Leveson and the Left, or how Ed Miliband got it wrong

Andrew Thorpe-Apps 9.02am

Lord Justice Leveson’s report, published last month, called for a new press regulatory body with “statutory underpinning”.

Lord Leveson’s proposals, if fully implemented, would remove journalists’ protection from the rigours of the Data Protection Act. They would make it near-impossible for the press to expose corruption and wrongdoing. And without a free press, we would never have heard about MPs’ expenses.

Many on the Left argued that David Cameron should follow Lord Leveson’s recommendations to the letter. After all, they exclaimed, what is the point in calling an inquiry, then ignoring its findings?

That argument is flawed. If Parliament’s job were simply to rubber-stamp the opinions of the judiciary, then what use is there in having an elected legislature? All legislative functions may as well be handed over to the chaps in wigs.

Labour’s championing of statutory regulation was nothing to do with moral principles. Nor was it for the protection of ‘ordinary people’. More than anything else, it was about retribution. Many on the Left still blame the Sun for Labour’s 1992 election defeat. The Left wants the press to feel some heat – similar to that which Labour politicians feel when they are under scrutiny. Lord Leveson has provided a golden opportunity.

During the Blair years, Labour cultivated a close relationship with the press. Alastair Campbell developed a close friendship with Rebekah Brooks. Mr Blair frequently met Rupert Murdoch and even became godfather to one of his daughters. The upshot of this was that the press focused on attacking the Conservatives. It was simply not in the Left’s interest to regulate the press.

Yet when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, newspapers switched allegiance. Mr Brown was not a winner. Labour began to get a taste of their own medicine, and the Left’s hatred of the free press boiled to the surface.

So Ed Miliband’s demand that Leveson’s recommendations be implemented ‘in full’ can now be better understood. Mr Miliband could not possibly have read the 2,000-page report from cover to cover, yet his call for full implementation suggested he agreed with every word. In reality, Mr Miliband was pandering to the majority view in his party, something we should be well used to by now.

But the Labour leader then made a U-turn in the form of a draft Bill. Suddenly, Labour was no longer in favour of ‘full implementation’ with Ofcom regulating the press. Were we finally going to hear Miliband’s own views, even if they should conflict with party big-wigs? Not a bit of it.

Labour’s draft Bill, which lacks detail, calls for the Lord Chief Justice to oversee a new regulator called the Press Standards Trust, checking every three years that it is working effectively. Publications that refuse to sign up to the regulator would have higher damages awarded against them should they lose court cases.

The draft Bill, which was discussed in cross-party talks yesterday, represents ‘statutory underpinning’ by stealth. It is a fudge, designed to keep all sides happy, and it speaks volumes of Mr Miliband’s inability to nail his colours to the mast.

The Conservatives want a system of independent self-regulation with severe penalties for wrongdoing but without statutory regulation. David Cameron rightly argues that regulation is a screw that will only get tightened:

"Once you start drafting a law that is a statutory underpinning, you find you have effectively created a Press Bill. It may not have that much which is frightening in it. But it becomes a very easily amendable piece of work, which is why we should try and avoid it."

Labour’s draft Bill does offer a ‘guarantee’ of press freedom, but it is difficult to see how this is feasible with even limited statutory regulation. The press is either free or it isn’t – there is no ‘third way’.

Mr Miliband has blindly followed the Left’s predictable response to the Leveson Report. The press is viewed as a rabid hound that must be tethered. It is of course  Mr Miliband’s prerogative to follow advice and even to change his mind; but it reflects poorly on his leadership. It backs up what we have learnt about Ed – he is a follower, not a leader. He frequently calls for inquiries, and when the results are in, is prepared to support all recommendations without hesitation.

The Left have had the press in their sights for some time. Lord Leveson’s report was labelled a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity long before it was even published. It has exposed the Left’s resentment and fear of a press that is free to scrutinise. It has also shown why Ed Miliband must never be given the keys to Number 10.

Follow Andrew on Twitter @AG_ThorpeApps

Twitter is a wonderful thing, but it shouldn’t be journalists’ sole source of a news story

Nik Darlington 11.03am

Here on Egremont, we try to tackle profound issues in an unprofound fashion. But today I’d like to flag up something of relevance from Telegraph Blogs, whose author does the opposite: tackle an unprofound issue in a profound (and timely) fashion.

