Announcing OfBlog - the mother of all quangos
When David Cameron asked Lord Justice Leveson to investigate the phone-hacking outrage and other renegade sections of the press, it was certain to end with legislative proposals for state regulation. It is as natural for a judge to find solution in the statutory instrument as it is for an EU commissioner to advocate 'more Europe' when confronted by the 'xenophobic' forces of adversity. Professional deformation confines epistemology: people are restricted to what they know.
We have yet to see the final wording of the Royal Charter, but we do know that Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and Hugh Grant are all delighted. Invoking the spectre of Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister insisted that this does not amount to state regulation of the press. But Hacked Off would hardly be trumpeting victory if they had not got what they wanted - that is, regulatory powers underpinned by statute. Only the heir to Blair would try to sell a specific legislative amendment as a general underpinning of a non-statutory regulatory charter. This regulation may be obliquely established by Royal Charter rather than by an act of parliament, but the Queen is the State: Parliament effects the decree, and Parliament can (and will) amend it to suit itself, irrespective of some absurd 2/3-majority 'protection'.
When 2/3 of the House of Commons fail by just a few votes to amend (or abolish?) this Royal Charter, we must remind them of the scorn they heaped on the General Synod of the Church of England over women bishops. Why should amendments to a piddly press charter require a 2/3 majority when Magna Carta itself can be amended by a simple majority?
It beggars belief that an English prime minister - and a Conservative prime minister at that - could support proposals which will censor, inhibit or neuter investigative journalism. Not for 300 years have newspapers been 'licensed' by the state. Those which do not cooperate will face the possibility of draconian fines, such that their operations may become uninsurable.
Significantly, Lord Justice Leveson restricted his proposals to the print media. He was of the view that it 'operates very differently from blogs on the internet and other social media such as Twitter'. One may quibble with his ignorance of both the rate of decline of newspapers and the reach and influence of some blogs, but his proposal was clearly for a watchdog regime aimed at the press, enshrined in law: the internet was to be left unregulated.
But David Cameron's Royal Charter appears to extend the definition of 'publisher' to include online media:
This makes some sense: after all, some of the recent media scandals – like the Twitter slander/libel alleging that Lord McAlpine is/was a paedophile; or the breach of privacy legislation in the naming of Ryan Giggs; or the publication of topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge - have not involved print media organisations at all. It seemed naive to leave Blogger, Facebook and Twitter unregulated while imposing considerable constraints upon the 'significant news providers' - the press and its 'official' online presence.
Twitter may be too gossipy and trivial to regulate, but this Royal Charter effectively establishes OfBlog, and that is going to become a colossal quango bureaucracy. In short, if anyone should have a serious gripe against His Grace, they may henceforth complain to this new Regulator free of charge. If the Regulator finds against His Grace, he can forced to apologise and retract - which would be usual in any case of defamation. But under this Charter, His Grace is left to pay the costs of his accuser even if His Grace should win the case. This is not a Charter for justice, but a licence for the irritating, eccentric and vexatious. It is highly unlikely that His Grace would ever have investigated THIS or published THIS or THIS if OfBlog had possessed punitive powers and was a credible censorious option for ‘Dr’ Irene Bishop and Canon Peter Clark.
There is undoubtedly a House of Commons majority in favour of press regulation, and that is hardly surprising. The press hold our politicians to account: the chance to regulate their chief inquisitors and persecutors is an opportunity too good to miss. One might almost see it as revenge for the audacious journalism that 'caused' the expenses scandal, or the successful exposure of chronic moral and political hypocrisies which have led to some tragic downfalls.
But it is inconceivable that this non-statutory Charter will be whipped: the continuing existence of a free press ought at least to be determined by a free vote. And this will pitch the Whig against the Tory; it will divide the true conservative from the sham Conservative. In his evidence to Leveson, Michael Gove said:
I think the general case for free expression has to be restated in every generation, because we all collectively benefit from a feeling that we are and shouldn't be inhibited in stating our views on whatever platform is available to us on matters that engage us.Parliament urgently needs another John Stuart Mill to persuade the Commons of their folly, for the political pygmies who seek to regulate the press are devoid of any philosophical understanding of liberty. If this Royal Charter is enacted and Schedule 4 survives as drafted, it is difficult to see how His Grace could continue. The traumatic months of ASA harassment were bad enough: OfBlog, as Michael Gove notes, will 'grow' and become 'gold-plated'. It is likely to become an insufferable coercive hindrance - sufficient to effect termination.
..by definition, free speech doesn't mean anything unless some people are going to be offended some of the time.
..I'm sure that there are cases where journalists and others will behave in ways which are deplorable. The question remains, however: what is the most effective means of ensuring that individuals do not behave in a deplorable fashion? It's often the case that individuals reach for regulation in order to deal with failures of character or morality, and sometimes that regulation is right and appropriate, but some of us believe that before the case for regulation is made, the case for liberty needs to be asserted as well.
..we should think carefully about the effects of regulation in the same way as a legislator, when any particular proposal is put before them to deal with a particular evil, thinks: is this legislation necessary or proportionate? Is it the right remedy for the particular problem that's been identified? And I'm unashamedly on the side of those who say that we should think very carefully before legislation and regulation because the cry "Something must be done" often leads to people doing something which isn't always wise.
..My instinct is, if we look over time at how we have reacted to other abuses and errors and crimes that have been identified, there has been a tendency - it hasn't applied in every case but there has been a tendency to meet that particular crisis or scandal or horror with an inquiry. That inquiry has come up with recommendations, some of those recommendations have been wise and thoughtful, others perhaps less so. But what has subsequently happened is that the regulation or the intervention which has flowed from that inquiry has then been gold-plated and applied in such a way as, in the terms that I used in my speech to the press gallery, to be a cure worse than the disease, and in my speech to the press gallery, I mentioned the way in which the vetting and barring scheme had grown and the way in which the Every Child Matters agenda had grown, and the way in which the Food Standards Agency had grown to interpret its brief in a particular way. Now, those were three examples where I believe - and it's perfectly open to others to disagree with me passionately, obviously - but where I believe that an unfortunate tendency arose, which is a belief that we could, you know, mitigate against the evil which is inherent in human nature by setting up bureaucratic bodies or enacting regulation.
..I have a strong - some might call it a bias, a prejudice, a predisposition to favour free expression, but by definition, one of the reasons that I favour free expression is that I believe that it is through public debate, the clash of ideas, that we can arrive at a better form of governing ourselves, a better method of helping the next generation and it's entirely possible - it's happening often enough - that I will be proven wrong in open debate and it may well be that the fears that I gave expression to in this speech prove to be phantoms.