I can see no circumstances by which this blog can be regulated by the government’s attempt at press regulation

Nik Darlington

So the lacklustre rigmarole of a Royal Charter takes another turn. The House of Lords has been debating whether to exempt small blogs from the new cross-party press regulations.

The Government is considering its own response to the quandary posed by Internet blogs like Guido Fawkes that are based overseas.

It can be argued that a result of the Internet age is faster, better connected, more nimble scrutiny of the holders of power. Politicians and press barons have been in each other’s pockets for decades, and to suppose this is a new phenomenon is naïve.

Yet political bloggers are beholden to no greater power (at least that is what they claim - and most ought to be believed). Unlike newspapers with their failing business model, most bloggers have no paying market of consumers to chase.

How does a Government get to grips with curtailing them in the manner it is attempting to curtail the mainstream press? To murder a phrase, qui regulates ipsos regulatiem?

It can’t. Which is why ministers, shadow ministers and advisers are hurriedly trying to patch up this particular hole (of several) in the new regulations.

For our part, I am not entirely aware yet whether as de facto digital lessees of Tumblr, the Egremont blog falls into the same category as Guido Fawkes - i.e. an offshore concern.

That small print aside, there are no circumstances under which I can see our being subject to this attempt at regulation. Zero funding, zero revenue, and a relatively small but of course highly influential and intelligent band of readers.

So for Egremont at least, it is business as usual.

4G spectrum failure hardly surprising, but what is Ofcom playing at?

Nik Darlington 9.58am

When George Osborne said the Treasury would raise several billion pounds from the upcoming 4G auction, I along with many others feared (or even expected) that wouldn’t be the case. Some technical and financial reasons for why, but largely an informed hunch.

So it has come to pass. ‘Only’ £2.34 billion has been raised by Ofcom, despite the OBR’s forecast of £3.5 billion.

A couple of observations about the reporting of all this: first, £2.34 billion is still a useful fillip not to be sniffed at; and second, this mini embarrassment has given journalists a perfect excuse to ignore the good employment figures also released today.

Yet a mini embarrassment it is. Perhaps Mr Osborne should not have brandished an outcome ahead of time, but auctioneers tend to set target prices with little impact on bidding behaviour other than to focus it around said target. It isn’t a patch on Gordon Brown selling our gold reserves having already announced to the world his intention to do so.

On the subject of auctioneers, however, something odd happened on BBC Breakfast earlier today. Ed Richards, Ofcom’s chief executive and unsuccessful candidate for BBC director-general (despite being the bookies’ favourite), was on talking about the auction. Mr Richards stated that Ofcom’s priority - as auctioneers - was straightforwardly to hold a fair and proper auction and “ensure that a valuable economic resource was brought into productive commercial use”. Ofcom’s priority - as auctioneers - was certainly not to maximise revenue.

Whether or not this was on instruction from the Government doesn’t matter. It is still odd. Tell auctioneers at Christie’s that the whole point is just to shift stuff and not to maximise revenues, you’ll be laughed out of the room. These are, as Mr Richards also said, “very different times” compared to the 3G spectrum auction, which raised £22 billion in 2000. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least have a go at it.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Lessons to be learned about the police, the press and a wrong politician

Giles Marshall 10.55am

At the time of Andrew Mitchell’s regrettable outburst of temper, I commented on the distinctly dubious behaviour of the police themselves. My concerns were that - once again - police records had allegedly been leaked to newspapers with impunity, and that the Police Federation was engaged in an unedifying witch-hunt against Mr Mitchell. It turns out that the affair may have been rather more sinister.

Channel 4’s ‘Dispatches’ programme reported that a key witness to the altercation had not in fact been present and was, moreover, a serving police officer rather than an ordinary member of the public.

The fact that this ghost witness’s version of events matched the report contained in the police logs - which was fully leaked to the Daily Telegraph - implies a conspiracy between more than one officer. The Police Federation’s iniquitous involvement, and their partial account of a meeting held between Mr Mitchell and West Midlands police officers, has further added to the sense of conspiracy.

The Met is now conducting its own investigation into what seems a thoroughly sordid affair. It is worth remembering that some of the sympathy for the police came because in the same week two police officers had been shot and killed in Manchester, reminding us of the perilous situation many dedicated policemen and women put themselves in on the public need.

It is also worth remembering that, but for the Manchester tragedy, we might have been a bit more focused on an earlier display of police cover-up and malicious leaking after Hillsborough.