Mic Wright wrote yesterday about “lazy hacks” mistaking Twitter for news. It is worth quoting some of Mr Wright’s blog at length:

The growing reliance on social media, particularly Twitter, is damaging to journalism. While social networks can quickly flag up potential sources and highlight stories faster, they also have a tendency to get things wrong and obscure just who is behind a message…

People often play characters online and profess to hold more exaggerated view points than they might be comfortable acting upon in the physical world. It’s also arguable that answers from Twitter and Facebook users will be subject to social desirability bias, the tendency to answer questions in a way that will be viewed favourably by their friends and followers.

Twitter is an enjoyable communication channel and one whose value lies in its restrictions. But when journalism and academia turn to it for answers, they’re almost always asking the wrong questions. Consider it a source and a start by all means, but those social media refuseniks  have pretty valuable things to say if you make the effort to hear them.

Too often, supposedly serious newspapers and news broadcasters will scramble to fill column inches with ‘stories’ sourced, constructed and flimsily corroborated entirely via Twitter. A matter concerning the TRG’s Summer Party earlier this week, with which many of our readers, followers and supporters will now be familiar, was so highlighted by ‘no less’ than the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Times (£), the International Business Times and the BBC. It even made the Daily Telegraph's front page.

All on the basis of a patchwork Twitter digest by a journalist of scant pedigree or repute.

The fact that news distributors have in recent times been emasculated from the inside out, to the point that their journalists are too busy and too few and far between to collect, check and double-check the news they distribute, should not go unacknowledged. The “lazy” accusation is too easy and too lazy in itself.

However, there’s an important clue in that last sentence as to the extent of the problem. Our ‘quality national dailies’, even our national broadcaster, have indeed become little more than news distributors, rather than primarily news collectors, sifters and interpreters. And as Mr Wright puts it quite eloquently, Twitter has become a part of that problem.

Irony acknowledged, do follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Congratulations to the Sunday Telegraph, first winner of the Ken Livingstone Award for Fiscal Hypocrisy

Nik Darlington 11.22am

The Sunday Telegraph was in a bit of a flap yesterday over revelations that nine members of the Labour party’s front bench team have been receiving free advisory work from professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Ed Balls, Chuka Umunna, Jim Murphy, Caroline Flint, Liam Byrne and David Hanson from the front bench, as well as Alistair Darling and John Healey, are among those Labour MPs to have received approximately £270,000 worth of staff secondments from PwC. Senior Conservatives, including Francis Maude, Oliver Letwin and Philip Hammond, received similar assistance when in opposition.

It is pretty ropey journalism, evidence of the growing trend in the print media that if it involves a private firm that makes lots of money, a tax angle, and a disclosure from the MPs’ register with a number attached, it must be a story. This one shouldn’t - or, at least, not how it has been presented.

  1. Has it not occurred to anyone that it might be useful for potential ministers to get this? It should be welcome news that current Cabinet ministers and potential Labour ministers have benefited from this type of advice. Many politicians (acutely so in the Labour party) are hopelessly unprepared for managing large multi-million pound organisations, which is what government departments are. This arrangement ought not be scoffed at. The newspaper complains that Labour’s assistance is on a “far larger scale” than the Tories’, but so what? I’d bet confidently that more Tory politicians have proper management experience. And considering several of Labour’s current recipients are directly implicated in a decade of mismanagement of Whitehall and the public finances, they probably need some remedial education.
  2. It is chancy, Pecksniffian journalism. The Telegraph is owned by the Barclay brothers, whose own situation as tax exiles in the Channel Islands would make fascinating reading (well not really, I couldn’t care less and nor should you, but you ought to get my point). What’s more, it is hypocritical (so obvious as to seem deliberate) for a newspaper in its main section to hurl abuse at companies who help clients to reduce their tax bills, and in its Money supplement run articles advising readers how to avoid paying too much themselves. (As an online example, see this blog last week instructing Telegraph readers “how to avoid being caught”.)
  3. Tax avoidance is not illegal. Newspapers, politicians, journalists and vocal members of the public with their own vested interests should stop pretending it is.

Just for a bit of fun, I am inaugurating a new award: the Ken Livingstone Award for Fiscal Hypocrisy. Congratulations to its first recipient, the Sunday Telegraph.

    Egremont’s review of 2011

    Nik Darlington and Alexander Pannett 10.30am

    This time last year there was no such thing as Egremont, yet in September, thanks to you, our readers, we were voted the 5th best Conservative blog in Britain in the Total Politics Blog Awards 2011.

