I was in the House of Commons Committee Room 9 earlier this week, listening to the 5th sitting of the Defamation Bill Committee (on behalf of English PEN and the Libel Reform Campaign). During the exchanges, Denis MacShane brought to light a case where the Citizens Advice Bureau and others have been threatened with libel action for discussing and criticising civil recovery schemes, specifically the practices of a company called Retail Loss Prevention. Continue reading →
Following Ed Miliband’s speech on national identity on Thursday, we were given a good look at the SNP’s communications strategy for their Independence campaign.
Responding to Miliband’s speech in a BBC interview, Humza Yousaf MSP likened ‘Britishness’ to ‘Scandanavian’ and asserted that an independent Scotland would still be British, by virtue of pure geography.
Later in the day, Alex Neil MSP made the same point on BBC Question Time. This is obviously disingenuous.
A few quick comments on the unfolding phone hacking scandal, and what it says about the double-standards of our society and politics.
First, let us note that the images featured on the front pages of many newspapers yesterday were those of the most iconic cases of recent years. Sarah Payne, hollyandjessica, Millie Dowler, Madeline McCann: the news-stands appeared to be some macabre Abduction Hall of Fame. This is actually a dream come true for rivals of News of the World. It is the invasion of privacy of these families that the rival newspapers are keen to report, because they too know that it is images of these children that sell. And by pasting the famous images onto Page 1, I would say that they too are stepping, once more, into the grief of these families.
Meanwhile, black men and boys (the victims of inner-city stabbings that are far more common than the abduction of white school-girls) don’t seem to be mentioned in the reports. Is this because Glen Mulcaire and his News of the World handlers did not think the stories were sufficiently interesting? Or that today’s politicians and editors judge that an invasion of the privacy of (say) Damilola Taylor’s family would not sufficiently motivate the public, in a way that the Soham murders apparently do? Whichever explanation is closer to the truth, it says something unpleasant about our society and our media. It is ironic that, in expressing outrage at the practices of the tabloids, we fall back on the precisely those assumptions and values that we otherwise claim to despise.
A final note, also related to public opinion. In the chamber of the House of Commons yesterday, the Prime Minister made some throwaway comment about how the phone-hacking scandal was no longer “just about celebrities and politicians”. It is sometimes difficult to remember that both those groups are humans beings too! They deserve precisely the same protection from the law as the families of murdered schoolgirls. The Rule of Law is the Rule of Law. When it is broken, the Prime Minister’s outrage should not be contingent on who the victim is.
Happy Birthday to The Guardian, 190 years old today. In its regular archive feature, the paper presents Its first ever editorial, which features a demand for libel reform:
Nor is the career of the Editor of a Newspaper attended with moral responsibility alone, it is encompassed with dangers; dangers against which the best and purest intentions furnish a preservative. In the present state of the libel law, his duty to his country and himself will often be at variance. Circumstances may imperiously call for a prompt and fearless exposure of deliquency in high places. In the ardour of laudable indignation he may pass those “metes and bounds” which the discretion of the Attorney General assigns to the freedom of the press – he is not permitted either to prove the truth of his allegations, or to negative the averments of the charge against him. In short he is asked to defend himself, where the law (or at least the practice of the Courts) renders defence impossible – he is convicted, and banishment presents itself to his mind as the penalty of a second involuntary or even laudable transgression.
For ourselves, we are enemies to surrility and slander on either side, and though we will not compromise the right of making pointed animadversions on public questions, we hope to deliver them, as that even our political opponents shall admit the propriety of the spirit in which they are written.
Did lettered people really use the word animadversions in everyday discourse? (I promise to do so from now on.) Apart from the flowery nineteenth century language, these are sentiments that could be written today. In fact, a scrutiny committee is takings evidence in Parliament this week on the government’s draft defamation bill. I went to yesterday’s session, chaired by Lord Mahwinney, and the arguments put forward by the Libel Reform Campaign yesterday each find an analogous complaint in the Manchester Guardian’s editorial.
“Circumstances may imperiously call for a prompt and fearless exposure of delinquency” captures the need, still essential today, to firm up defences of public interest. “He is not permitted to prove the truth of his allegations” speaks to the long held complaint that truth is very often irrelevant in high-stakes libel cases (the draft bill has a very welcome clause to rectify this). The phrase about “banishment presents itself to his mind” pompously captures the terrible self-censorship that most publishers, journalists and bloggers routinely engage in when choosing to report on powerful people.