The Police Federation launched an overtly political campaign to discredit a serving Cabinet minister because they disagree with the policies being pursued by that minister’s elected government. The Metropolitan Police failed to investigate why a police log was leaked to two newspapers, even though the Leveson Inquiry had already established an undue cosiness in the relationship between the police force and the press to the detriment of appropriate police confidentiality.

Channel 4’s programme - produced, by the way, in a statutorily regulated broadcast media - has raised serious questions for both the Met and the Police Federation.

If it is true that members of the Diplomatic Protection Squad have engaged in a slanderous conspiracy to remove a Cabinet minister, then heads absolutely must roll.

Mr Mitchell eventually resigned for his outburst, while denying consistently the alleged content of his outburst. He appears to have been a wronged and maligned man. More than one police officer should now be under threat of dismissal, with likely court actions as well, if we are to regain any sense that police integrity might be able to be restored.

As for the Police Federation, its appalling behaviour should render it redundant altogether. But there are questions too for the unregulated print media, who slavishly published the police version of events and gave little credence to Mr Mitchell’s. Not much sense there that a free media is engaging in the fearless investigative reporting that we are so constantly hearing about from bleating editors. Apparently, it takes the regulated broadcast media to do that job.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

Press freedom, or press responsibility? It is time we checked the most powerful organisations in Britain

Giles Marshall 9.50am

Eight-six MPs and peers have signed a letter urging David Cameron not to accept any recommendation for statutory oversight of the press, should such be made by Lord Leveson in his much anticipated report.

In many ways it is encouraging that so many legislators, themselves often the target of press attacks, should be so concerned about what they have termed an issue of free speech. They are right in wanting to steer clear of political control of any media outlet. Yet the issue for the British press is no longer really one of free speech; it is one of responsibility.

The Leveson Inquiry’s exhaustive hearings unearthed example after example of astonishing abuse of press power. This wasn’t simply the willingness of some newspapers to use illegal methods to obtain information; it was also their relentless commitment to the harassment and persecution of those who they decided, often on a whim or on the barest of hard knowledge, to victimise.

Famous examples of non-celebrity figures include the McCanns and Chris Jefferies, but they were hardly the first. There have been many more low-profile examples. The stories of Juliet Shaw and an innocent deputy headmistress, both caught up in the Daily Mail’s tangled web of media ethics, serve as a reminder of just what happens when there isn’t a major inquiry into the conduct of the press.

The Sun managed to identify an innocent man as a paedophile and never produced an apology, so weak is the current system of press regulation. There are plentiful, regular examples of how an out of control press - particularly the tabloids - smear people’s reputations with no requirement to apologise or make restitution when they are proved - as they so often are - wrong. The intrusion of the press into private lives continues unabated. The best observation of press antics comes at the moment from heroic blogs such as Tabloid Watch and The Media Blog, which makes depressing reading.

The MPs who signed the letter today rightly consider that the ability of the press to investigate political and commercial interests without fear or favour should be unhindered. Agreed.

The problem is that it so often doesn’t. It isn’t MPs or political interests who require the defence of a proper system of regulatory control. It is the little people, the small people’s interests, who urgently require this support. The very people MPs should be representing and whose interests they should be considering. It is in some ways astonishing that the eighty-six signatories of today’s letter have been so willing to leap to the defence of powerful, vested media interests, but have remained mute when ordinary people have been victims of press abuse.

Then again, many politicians mix freely with owners, editors and reporters. Mr Cameron’s friendship with Rebekah Brooks; Michael Gove’s past employment with Rupert Murdoch’s Times; Boris Johnson’s present employment with the Barclay twins’ Daily Telegraph; Jeremy Hunt’s cringeworthy emails and texts to a senior aide of the Murdoch corporation - all these relationships betoken an unhealthy danse macabre that wholly fails to protect us from a rampaging, lazy, abusive press.

The Guardian has published a poll finding today suggesting that 79 per cent of the public want a powerful regulatory body to control the press. It would be difficult to find an issue on which there is such variance between our representatives and ourselves.

Preventing the press from publishing untrue statements that irreparably damage people’s lives is not the same - nowhere near - as political control and it is a pity that today’s letter’s signatories don’t realise this.

