Muddying the waters or walking a fine line? Cameron’s Response to the Leveson Enquiry

By Professor David Owen

In his response to Lord Justice Leveson’s report and recommendations, David Cameron expressed ‘some serious concerns and misgivings’ about the recommendation – crucial in Leveson’s view – that the new independent self-regulatory body be underpinned by statutory legislation. These concerns, Cameron states, ‘break down into issues of principle, practicality and necessity’.  Now obviously one might take a purely cynical line about Cameron’s motivations for these reservations but irrespective of his motivations, it is worth considering the merits of these misgivings and their grounds. So let’s take them in turn.

  1. ‘The issue of principle is that for the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.’ Well, note first that the press is already subject to regulation by, for example, criminal and civil law,  so the objection has to be that legally underpinning the independent regulation of media ethics is the problem. But note that the legal underpinning of independent regulation of professions is a widespread process for dealing with other important areas of life were the professions in question have the capacity to cause serious harm to members of the public. Thus, for example, the ethical standards of both the legal profession and the medical profession are regulated in this way. Does this amount to political regulation of the ethical conduct of lawyers, judges and doctors? It is hard to see why one would think so. We are not concerned that we don’t have a ‘free judiciary’ on these grounds. So we would need to be told what is special and distinctive about the press. Such an argument, to be a principled one, would have to show that statutory underpinning of independent regulation is necessarily incompatible with the press performing the functions for which it is rightly valued in a democratic society – and it is hard to see what such an argument would be.
  2. ‘On grounds of practicality, no matter how simple the intention of the new law, the legislation required to underpin the regulatory body would I believe become more complicated.’ But the fact that a constructing a simple body may need complex legislation is not itself an objection at all. One’s local cricket club may have a very complex constitution that commands the consent of its members and actually enables it to run smoothly and fairly. The type of response that Cameron is making only serves as an objection if we think that complex underpinning legislation allows for political manipulation that effects, in some systematic way, the decisions of the independent regulator. So here it is sensible to look at examples like Ireland and Denmark to ask whether we can discern such effects. The mere abstract logical possibility of such a problem does not itself amount to a significant objection.
  3. ‘Third, on grounds of necessity – I am not convinced at this stage that statute is necessary to achieve Lord Leveson’s objectives.’ It is obviously hard to conclusively show that statute is necessary but unless the objections from principle and, particularly, practicality can be made considerably more compelling than they are, this is not a serious objection in the face of the clear evidence that previous non-statutory forms of regulation have failed. To make this objection stick, it needs to be shown that there is a credible alternative. Absent such a demonstration, the appeal to necessity does no work.

So is Cameron muddying the waters or walking a fine line. It is too early to tell. But it seems that the last chance saloon is still open – so, for the moment, Fleet Street can still say ‘Doubles all round.’

Leveson, press freedom and conservatism

By Will Jennings

The publication this afternoon of the 2,000 page Leveson Report into the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the press’ and (lest we forget) its contacts with politicians and the police is going to be just the start of an intense ideological debate over regulation of the media (also in a state of intense introspection and internecine warfare with the recent crisis at the BBC), as well as potentially adding to the political troubles of the Cameron government, and its close ties to the Murdoch empire and its former lieutenants. It may decide the fate of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and comes on the same day that David Cameron’s former communications director, Andy Coulson, appeared in court over alleged illegal payments to public officials. The Leveson Inquiry has shed some light on the complex relationship between politicians and the press, but much bigger questions remain unanswered. Indeed, many are obfuscated by the self-serving and disingenuous protests of some sections of the press. What does freedom of the press mean? Is it freedom to publish what it likes, when it likes? Is it freedom to hold government to account? The press itself is of course not free. We must pay for it, and perhaps we as consumers should take a long hard look at ourselves for funding the sort of salacious chequebook journalism that we so readily pooh-pooh. The press on both the left and the right is owned by proprietors of some description (whether they are individuals, corporations or trusts), whom editors ultimately are paid by and must answer to (despite protestations of day-to-day independence from editors). And all journalists must operate within this context, where they may have a degree of latitude to pursue stories, but ultimately are not free to pursue any story at any cost targeted at anyone. There are unspoken norms and understandings concerning the priorities and restraints that journalists working in any media organisation adhere to. The press may hold government to account for its actions but it is not necessarily answerable to citizens (to its consumers perhaps but this is not the same thing), even if a healthy and active press is a key component of a democracy. Too many of the press are willing to lap up their own rhetoric about the nature of press freedom far too readily and far too unquestioningly.

The inability of the press (with the honourable exception of the Guardian) to pursue the allegations of phone hacking, and more recently the belated willingness to ‘speak truth to power’ in the case of child abuse allegations only after most of the influential and powerful perpetrators have died only serves to show the malaise of the press as a protector of democracy, and the essential lie that ‘freedom’ guarantees the intrinsic good of the role performed by the media (they may well be, but it is not a benefit that is guaranteed simply by granting freedom). Freedom permits irresponsibility too.