Even some of the critics of the current campaign find their words mirrored by the campaigners of 1821. Professors Alistair Mullis of UEA and Andrew Scott of The LSE also gave evidence to the scrutiny committee yesterday. Their claim is that the libel chill is purely a function of high costs. 190 years ago, The Manchester Guardian article rightly complained about “the practice of the courts”. The costly process by which libel cases are fought – always in the High Court, never in less expensive fora – is undoubtedly a major part of the problem… and has been for nearly two centuries!
I’m glad that the editorial does not neglect to mention a crucial message of the Libel Reform campaign – that reputation is important and responsible journalism must be encouraged. The Manchester Guardian writes this as “we are enemies to scurrility and slander”, which I like.
In one respect though, the short-sighted and unimaginative leader writers of 1821 failed miserably to predict future concerns, and that is with regards to protections for Internet Service Providers. Nowhere in that first editorial can I find an analogy for the “privatisation of censorship” that occurs when lawyers send takedown threats to ISPs hosting controversial content. Measures to protect ISPs from this kind of liability are also absent from the government’s draft bill – a curiously nineteenth century omission. I hope readers of Liberal Conspiracy will instinctively support the inclusion of such a clause into the defamation bill, ensuring that authors take responsibility for their content, not the distant ISPs that provide the server space. A good way to signal your support would be to write to your MP. The Libel Reform Campaign would be exceedingly beholden to those in our number that undertake to do so.
Although there were some fine words on Libel Reform and some interesting proposals on Freedom of Information, most of the discussion in the speech itself, and in questions afterwards, was on control orders and curfews. Clegg refused to outline how these might change, but did say that those who want to see them abolished completely “will be disappointed”.
There was one phrase that Clegg used which is particularly grating on the ears. This was when he said that there were people who ‘we know’ are planning atrocities, but we do not have the evidence to convict them. It stood out, because David Blunket had used precisely the same formulation during his pre-emptive retort on The Today Programme this morning, and I am sure the current and previous Home Secretaries have taken a similar line.
This line of argument sounds tough, plausible and savvy. The speaker gets to burnish his or her credentials as a realist. However, it is a stance that rests on very shaky moral ground. Control orders are a form of pre-emptive detention, and the argument which justifies them is exactly the same as those used by authoritarian governments around the world, when they detain their political opponents.
Moreover, it is a rude and obvious short-circuit of the very basic legal principles. If a Minister ‘knows’ that someone is a danger, then they should be charged and convicted. If there is not enough evidence to convict, then neither politicians, the police nor the general public get to use the word ‘know’ in their rhetoric. There simply is not the epistemological certainty for that kind of claim, especially not in the context of political arguments. A control order is an extreme form of accusation, and Deputy Prime Ministers and Home Secretaries must not be allowed to make such ‘accusations’ and leave them hanging.
As the Home Secretary conducts her review of control orders in the coming months, look out for examples of this rhetoric, “we know, but we cannot convict.” It is a half-formed argument, a question not an answer. It is a cowardly fudge for those who do not want to make the tough decision: do we let these suspects go, or do we allow phone-tapping evidence to be admissable in court? This is the issue at stake, and the phenomenon of control orders is simply a clever device for punting the decision. If Nick Clegg is really serious about restoring civil liberties to British citizens, then he and his Prime Minister need to stop using bad rhetoric, and start making tough choices.
As was debated a few days ago at Liberal Conspiracy, it is very difficult to know what to think about the Swedish allegations against Julian Assange. In such situations one can only hope that the evidence against him is presented in a timely fashion. Then he can be either charged and tried, or released, as the available facts dictate. We will know what to think in due course, there is no need to pre-empt a due process which so far seems to be progressing as it should.
But let us assert one thing right now: the personal exploits of Julian Assange tell us nothing about the morality of the Wikileaks project and it’s recent #Cablegate actions.
If Assange is convicted, watch out for those who use it to cast doubt on the idea and mission of the Wikileaks project. Such arguments will merely be an ad hominem that will add nothing new to the debate around Freedom of Information that the site has brought into sharp focus.
