 2013

9:46 AM

The breakdown of cross-party talks today seems to be creating a make or break moment for the basic principle of press freedom. But Cameron’s proposal to hold a vote on Monday is also adding a certain confusion to the brinkmanship.

The basic principle is clear: newspapers and other print media are subject to the rule of law but specific laws for the press should remain the tools of authoritarian not democratic and rights-abiding states. There are some (if not enough) public interest defences for occasionally breaking a law but MPs vote on laws, and print media are subject to those laws.

If MPs vote on specific press laws – including on the detailed characteristics of an independent regulator for the print media – they are not ensuring its independence, rather they are introducing political control. Politicians, as we knew well long before Leveson’s inquiry, court the press, they criticise the press and they attempt to influence the press – for the simple reason that the press (unlike broadcasters) can and do back one party over another, support or criticise party and government policies, and sway votes. The press hold politicians to account – they must not be, even slightly, under the thumb of politicians.

The shambolic, and now failed, process of cross-party talks on Leveson in the last three months shows only too clearly, that politicians are deeply partisan and strongly, and emotionally, opinionated on press regulation. In a calmer atmosphere, with less accusation and rhetoric on all sides, alarm bells would be ringing at this demonstration of exactly why party politics should be kept a long way away from control of the press. Nor would a cross-party consensus be more reassuring – countries like Hungary pull off two-thirds votes to control media, courts, constitutions and more.

Since Leveson published his report, Cameron has – more or less – stood up for the principle that parliament and politicians should not vote on press regulation. The Royal Charter muddies this water somewhat – it introduces a political say although not a vote. Yet Clegg and Miliband have continued to demand a vote on statutory underpinning – even for the Royal Charter. And so the cross-party talks collapsed, and now Cameron is giving parliament a vote on Monday.

It is a risky, and potentially confusing, move. With the Lords, led by Lord Puttnam introducing a wrecking amendment into the Defamation Bill – so threatening its passage through the Commons – Cameron is rightly worried his legislation programme as whole may start to be taken hostage. A vote on Monday in favour of the Royal Charter approach to establishing an independent regulator would resolve the issue – it would be a compromise but not as bad as a direct statute underpinning  a regulator.

Cameron plans to add this Royal Charter to the Crime and Courts Bill, which sounds remarkably close to the statutory underpinning that Clegg and Miliband are so loudly demanding.

And if Cameron loses the vote, does he then give in, and say Leveson, Miliband, Clegg and Hacked Off can have their way – and have statutory underpinning for press regulation? Or does he continue to defend the fundamental right to freedom of expression including a free press. The whole point of universal rights is that parliaments don’t and can’t vote to change them: a majority vote to suspend or ignore a right is to treat rights like any other policy, as a political football. That is why countries sign up to human rights charters like the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (even if Theresa May doesn’t quite get that, David Cameron has seemed to up till now) – these conventions underpin democracies, help to stop the tyranny of the majority.

Meanwhile, the pro-Leveson voices are further clouding the issue by claiming – quite wrongly – that Cameron’s proposals are exactly what the press barons want, and will allow a soft-touch self-regulation system to continue. This is simply nonsense – Cameron’s Royal Charter will introduce an independent regulator (with no serving editors or members of the government on the board) with a much wider remit and more powers than the old system.

It is a debate where emotional claims are far outstripping any serious or reasoned discussion – and it is in that atmosphere that parliament will vote on Monday, a vote that  may go down in the historical record, as the day when British democracy shot itself in the foot and voted against press freedom.

Kirsty Hughes is chief executive of Index on Censorship.

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