It was Stanley Baldwin many years ago - using a comparison possibly offered to him by his cousin Rudyard Kipling - who noted that the press “have great power without any responsibility. The prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

Too much of the British media has failed to show even the slightest hint of willingness to regulate themselves. It is time they were subject to the same strictures as every other organisation in this country, for they wield the greatest power, and power should never be allowed to go unchecked.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

Avoiding our Road to Serfdom

Henry Hopwood-Phillips 10.00am

There will be, in the next generation or so, a …method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing… this seems to be the final revolution.

Aldous Huxley

Much energy has been spent by the Press in trying to diagnose our present economic malaise.

Not much time has been spent in diagnosing the long-term political, sociological and philosophical trends that are reforming and reshaping the spiritual and physical topography of twenty-first century Man.

Critiques have come and gone but none seem to have been heeded in earnest. Kafka and Orwell warned of the dire repercussions that a Rousseau-esque Enlightenment might bring. Spengler, Arnold, Renan and Evola alerted us to the paradoxical particularity of the universalist and bourgeois nature of the Enlightenment project. Strauss and Bloom argued against the post-modern mutation - its abandonment of the metaphysical project in favour of Nietzschean-inspired particularity. Eliot, Hayek and Scruton attacked the new Establishment from a more grounded Burkean perspective.

But few of their ideas have been properly articulated outside of cloistered seminars. So perhaps it is worth reiterating some of the themes that still seem strikingly relevant today.

We must become more aware of the over-weening power of bureaucracies that smother hapless citizens in the absurdities of over-centralisation. Bureaucracies that crush the human spirit until, as Kafka wrote, “we expect errors, not justice”. Bureaucracies that create a world in which the innocent are seen as collateral damage and liberty is stifled by what is “known” to be best by non-accountable experts, the bastard offspring of specialisation. Experts who, as Ghandi explained, “know more and more about less and less”. Television shows like Yes Minister and The Thick of It have strong comedic currency because they play on and make light of the darker side of bureaucracy and politicking.

We must become more conscious of the fact that political and financial elites may collude. Since Bretton Woods, a hybrid, crony, managerialist/cartel capitalism has emerged and become so entangled in political bureaucracies that their respective interests are now barely distinguishable. 

We must become more mindful that political elites use taxpayers’ money - present and future - to prop up financial interests for short-term political ends because they lack the courage or the epistemological framework to build or participate in any grander scheme. Meanwhile, financial behemoths sit secure in the knowledge that the state increasing its mandate usually ensures smaller and smaller competitors drown in an ocean of tape and procrustean regulations.

Free market capitalism  - as Adam Smith explained - is chewed up and spat out by vested interests. The financial system becomes cartelized when it needn’t fear too much about accountability for procedures that would be penalised by true capitalism, e.g. over-leveraging, embezzlement, misrepresentation of risk etc, because it is in cahoots with the government.

Voters are to be mollified, nullified, manipulated, patronised, agreed with, but never genuinely consulted. Political science’s wildest dreams are being fulfilled. PR has replaced democracy. We consume images rather than participate proactively. The quango has replaced the referendum.

Late Man has no need of Demos. This is the age of the expert. Late Man has no need of principle. This is the age of the pragmatist.

But without Peoples and Principles you have amorphous, indifferent masses, leveled before the throne of equality, forcibly ruled by nothing higher than the un-rooted interests of elites. This is not dystopian in the conventional sense of the world, in fact it sounds like a fairly pleasant farm. But if you believe Man has a higher end than that of a farm animal, and that we should not be, as Weber warned, trapped in “an iron cage of rationality”, then it is certainly not a satisfactory curtain call to the grand endeavour begun by men such as Abraham and Socrates.

This technocracy is something Orwell saw coming from a mile off. The joke doing the rounds on social media is that that Nineteen Eighty-Four was meant to be a warning not an instruction manual, but it is received with a bitter, hollow laughter because we understand that the obfuscation has begun. Language has become malleable and reality with it. What’s worse is that nobody is quite sure who or what the puppet-master is or whether the herds are simply lurching purposelessly. Trends are transparent enough though.

Once only the fringes of opinion were considered taboo and controversial. Now even critical demeanor, aside from a self-prescribed and typically narrow scientific priesthood, is almost imperceptibly coming under attack. The soft umbrella terms are consensus and unity, the underlying reality is conformity and insincerity. Genuine intentions are hidden behind walls of unfathomable birtspeak, platitudes and the sheer size and length of paperwork.