In the arts, many critics take the biographical approach when they analyse artists’ work. The classic questions: Is ‘The Wasteland’ reduced if T.S. Eliot was an anti-semite? Was Paul Gauguin a worse artist because he abandoned his wife and children? We might ask the same questions of political philosophies too: are we to abandon the American experiment because the Founding Fathers were slave owners? I don’t see how (especially when the principles which ultimately guaranteed the freedom from slavery were written by those same men in the Bill of Rights). Likewise, should we abandon the philosophy of Wikileaks if Julian Assange turns out to be a rapist? I think not.
Indeed, the very name of the website argues against this. It would be a very poor sort of Wiki that was vulnerable to a ‘decapitation’ strategy. Surely the whole point of a site worthy of the prefix is that it depends on a community, not an individual. Those who try to propagate the ‘Assange ⇔ Wikileaks’ meme in the next few weeks should be reminded of this.
I think my failure to become outraged or agitated stems from a sense that the Liberal Democrats have fallen into a semantic trap. ‘Manifesto commitments’ are things that you promise to enact when you have Power to do so in Government.
But the situation that the Lib Dems find themselves in does not seem to fulfill the sufficient and neccessary conditions to merit such a desription!
A “U-turn” doesn’t really capture the essence of what has happened – It implies an agency and a mens rea that, by virtue of their Junior status, the Liberal Democrats simply do not possess.
This conundrum will have consequences for future elections. Now we have become used to the idea of coalitions (a prospect more likely if an AV or PR voting system is introduced), the way that political parties put their manifestos to the electorate could change.
The Liberal Democrats might present a ‘Two-Tier Manifesto’ to the voters (although they would never use such a crass term). First, they will present a more general statements of principles and ‘red line’ policies, which they would expect to be a part of any coalition deal.
Then they could present more detailed manifesto commitments, which they understand they may have to ditch if they were the minority partner in the Cabinet. The Greens, the Nationalist Parties and the Unionists might choose to do the same.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives and Labour could publish their own red-lines and general principles, signalling what is up for grabs in coalition negotiations and what would be out-of-bounds.
Such a convention would be a nightmare for those drafting the manifestos, and would lead to much factionalism within the parties around election time… but at least the voters would have a much better sense of what would happen in various coalition scenarios.
Last week, Anthony Painter launched a Digital Election Analysis he wrote for Orange. A key conclusion was the that the eager awaited ‘Digital Election’ we had all been expecting (after the fantastic Obama ’08 campaign) simply failed to materialise, and it was TV wot hung it. My thoughts on the events were blogged elsewhere. However, since Sunny has just posted his provisonal Blog Nation programme, I will offer a quick addendum to my earlier thoughts here, which is simply that it is the Labour Leadership Election which will prove to be the Digital Election we have all been waiting for.
I note that David Miliband is becoming prolific at posting AudioBoos (short podcasts, for those not yet up to speed); and Ed Miliband’s campaign team are turning around a particular type of on-the-hoof, off-the-cuff campaign video with efficiency. Tom Watson MP, former Minister for Digital Engagement, is running Ed Balls campaign, so I am sure we will see some innovative uses of social networking courtesy of the man from West Bromwich. All the candidates seem to have Twibbons, an innovation which I fucking hate but others seem to enjoy.
The difference here, compared to the General Election campaign in April, is time. Much like Barack Obama’s gruelling journey to the White House, the campaign for the Labour leadership will be a drawn-out affair. It will allow all five candidates to experiment with the different technologies on offer, and develop a deeper and more sophisticated conversation with their party… and each other. Groups like Compass, The Fabians, LabourList, Left Foot Forward and, of course, Liberal Conspiracy, will also be able to plan and launch multiple interventions, as will entirely independent initiatives like the unofficial Ed Miliband for Labour Leader campaign. Who knows, we may even see some ‘swift-boating’ or negative campaigns, like #KerryOut – the doomed attempt to unseat Kerry McCarthy MP from Bristol East through the medium of Twitter.
The next hustings event is tonight, and is hosted by the Fabians. Expect your Twitter streams to be cluttered with multiple, competing commentaries. Expect images and video to pop up online before the weekend. There will be no spin room where Machiavellis, Mountebanks and Madelsons can suck our attention away from the substance of what is being said, and the digital commentary will count for much more that it did during the #LeadersDebates in the spring. This is the Digital Election we have been waiting for, so get stuck in.
Take Back Parliament rally, 8th May 2010. Photo by Lewishamdreamer on Flickr
*This post contains excessive alliteration, which some readers may find offensive.
