Shami Chakrabarti has never been loathe to appear in the media. At every conceivable opportunity, up she pops to the extent people joke about her omnipresence.
That’s fair enough – after all, it is her job. But such constant coverage on so many topics also makes it easier to spot issues on which she and Liberty have maintained a peculiar silence.
Last year, it was striking that despite the range of threats to freedom and civil liberties that arose in the hosting of the London Olympics, Liberty had almost nothing to say on the subject. At the same time, Big Brother Watch dealt with a large number of different freedom issues directly related to the Games . There was no shortage of things to be concerned about.
Then, during Danny Boyle’s brilliant Opening Ceremony, Shami appeared – not to protest against the DNA database or the proliferation of CCTV, but to carry the Olympic flag as a “champion” of the Olympic movement. Suddenly the uncharacteristic quiet of the previous months made sense.
Now it’s happening again.
With Leveson’s proposals being mashed into law in a late night stitch-up, 318 years of British press freedom is coming to an end. Exemplary damages are hanging over the heads of bloggers and journalists alike, as a punitive means of forcing people into a supposedly voluntary system. Pens are being blunted for fear of state-backed punishments. And where are Liberty?
Well, they were in the media back in November – welcoming the Leveson plan, including the oppressive exemplary damages and explicitly supporting the idea of regulating the blogosphere.
Then Shami released a statement in December clarifying that, despite speculation, she was still supporting Leveson’s proposal for state-backed regulation of the media. While she opposed compulsory membership of a regulator, she restated her enthusiastic backing for exemplary damages to ensure anyone who did not voluntarily join would be at risk of ruin.
Since then, nothing. Literal silence from the group whose website claims they believe that:
Human rights are indivisible. You cannot pick and choose which rights you want to honour. Many rights depend on each other to be meaningful – so, for example, the right to fair trial would be meaningless without the prohibition on discrimination, and the right to free speech must go hand in hand with the right to assemble peacefully.
They’ve talked about secret courts. They’ve tweeted to raise funds. But they don’t appear to have given a damn about the prospect of three centuries of a free press going down the drain.
Why could that be?
To find an answer, we need to look back to 20th July 2011, when Liberty reported that:
Today it was announced that the director of human rights group Liberty will be one of the panel members of the judicial inquiry into phone hacking.
What happened to human rights being sacred and indivisible? What happened to Liberty’s self-declared status as a fearless group speaking out against any attack on freedom? For that matter, what happened to the meaning of the word Liberty?
It seems Liberty has become a brand, not a concept to fight for. The indivisible has become the malleable – and all those principles have been sold for a scrap of establishment prestige.
If you’re interested in real civil liberties and real freedom, I’d suggest you lend your support to Big Brother Watch and The Freedom Association (on whose Council I am proud to sit). They, at least, won’t sell their souls – or our freedoms – for a moment in the spotlight, or a seat on a prestigious panel.
As the self-appointed arbiter of media standards in the UK, Hugh Grant has a lot of opinions about what is and isn’t ethical journalism. Apparently the Guardian is perfectly ethical, while papers which report on, I don’t know, sex scandals involving English celebrity romcom actors are beyond the pale. Who knows how he settled on that view?
However he came by his moral code carved in stone doesn’t matter, he’s marched down the mountain and has spent several months using the tablets to lay about any who stand in his way.
Except perhaps he should read what they say before using them to clobber others. Take today’s tweet from the Media Moses:
Rumour in Westminster that editor of Times instructedCameron to call off talks. And our PM did as he was told.Murdoch rules.Still.
— Hugh Grant (@HackedOffHugh) March 14, 2013
That’s quite a big claim – that Rupert Murdoch personally ordered the Times Editor to order the Prime Minister to follow a specific policy and set of actions, which the PM immediately obeyed. What starts as a “rumour” has become, by the end of the tweet, supposedly solid fact that “Murdoch rules.”
Surely an ethical reporter would have given some evidence, quoted a source or even given any reason at all to believe it?