    We have been pleasantly and quietly stunned at this ascent, proof that there is room in the blogosphere, amid the shouting and name-calling, for pragmatic, centre-right commentary.

    Herein a review of our year: an account of where we have come from, how we have done it and what we have covered.

    Twitter. A few words on that. All our posts are automatically tweeted via the Tory Reform Group and those of us on Twitter post and share articles and comments. These are in turn shared by followers (thank you). Since February, direct referrals from Twitter have comprised 13 per cent of our page hits, slightly behind the highest, Facebook, which gives 19 per cent of our referral traffic.

    These figures have fluctuated (Twitter has on occasions provided up to one-third of referral traffic) but Facebook is usually ahead. This comes as something of a surprise because it feels that Facebook’s reign as the pre-eminent social media sharing platform is over and Twitter is in the ascendancy. But there you have it. We have a Facebook page too, on which all our articles are linked, and it seems to be working by sending nearly one-fifth of readers our way. Particular thanks go to Aaron Ellis for his assistance with its running.

    The power of referral traffic is very clear. Guido Fawkes provided one-tenth of that traffic - or 1,538 hits - but most of it came from one article and in a single day. Saying that, fully one-third of traffic was from search engines, a vindication of our SEO strategy and a comforting sign that readers are actively looking for us (or stumbling across us!) rather than just being told to look at us. Eighteen per cent came direct.

    Paul Abbott has achieved a lot this year in his full-time guise as Robert Halfon’s more-than-capable parliamentary confrere, not least setting up the brilliant Parliamentary Academy and being a driving force behind the FairFuelUK campaign that prompted the Chancellor to cancel a planned rise in fuel duty.

    But we are sure that Paul would agree with us that his most noteworthy achievement of 2011 was to cause a one-thousand-strong stampede to Egremont on 23rd November. 'Why the Left should love Margaret Thatcher' has had more than 2,000 unique page views and been syndicated elsewhere thanks in part to Paul’s incisive prose and winning analysis but also the mighty sway of Mr Fawkes, who kindly referred to us as ‘the Wets’ blog’ (thank you, Harry).

    Generally, readership has been consistent throughout the year, with the occasional noticeable peak. The ‘big bang’ arrived shortly before the Barnsley by-election, 3rd March, as Craig Barrett's article 'Liberal Democrats are looking down the barrel in Barnsley' won positive reviews (one half of the editorial team is gracious enough to concede that his learned-if-not-sensationalist commentary on Oxbridge dons was not the principal cause of attention that day).

    Then on 3rd May, Stuart Baldock wrote an insightful piece about the Libyan rebels and there was poignant coverage of UN World Press Freedom Day; but the draw was Cllr Rene Kinzett’s presentation of 'the Conservative argument in favour of the Alternative Vote'. It was a brave and well-argued article deserving of publication. Perhaps not our most ‘popular’ feature of the year if the outcome of the AV referendum was anything to judge by, but it received plenty of attention.

    August is usually the sleepy month of politics but this year we had riots. On 9th August, Nik Darlington's in-the-moment reflection ('We know nothing, except we are all to blame for this') attracted Egremont's highest traffic thus far. It was syndicated on the front page of the Huffington Post and received interest from TV station Al-Jazeera.

    Media website Journalisted listed the biggest three news stories of 2011 as the Arab Spring, phone hacking and the Eurozone debt crisis. All three topics received plenty of comment on these pages, humble though we would say it was. We would not pretend to be major actors in these debates, let alone lead them. We try to focus on our columnists’ areas of expertise and on less well covered issues. But we always try to ensure our coverage matches the import of events.

    Our columnists this year have come from far and wide. We have been honoured to feature blogs from the former foreign secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, from John Lamont MSP, and from current Conservative MPs, Robin Walker, Robert Buckland and Rory Stewart.

    And to name just a few of our more regular commentators: we have had economic and political analysis from David Cowan, who also won a Spectator economics blogging prize in October. Former TRG chairman, Giles Marshall, always offers a thought-provoking take on the shape of the modern Tory party. Aaron Ellis brings hard work and dedication to the foreign affairs brief. Sara Benwell gives us an edge in the finer details of finance. Meanwhile Craig Barrett’s pithy and profound musings about everything from electoral politics to taxation have been consistently among our highest read articles.