Politics means different things at different times. During the election campaign, it was the politics of presentation: of a leader (and his lovely wife), and of a suitable narrative that you think chimes with the voters.
Now the election is over, we seem to be moving into the politics of game-play and strategy. The discussion centres around what Nick Clegg can force out of the tories, and how to bounce David Cameron into Proportional Representation. Associated with this are the recriminations over failed tactics. For an example, see @hopisen (his debates with @sunny_hundal yesterday were a good example of this kind of politics).
This kind of politics assumes an intransigence on the part of your political opponents, and it is useful to remember that this is not always the case. At this crucial juncture, we need a politics of persuasion too, especially on the case of electoral reform.
The above comments, discussing the Guardian’s Saturday editorial, sits within the second type of politics, the politics of strategy. But as a piece of persuasion, I think the article is very useful.
But the fact remains that victory, under the electoral system we have, means securing a Commons majority. Constitutionally, no other metric matters. If the Conservatives believe that share of vote and lead over the nearest rival should have some moral weight in deciding a winner, they have already conceded a vital point about the need for electoral reform: the proportion of overall support in the country as a whole matters. …
The Tories by contrast are confused about electoral reform. It cannot have escaped their notice that they have suffered as a result of the system they are determined to keep. It is Labour whose results are most inflated by systemic bias. The Tories insist that first past the post delivers clear results, when it has just failed to do exactly that. Conservatives have always grumbled that coalition politics means shadowy deals between parties cobbled together in dingy corridors. The opposite is now proven.
Now, I am not a Tory, but I think this sort of logic that might persuade them. These kinds of arguments need to be in the foreground. My three aspects of politics overlap here: A persuasive argument, presented right, can give your cause a strategic advantage. In this case, if the Conservative party become a little less cold to the idea of electoral reform, that’s a good thing.
There has also been some discussion over political power in the past few days. Here’s Laurie Penny, barging in on that Sunny/Hopi debate I mentioned earlier:
@PennyRed: @sunny_hundal @hopisen yes and no. I think there’s enough damage that only a real defeat, preforably temporary, can make us regroup.
Its little comfort, but the politics of persuasion persists even when the party is out of power.
All of this is a way of saying, that while the Tories and Liberal Democrata hammer out whatever deal they can; while the Labour front bench has been told to keep quiet; and while Gordon Brown keeps a low profile, it would be a good use of Labour supporters’ time to help promote and grow the Take Back Parliament Campaign. The coalition has taken only three days to amass over 41,000 supporters, which is very impressive. However, I think it needs a broader base than the middle-class Lib Dem supporting demographic I saw at the rally on Saturday. This is a practical task that Labourites can take on right now, while we all twiddle our thumbs waiting for opposition.
Merely linking to the article that was the basis for Tim Shipman’s front-page piece shows the real context, debunks the Mail‘s outrage, and exposes their highly partisan agenda. Iain Dale is right: this will backfire on the Conservatives (regardless of whether they actually had a hand in placing the smears), and further highlight The Slow Death of the British Newspaper As We Know It.
A few questions present themselves. The first is the obvious perennial: how deep does this sort of ridicule penetrate into the national conversation? Are these jokes just a distraction for a insular blogosphere, the “Twitterati”, or does the meme spread out enough to properly counter the spin being spread by the Mail?
Social marketers will spend all election trying to answer this question… but whatever the level of influence right now, I think it is safe to say that it grows on a daily basis. Meanwhile, the tabloids diminish in stature. This is now a given.
But what I really want to know, is this: What do the journalists at these outlets really think about the satirical attacks on their paper? I can well imagine a bunker mentality affecting the editorial team at the Mail, or the Express, or the Telegraph – these are intense and high-stakes positions, after all.
But does this attitude extend to, say, a young journalist working on the news desk? Or the sub-editors? Or the music reviewers? Or the poor chap (or chapess) who has to moderate all the angry comments!? What do they think when they see the Daily Mail Headline Generator and the #NickCleggsFault hastag cluttering up their screens? Just as the Mail’s readership is not a monolith, we know that their staff cannot be either.
I would love to know their reaction to these kinds of online surges – and not out of any sense of schadenfreude, fly-on-the-wall, Downfall-type snigger. I think it would be a genuinely useful insight into how major media operations operate in the second decade of the 21st Century.
Any pseudonomynous contributions in the comments would be gratefully received.