Those that do challenge the “consensus” suffer ad hominem attacks, which usually work because very few people possess a flawless past, or the political goalposts are simply moved so that historically positive terms such as “progressive” mean little more than “x supports your agenda” and negative terms such as “reactionary” means that “x does not”.

The elasticity is classic Foucault. The elites have learned to wield power so effectively that it produces a culture that can be manipulated by its producers. It is nothing less than epistemological bullying, but it is incredibly effective.

Some refuse to be hoodwinked. Ludwig von Mises famously asked, “Who is ‘reactionary’ and who is ‘progressive’? Reaction against an unwise policy is not to be condemned. And progress towards chaos is not to be commended.”

They are the ones who will not stumble blindly back into the chains that the Enlightenment offered to break.

Follow Henry on Twitter @TheHolySmoke

Britain does need a banking inquiry

Michael Economou 10.30am

The late historian Ronald Syme wrote, “In all ages, whatever the form and name of government, be it monarchy, republic, or democracy, an oligarchy lurks behind the façade.”

It is difficult to argue that twenty-first century Britain is any different. Recent revelations in public life have begun to unveil a network of power, privilege and wealth that exercises a disturbing control over our country.

Politicians of all parties toady to media moguls and millionaires, trading policies for good stories and donations, while cabals of journalists and bankers abuse the system for profit.

The twisted mask concealing this state of affairs has developed cracks, through which we have glimpsed the true face of institutionalised corruption and an esurient elite. Cash for honours, the parliamentary expenses scandal, phone hacking, endless tax avoidance tales, and now the scandal of rate fixing among our major banks - these are all symptoms of the same disease, an economic and political culture built on cronyism and deceit.

The solution has never been reactionary leftism, anarcho-capitalism or any other sinister ideology pedalled by fringe politicians. The cure is sustained, old-fashioned One Nation conservatism that genuinely tries to end the frightening gap between the rulers and the ruled.

The Government should embrace calls from across the political spectrum for an inquiry into the British banking industry. The Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, has argued against such a step on the grounds that “there must be many people who work in banking today who know that they are honest, hard-working and feel they have been let down by some of their colleagues and indeed their leaders.”

But this is precisely why we need an inquiry. The actions of a few rotten bankers are destroying the reputation of an entire industry. Just this year, banks have been attacked for mis-selling PPI, fixing Libor rates, and mis-selling interest rate swaps to small businesses. It is unlikely to end there.

What should we expect from a banking inquiry? Hopefully enough information for the Government to carry out the sensible reforms needed, rather than the futile and punitive tax rises that the Tories and the Labour party have used to get one over each other, and which act merely as punishment rather than rehabilitation.

Moreover, fish rot from the head down. If we don’t insist on better leadership from those at the top, then Britain shall sink under its own cynicism and disillusionment. Of course, a banking inquiry would only be a relatively small step, but it is necessary for us to fix thoroughly the banking system, build a new conservative consensus, and make sure that the British people don’t turn in their (entirely justified) revulsion to the sort of political movements that can only make things worse. It is time to smoke out the rats and put our economy in order.

Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelEconomou

Big game week on Lord Justice Leveson’s savannah

Nik Darlington 9.28am

The Leveson sideshow is on its way out of town after a stage run of more than 6 months. The press, to varying extents, has afforded the inquiry an importance it probably does not deserve, which is odd considering Lord Justice Leveson’s quarry is the press itself.

This week is ‘big game’ week, when the elephants, rhinos and other titans of the animal kingdom sit in the cross-hairs of the wooden inquisitor, Robert Jay QC.

Yesterday brought a rare sight indeed. Pine martens are seen in public more often these days than Gordon Brown, hidden away as they are in their Scottish refuge. I can drag this analogy further still. Pine martens are said to be reducing Britain’s population of invasive grey squirrels. The Murdochs are not grey squirrels, but for many they have an invasive characteristic; and Mr Brown grumbled into the hearing yesterday with one thing in mind, to eradicate the miserable memory of the Murdoch press.

I have enormous sympathy with Mr Brown for the coverage of his son’s cystic fibrosis. It was a reprehensible and unprofessional act by the NHS worker(s) who passed on the sensitive information to the Sun. And it was a despicable editorial decision by Rebekah Brooks’ to publish the story. On the front page. We have no reason to disbelieve Mr Brown’s assertion that he and his wife were presented with little more than a fait accompli by the Sun's editor.