    For some months, Jack Blackburn, as well as being our resident expert on film, culture and theology, has been turning his hand to weekly reviews of PMQs. Jack’s 'letter to Mrs Miliband' in November was utterly inspired and as good a PMQs review as you will read on any national broadsheet.

    Naturally, most of our readers come from the English-speaking world and as much as 80 per cent from Britain (79 per cent) and the United States (11 per cent). Canada, France, Australia, India and Germany also have sizeable followings and our readers are spread as far and wide as Sierra Leone, the Seychelles, Haiti, the Palestinian Territories, Iran, Mongolia, Peru, Latvia, Israel, Vietnam, Japan, South Africa, Sweden and even, dare I say it, Uzbekistan.

    And that, as they say, is that. The end.

    Merry Christmas and see you in 2012.

    Will you vote for Egremont as a top political blog of 2011?

    The TRG’s official blog has only been going properly since the beginning of February yet already we have had 14,000 visits to these pages from all over the world, including even eight visits from the People’s Republic of China.

    One-quarter of our readers arrive here via Twitter and another fifth via Facebook, proving the power (and importance) of social media to building a profile online.

    By any measure, our expansion has been hugely encouraging but we would love for our hard-working columnists, who volunteer so much of their time, to reach even greater audiences. So please, vote for Egremont and help give our writers the recognition they deserve.

    There are many other brilliant group blogs out there but we believe that we hold our own with the best, despite being entirely run by volunteers. Newspapers and magazines, such as the Telegraph, Guardian and Spectator are building up strong online presences through their own blogs, and the Huffington Post has recently thrust on to the scene, but we cannot even begin to compete with their financial resources.

    Yet we believe that we prove that there is still very much a place for the independent blogger.

    To cast your vote, just click here to go to the Total Politics website and put Egremont at number one - or if there are other blogs you prefer, we’d be just as pleased if you included us at all.

    Take care to read the rules of entry: remember to vote for at least 5 sites and fill any gaps with “blank” to ensure your vote is registered. If there is a Egremont columnist / tweeter you particularly enjoy following, please be sure to mention them in the individual category.

    Deadline is midnight on Friday, 19th August.

    Thanks and all the best,

    Egremont

    Blogging vs. Journalism

    Neil Dobson 4.32pm

     As Rupert Murdoch’s municipal news fortress remains under siege at the hands of the army of the easily righteous, there is no shortage of volunteers ready to offer up their critiques of his organisation and of the wider state of journalism in this country. Issues surrounding the transparency, decency and depth of writing in our press will no doubt be debated long after the current battle lines have been redrawn, even if Murdoch is to be left lying in the rubble of his former stronghold like some Priamic dolt, sacrificed on the altar of his own family’s follies.

    The wrongs and wrongs of News International’s conduct are both well known and barely open to debate, but one of the more interesting elements coming out of the myriad of panel shows’ waxing lyrical has been the relative importance of mainstream news media in our near and immediate future. One widely permeating view appears to be that news media and traditional journalism are about to be usurped by new media and its concomitant chum, blogging. Even if such a view is overstated by traditionalists in an attempt to avoid the inevitable inquiry as to how huge news conglomerates wield undue political power, the notion still throws up some interesting questions.

    The mild ludicrousness of criticising the meaningful role of such blogging in a blog is hardly lost on me, but much like a blinkered horse trying to romp home in the National, I shall carry on in spite of my apparent handicap.

    One of the assumed benefits of blogging is the perception that it offers access of commentary to all; a seeming panacea to the concerns raised by the Murdoch news monopoly. There is also an implied assumption that the independence of such bloggers can avoid the inherent bias of journalists who earn their salt for newspapers with specific political leanings and are beholden to tyrannical owners and shareholder pressure.

    Firstly, whilst it is true that anyone with a pc and some bandwith can publish a blog, the number of people who read it is a different matter. One likes to think that in such a free form system cream naturally rises, but one look at Justin Bieber’s hit count should dispel that notion. The fact is that with any new media format there is a limited period of time where total output is relatively small and almost anyone can have their views picked up and popularised with relative ease. However, as with all new industries, as they mature, the barriers to success – if not entry – increase rapidly and the already established paragons tend to prosper.

    Secondly, whilst in one sense bloggers may have total ‘independence’, a passing glance at the unparalleled vitriol found in blogs and message boards alike should give us pause. What value do we really get from an independence which tends towards unchecked hyperbole and rampant subjectivism? We may have concerns about the organisations for which they work, but there’s little doubt that the majority of journalists are driven by a general desire to write and report, rather than the single issue polemic which inspires so many bloggers to log on in the cold dark hours of the night and add to the virtual canon.

