Thursday, 29 November 2012

Do We Need Press Controls?

I still don't understand why all the improper behaviour of the British Press uncovered by the Leveson enquiry could not be dealt with in some way by means of the privacy laws or by the Press Complaints Commission.
It is true that the police have not dealt particularly well with all cases of phone-hacking, E-mail hacking, intrusive paparazzi and so on, but would a new body with a new name necessarily be any better? It would not be infallible. Are we quite sure that the cure for press misbehaviour would not be worse than the disease?
Draconian laws and loss of freedom will never really be a substitute for morality. The papers acted without a sense of decency, and now they are threatened with a crackdown that might be the thin end of the state control wedge. What might be desirable is to exploit the competition between news media to keep them on the level. If one paper could expose others for invading privacy, resulting in a costly claim for compensation, might that provide a deterrent? It would plainly be unfair to tie up newspapers in a way that does not apply to the internet. Facebook U-tube and Twitter are all capable of spreading news too.
Very few people today even understand what freedom of speech means. I think the subject should be taught in schools, as a part of General Studies. Freedom of speech means the right to express your own opinion or report facts as truthfully as you can, if necessary in a blunt way. It also includes telling fictions so long as you don't try to pretend they are facts. It does not include abuse, swearing, threatening violence, lying, distorting, or circulating information that is stolen (from a copyright book for example). Public interest arguments complicate matters in some cases, and some information is classified ....but that's not what the Leveson enquiry was about. I have come across ignorant young people who think that libel and slander are part of "freedom of speech". This is a sad indication of how badly our younger generation has been educated. Libel and slander of individuals are not "freedom of speech" and objecting to them is not censorship. They are civil offences to be dealt with in the civil courts by means of private compensation.
Many countries in the world still regard state censorship as an unavoidable evil. The Sultan of Qatar (owner and controller of Al-Jazeera) has just sent a poet to prison for life for daring to criticize him.

The Leveson Report calls for a new watchdog to be set up, but that is not the only source of pressure. At the same time behind the scenes, the EU is pushing for closer controls. Remember that under EU law it is already illegal to criticize the EU. They would love to impose those guidelines and restrictions more rigorously, and that would be a disaster.
The European Commission political officer Marie-Madeleine Kanellopoulou, based in the EU's office in Westminster is reported as saying,
"We are following the Leveson inquiry to see the outcome. In the UK we have to deal with a very euro-sceptical British public and that's not helped by the hostile audience in the British press. We want to engage with the media, with stakeholders and non governmental organisations.... but repeated mis-representation in the media was making communication of the true facts about EU policy difficult...We are trying to rebut EU myths in the press but it is not easy because the Press Complaints Commission has a limited remit".

The danger is under the cover of Leveson, far-reaching powers to control and gag the press could eventually be allowed to creep in. And that is something that we absolutely must not permit to happen.


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