A further philosophical question about freedom remains. Is it the freedom to publish without regard to the freedoms of others? Should press rights come above human rights? If so, why? Why should any media organisation have a right to judge people for what they do in their private lives? These are the sorts of questions that journalists are sadly disinclined to answer. Perhaps the dilemma is too profound. In a talk to C2G2 yesterday, Professor Alan Hamlin discussed his research on analytic conservatism — highlighting the central idea of conservatism that favours the status quo, and the idea that this arises in a concern to protect things that which cannot be returned to their original state – that something is lost by the process of change. Press freedom raises precisely these sorts of issue, and highlights the schism at the heart of modern conservatism and its awkward relationship with press proprietors at the expense of the rights of individuals to personal freedom. The lives of victims of press freedom, such as Christopher Jefferies, Sally Dowler, and yes the cast of celebrities who seem to be dehumanised on account of their status, cannot be changed back. Nor does a sizeable payout compensate for the essential loss of something that cannot be returned. The same is true for the unfounded allegations against Lord McAlpine. In many of these cases of press intrusion, the price of ‘freedom’ to publish with impunity is a loss of some previous untainted state. Given the long history of failure of press self-regulation, and the fact that most of these cases of press intrusion have little to do with the role of the press in holding government to account, Leveson will likely to do little to resolve the underlying philosophical tensions at the heart of debate over the media and democracy.

The World Turned Upside Down…

By Professor David Owen.

The title of this blog expresses a debt to Christopher Hill’s astonishing book The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution which set aside the focus on elite actors in order to take a bottom up view and explore the various radical movements among the lower classes in the mid-seventeenth century. But the ‘upside down’ meme initiated by Hill in order to throw light on events from a different perspective has also recently been the subject of a photography exhibition which in its own way shows how taking a different perspective can help us to see ourselves differently. Any other interesting instances of ‘upside down’? Let the search begin.

C2G2 research showcased in the ESRC’s Britain In 2013 magazine

Research by Professor Gerry Stoker and Dr Will Jennings has been showcased in the ESRC’s annual magazine Britain in 2013, now available at WH Smith High Street and Travel shops, Waitrose, Marks and Spencer, and Boots.

In his research on citizens’ attitudes towards politics, Gerry Stoker observes that there are good reasons for thinking that citizens might not be fixed in their interest in politics. If they thought it as more open they might be drawn in because their voice would count. Alternatively if they thought it was getting worse in its domination by self-serving interests then frustration with what is going could lead to engagement. Survey evidence (in work conducted with Colin Hay at Sheffield University and the Hansard Society) was used to test these positive and negative triggers. It found that just over half were fixed in their preferences. But that of course means half of citizens could be persuaded to shift to greater interest in politics, with the positive trigger outperforming the negative trigger by a ratio of 2:1. Noteworthy also was that younger people were more responsive to both triggers than older age groups. The wider research on which the study is drawn is reported in a PSA conference paper here.

Will Jennings’ research with Dr Jane Green (University of Manchester) considers how the public evaluates political parties on the key criterion of competence. It reveals how public opinion about party competence changes over time and considers the trigger factors that shape gains and losses. Specifically, they find that the public evaluations of competence are subject to a high degree of common movement over time: a major policy failure in one policy area doesn’t just influence perceptions on that policy; it can taint the public’s trust in a party on unrelated issues. In the UK, for example, the ERM crisis in 1992 had long-term repercussions for the reputation of the Conservative Party. This research has constructed indices of party competence in the US, UK, Canada and Australia that are now publicly available (www.competence-politics.co.uk).

Kamil Zwolski on the EU as an international security actor

In a recent article published in Cooperation and Conflict, Dr Kamil Zwolski of Politics & International Relations argues that a holistic approach is important when studying the EU role as an international security actor. At the same time, Kamil identifies problems in adopting such a comprehensive research agenda. The holistic approach entails that the research must include ‘new’ security problems, such as climate change, but also relevant policies and instruments outside the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). However, owing to conceptual, legal and political obstacles, this has been difficult to achieve; as a consequence, existing research on the EU as an international security actor tends to narrow down the focus to just one framework: the CSDP and its operations. This may lead to a distorted image, because the EU’s role in international security surpasses any single policy framework. In his article, Kamil sets the framework for the comprehensive research agenda concerning the EU as an international security actor. Further, he also identifies key obstacles that are making this holistic approach methodologically and conceptually difficult. In this context, the Lisbon Treaty, formally abandoning the pillar structure of the EU, provides an opportunity to mitigate at least some of these roadblocks.

David Owen on EU citizenship and national voting rights

Professor David Owen’s recent interventions on EU citizenship and national voting rights are published in a European Citizenship Observatory e-book, INCLUSIVE DEMOCRACY IN EUROPE, edited by Kristen Jeffers, available here. In this publication, academics, policy-makers, and representatives of civil society explore the history and nature of migrant political participation in Europe and consider policy options for remedying the democratic deficit in light of the political realities of modern Europe. The contributors provide a comprehensive discussion of inclusive democracy in the European Union, considering principles of democracy, conceptions of national and EU citizenship, and the political and institutional practicalities of national and European policy change. The first section brings together contributions from the 2011 Dissemination Conference organised by the European Union Democracy Observatory (EUDO, http://www.eudo.eu ) and co-funded by the European Commission (Lifelong Learning Programme, Jean Monnet action) on Inclusive Democracy in Europe. The second section of the eBook exhibits the EUDO CITIZENSHIP Forum Debate on the voting rights of second-country nationals in the European Union. Contributors to the debate examine the contradictory nature of two of the fundamental rights of EU citizenship: the right to free movement and the right to participate in the political life of one’s country of residence. Those who exercise their right to free movement sometimes forfeit their right to vote in national elections in their country of origin but are also disenfranchised in their country of residence.