    In short, News International might fall, the nature of news conglomerates and their sway in politics may need review, but the notion that the future of our free press lies in the hands of the world’s bloggers rather than a robust, transparent and, I’ll say it, relatively well paid, news media is simply wrong-headed. If the idea was a horse, I’d be erecting a tent and reaching for my shotgun.

    And if you think this article is a load of old hoof, you shouldn’t be surprised – go buy a proper newspaper.

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    Shame on all your houses

    Giles Marshall 1.42pm

    Hubris hits us all in time, so it seems. For decades Rupert Murdoch has bestrode the British political scene. Unencumbered by the menial requirements of your everyday voter - such as UK citizenship or the need to pay taxes - Mr Murdoch has wielded more power and influence over Prime Ministers, putative and actual, than any normal citizen. His editors have been the satraps of his power, the unelected viziers demanding preferred policies from a timid and beleaguered political class.

    How things change. The crisis in journalism effected by the hacking scandal has been boiling under the surface for years but has burst on to the scene largely without warning. It is not only changing the way that things are done but shining a light on the darker corners of the British polity.

    The Independent's Steve Richards has written a trenchant article today about these changes. He remarks on the extraordinary scenes of once fearful MPs lining up to attack the Murdoch ‘empire’ (it’s always an empire, isn’t it?), and his key henchmen and women. It is a fine read, suitably over the top and biting about the malign influence of News International. I wonder whether it could have been written the day before yesterday, even at the Indy, which along with the Guardian has admirably not shied away from coverage of the scandal.

    Few can emerge with much credit from the disentangling of these dubious and illegal practices. The bulk of the newspapers have failed to produce any sort of investigation, a sorry state of affairs brilliantly and damningly described by Peter Oborne in an essay for the Spectator. The Guardian stands honourably alone in this regard and we can only speculate as to the pressure that newspaper has had to withstand both within and without the incestuous media world.

    The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has remained a vapid eunuch incapable of action against its own. The political class, repeatedly confronted as it is by the vicious excesses of tabloid journalism, cravenly failed to take a stand (barring a few exceptions, notably Labour’s Tom Watson). Only now as the giant is on its knees are they starting to run towards it, kicking and punching and biting for all they are worth.

    The Metropolitan Police’s role is particularly murky and itself the subject of a potential investigation. While quick to leap into action against politicians - for instance on cash for honours or MPs’ expenses - police officers have proven less enthusiastic to pursue the papers.

    The shabbiest actions, however, are reserved for our leading politicians. From Tony Blair to Ed Miliband, the collective currying for Murdoch’s favour has been a ludicrous sideshow of lilliputian proportions. Blair’s flight in 1995 to an Australian junket with News Corp executives; Cameron’s decision to employ Andy Coulson and his wining and dining with Rebekah Brooks; Ed Miliband’s toadying at the News International summer bash and signing up another former Murdoch man, Tom Baldwin, as his press secretary.

    The press wields enormous power. It has the nefarious ability to destroy the reputations of individuals big and small. Such are this country’s libel laws that journalists rarely need to apologise for their grievous errors. With the stroke of a pen or click of a mouse, journalists can cause enormous unaccountable damage and it is now starkly shown that they have been employing illegal means to intrude on private lives with the utmost indecency and impunity. While gleeful to demand the hides of politicians when they err, key figures in News International now simply slink away into their unfathomable fortress.

    Will there be any justice? Will Murdoch, Brooks, Coulson et al face the comeuppance they so often demand of others? Justice, in this instance, has to be more than a mere inquiry or two into News International. Justice requires a root-and-branch review of the way that the press conducts itself.

    One of David Cameron’s predecessors in Number 10, Stanley Baldwin, when under pressure from the Rupert Murdoch of his day, Lord Beaverbrook, commented that the press ‘had power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’ He pointed to journalism at its lowest point. What the journalistic profession could and should be is eloquently summed up by Peter Oborne:

    Unfortunately, we in Fleet Street have forgotten that the ultimate vindication of journalism is not to intrude into, and destroy, private lives. Nor is it the dance around power, money and social status. It is the fight for truth and decency.

    If the result of this scandal is that journalism can return to these high ideals, rather than this tawdry state of affairs, then something good may come of it after all.

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