But an innocent bystander in the vicious briefing wars that beset Tony Blair’s premiership and his? Gordon Brown is pulling a fast one of the highest order.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, also appeared yesterday, with an air of such relaxed insouciance to be bordering on blasé. The only moments of uneasiness centred on questions to do with his relationship with Andrew Coulson, whom Mr Osborne had a big hand in hiring, though even then he was let off lightly.

Today we have an appearance from the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, who I’m sure shall enlighten Lord Leveson with his sycophantic tailcoat trailing at smug News International cocktail parties.

We will also be hearing from another, greatly more respected, former prime minister, Sir John Major. If Gordon Brown is the leopard that never changes his spots (he might look like a grey elephant these days, but on yesterday’s evidence his memory is not up to a pachyderm’s exacting standards), then Sir John is the august old lion, long retired but still surveying the field.

You don’t have to be much in the know to know that Sir John Major has some very strong views about the role of the press. Who wouldn’t after the treatment unfairly dealt to him during the 1990s? It is unlikely to add anything of material note to the Leveson Inquiry’s proceedings - more colour than censure - but it could be one of the more fascinating sessions of one of the more miserable political inquiries.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Publish and (don’t) be damned – just don’t do anything illegal

Stuart Baldock 12.55pm
Lord Justice Leveson, at the beginning of his inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, stated:
The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?”
The answer is definitely not Government regulation and thankfully the Government appears to agree. Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, talking to Andrew Marr, stated:
“I think everyone recognises we don’t want the state regulating content. We have one of the most lively free presses in the world, they make life for me and my colleagues extremely uncomfortable and it is part of keeping us on the straight and narrow”.
Imagine a nightmare scenario: a future Government may disapprove of a line of enquiry been undertaken by the press and simply decrees the topic to be ‘out of bounds’. For example, reporting on inadequate military equipment prior to a military campaign could be blocked on flimsy ‘national security’ grounds. This may seem farfetched - even absurd - but if Government regulation of the press is allowed there is no telling where it may end.

The answer to ‘who guards the guardians’ is simple. Who are supposed to be the ‘guardians’ of society’s rules – the police? The police have been complicit in these scandals too, something we are not reminded of enough.
There are already enough laws on the statute book to govern the conduct of the press – transgressions simply need to be investigated and punished.
  • The Prevention of Corruption Act (1906) means it is illegal to bribe a Crown agent (Police Officers and other Government employees are classed as Crown agents) in order to obtain confidential information.
  • The Computer Misuse Act (1990) amended by Part 5 of the Police and Justice Act (2006) forbids unauthorised access to computer material. This Act forbids hacking an individual’s email account for instance.
  • The Data Protection Act (1998) made it illegal to gain unauthorised access to confidential databases, such as telephone records and bank accounts.
  • The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) makes intercepting someone’s voicemail (unless you are the Police or Security Service with a warrant) illegal.
While there is a possible public interest defence if journalists violate the Data Protection Act, there is not a public interest defence if the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the Prevention of Corruption Act, or the Computer Misuse Act are broken.

Granted, none of these laws specifically target the press – but journalists are bound by them like the rest of society.

The question has to be asked – do we need further legislation? I would argue no. Further legislation risks the press not being able to be an ‘essential check on all aspects of public life’ and may seriously hamper investigative journalism.

The UK is only twenty-eighth on the Reporters Without Boarders (RWB) Press Freedom Index – behind countries such as Namibia, Mali, and Costa Rica. The UK is so low on the list in part due to our anarchic libel laws which allow rich ‘libel tourists’, both individuals and corporations, to sue for damages in the UK, even if comparatively miniscule number of people read the ‘offending’ article in the UK.

The UK is also low on that list because of the number of ‘super-injunctions’ issued by our courts. Most of these are the consequence of the rather generous interpretation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private life, his home and his correspondence”.
When drafted in 1950 in the aftermath of the Second World War, its intention was so that your children could not be co-opted into a Hitler Youth type organisation, or that you would not be dragged out of your bed by a Gestapo-like entity. Article 8 was not drafted to protect people who have a predilection for sex with someone other than their established partner.
What if a newspaper is wrong? Lord Leveson could set-up a reconciliation service to quickly resolve disputes with a back-up of penalties if either side acts unreasonably.
Rather than punishing newspapers financially, the service should punish errant newspapers in column inches. An apology should be published in the same font as the incorrect article and on the same page, even if that happens to be on the front page, and damages should be paid. If the article is true, newspapers should be able to publish it all over again.
Follow Stuart on Twitter @stuartbaldock