Sunday, 2 December 2012

Full Court Press

So what do we all think of the Leveson report? Or perhaps more importantly, what do we think about what the important people and politicians of various colours are saying about the Leveson report? That's the key point really, seeing as not many of us will have read the 2,000 page dossier.

I did however, watch Hugh Grant's disarmingly charming performance in his new rom com on Channel 4 - "Taking on the Tabloids". I thought the initial storyline was good - principled, slightly rough around the edges but good looking nonetheless, foppish bloke in underdog struggle against big corporation. Unfortunately the love interest curiously never made it into the frame. I assumed she would work for said corporation; they'd initially hate each other but realise love is more important than their political differences and live happily ever after. Like the Coalition. But that didn't happen. He just talked about the press for ages. Some good stuff though.

Hugh and I agree that there's a difference between "in the public interest" and "of interest to the public", thought I don't know if he signs up to my idea that if you effectively make a contract with the press and those who read it that you make your money by their interest in your life (the Kerry Katonas of this world, for example), you have given up some of your rights to privacy. A Venn Diagram here would be most helpful, but I can't be arsed to draw one.

Before you get too tetchy, the long and the short of it is that if you are Jane Q. Taxpayer, the Sun or whoever has no right to publish photos of you topless on a beach on holiday. Yes it is a public place, but by living a non-public life you have a right to things that you put in the relative public space not being broadcast to the world. If you make money as a pop star or somesuch, and you are on the same beach, I reckon it's fair play for the Paps to snap you pups. This is because you put yourself in an overtly public place having got everyone interested in you.

It doesn't stretch to anyone naked anywhere (like for example the poor old Duchess of Cambridge) - if telescopic lenses etc are required to see you, you have gone to enough trouble to remove yourself from the public eye. That has to be then respected as private. And it's not just nudity, but details about your lives etc too. Private is private for everyone, but what is fair game from what is public is down to your 'contract type' and behaviour. It's a shades of grey argument (no, not that like that) which I covered in far more detail here.

So what do I think about press regulation? I'm not a fan. I would also point to the fact that most of the things we think are terrible that the press did were illegal already. Hacking phones is illegal. You don't need new statutes. Use the existing ones. The privacy law idea is always going to be hard to delineate. My 'common sense' approach might make sense (or not) but I imagine it would be hard to enshrine in law.

The press does some pretty despicable things, and there certainly appear to have been very few heads to have rolled, and often not the right ones. I would love to see a better watchdog rather than editors sitting in judgement of themselves. Putting the cat in charge of the cream rarely ends well - just look at the ongoing farce with MP's and IPSA as they continue to stick their snouts in the trough until they are found out (at which point they will apologise for our error in interpretation of their honest mistake and add some transparency that might not have been there before).

But I do not think statutory press regulation is right. Hague makes a very good point that it would do us no favours when trying to take the moral high ground overseas. You could go on forever with examples of when some aberration allowed Parliament to legislate at the thin end of the wedge with only the best of intentions but over time we wandered slowly to the thick end. Income tax started as a one-off levy to pay for the Napoleonic Wars - we all enjoy beating the French but this is taking it a little far (a childish example but you get my drift). Press regulation, as they say, is like pregnancy, and you can't be a little bit pregnant.

But what I really wanted to talk about, partly because I don't have an answer to the press problem; just a gut feeling that statutory regulation is wrong, will be a slippery slope, will have myriad unforseen negative ramifications and is in most cases unnecessary due to existing law, is who is talking about it.

I thought it was brilliant that Ed Milliwho has recently become clairvoyant. He didn't even need to read Leveson's report before he knew, he just knew, that everything in it would be just perfect. Nope, Ed wasted no time working out that Leveson would most likely suggest some form of statutory regulation that would be as unpalatable to the Tories as it would be impractical to apply. So he committed the Labour party (traditional defenders of liberty and freedom, no?) to supporting everything Leveson said and promise to enact any and all recommendations made. Why? Two reasons:

1. He doesn't have to make those decisions as he is not in power so he can make grandiose statements of intent safe in the knowledge they will simply remain just as that (traditional Lib Dem think).

2. It will make for discomfort for Big Dave.

Yup, the bit about Leveson I'm happy to say I have a view on is the behaviour of Red Ed, his party and many Lib Dems. No debate on what is a crucial political topic that could define an entire era, no sensible discourse in Parliament over potentially eradicating 300 years of press freedom. Nope, just political positioning for short term points scoring. One can only hope the British public are intelligent enough to see this and they are punished at the polls. My magic 8 ball suggests the outlook for that is gloomy.

Ed is also one of those who throws all his weight behind people like the McCanns, Christopher Jefferies, Hugh Grant - those who have suffered at the hands of the press. And they have. I should put that front and centre. I have the utmost sympathy for this category of people. I lamented in these pages the court of public opinion's riding roughshod over due process when Christopher Jefferies was essentially convicted of Jo Yeates' murder by the press before he was found totally innocent. But their very intimate involvement with press regulation, or lack of it, if anything makes them totally the wrong people to have at the forefront of statutory legislation.

We put people on trial before an unbiased jury of their peers and subject to the sentencing of a qualified, independent judge for a reason. We don't let the plaintiff adjudicate guilt nor set the tariff. We don't do an eye for an eye. This is not to say that people touched by something are not ever able to be impartial, but it certainly means they are unlikely to be.

People who's loved ones die from a particular disease will often fundraise solely for the charity representing the fight against it; it's human nature. I give more to fighting Alzheimer's and cancer because they are the ones closest to my heart. It doesn't mean that I'm a bad person, or that fighting cerebral palsey is not a noble cause. It just means I probably shouldn't be put in charge of the budget for  disease research for the whole UK: I'm likely to be biased.

People clearly have views - that's fine. MPs might feel one way or another about different diseases or nuclear deterrents or whatever. So might judges. They are expected to put aside their subjective views and examine everything objectively, from the point of view of their constituents and the country. If we think they are sucking at this, we vote them out. Pretty simple.

But the fact remains that those most affected by an issue will in general find it hardest to be objective about it. Which means they shouldn't be the people influencing law. So I say no to Sarah's Law, Megan's Law, Madeleine's Law or any others. Not what is in them - they have fine intent and may be perfectly good pieces of legislation (I am not an authority), but I think composing their content is better left to those professionally obliged to be impartial and experienced in the process of law-making. Is that crazy? I think not. If you would like all of that summarised in a much funnier 1 minute and 42 seconds - listen to Mitchell and Webb's view on it here. I suppose I should have just put that bit at the top and be done with it...

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