In fact, I seem to recall that the Leveson report had something to say about exactly that:
“45. A new regulatory body should consider encouraging the press to be as transparent as possible in relation to the sources used for stories, including providing any information that would help readers to assess the reliability of information from a source”
In short, Hugh Grant is promoting adopting the Leveson proposals by, err, going dead against Leveson’s proposals on evidence and sourcing. His “rumour” could have come from Tom Watson. It could have come from one of Murdoch’s own competitors. For that matter, Hugh Grant could just have made it up – but he has merrily injected it into the public debate, with no evidence or source in sight.
It’s hardly “ethical reporting”, is it, Hugh?
The hyperbole of anti-Murdoch campaigners has reached truly titanic proportions in the last couple of years. Every time you think they’ve outdone themselves there’s always someone willing to go that bit further over the top.
Today’s frothingly bonkers accusation comes from the Hogwarts-sounding Lord Snape, formerly Peter Snape MP, in an interview with Total Politics. Taking a four mile run-up before vaulting the dizzyingly high absurdity bar, he declares:
“…Rupert Murdoch: he’s done more damage to democracy around the world than any dictator or general in my lifetime.”
That’s a rather bold declaration, particularly considering Snape was born in, er, 1942.
Just in case he’s forgotten which dictators have been around since he was born, here’s a handy checklist of some of the most notable for the good Lord to assess the accuracy of his claim.
Tick as appropriate. Has Rupert Murdoch done more damage to democracy than….?
☐ Pol Pot
☐ Chairman Mao
☐ Kim Jong Il
Or, finally, the arguing-on-the-internet classic:
The irony, of course, is that it is Rupert Murdoch’s detractors that accuse him of scare-mongering and over-the-top rhetoric. Perhaps Lord Snape could let us know when Murdoch initiates the Blitz, establishes Gulags, reopens the Killing Fields and/or invades Poland.
Last night, I took part in the new series of podcasts from House of Comments, along with Labour blogger Emma Burnell and Lib Dem Mark Thompson. We covered the big stories of the week, Leveson and the rise of UKIP, as well as a bit of a look forward to what might be in the Autumn Statement.
It would be in my interests for Brian Leveson to support statutory regulation of the press tomorrow.
As Guido Fawkes writes in the Wall Street Journal today, putting a legislative leash around the neck of the mainstream media will only have one effect – to drive a truth-hungry public to online outlets and blogs for real news and honest insight.
This has always happened. When the Warsaw Pact countries and the Soviet Union censored what could be published, people shipped in or built their own presses and produced samizdat – illicit, underground news-sheets and books that circulated in secret. It is notable that the Russian word “samizdat” literally means “self-published”.
Samizdats were never expected to be subject to balance, they were explicitly written from a particular perspective and, most of all, they gloried in saying whatever they wanted – not saying what others demanded they say.
If, 50 years ago, people’s hunger for a free speaking press was sufficient that they were willing to transport and conceal large pieces of industrial machinery, the internet will have a far easier job of it.
Information is a commodity in its own right. It can be bought and sold, it can be given away or stolen, its price can be increased or devalued. And just the same as any other commodity, the one thing that cannot be done to it is successful prohibition.
The problem – and those who dislike our free press do view it as a problem – is the twin, trickster forces of supply and demand. The more people are interested in something, the higher its price rises and the harder it is to keep secret. The harder you try to keep it secret, the larger the incentive becomes to leak it – be it for cash or cachet.
This is what happened with MPs’ expenses. Yes, Heather Brooke fought a brilliant legal battle for the public’s right to know, but the scandal really broke when the censorship practiced by Commons authorities created such a high-paying Black Market that an insider was willing to sell the data to the Daily Telegraph.
These forces are inevitable, irresistible and they won’t be changed by legislating to make our press unfree. If the Daily Telegraph hadn’t been in a position to buy and publish MPs’ expenses, then someone else would have done so – on the internet, offshore and out of reach of the fat, black marker pens of Westminster’s quiet censors.
For goodness’ sake, the net filtering out forbidden commodities isn’t even tight enough to catch guns, grenades and tonnes of drugs – can anyone really believe it could be made tight enough to catch something as small and as fleet of foot as knowledge?
So I, and Guido, and a thousand other blogs yet to be born would be in a pretty good position should Brian Leveson persuade the Government to end three hundred years of British press freedom. Advertising would increase, traffic would boom, and everyone would be able to feel every shade of smug about their latest Google Analytics numbers.
But you won’t find me cheering for it. What would be the attraction of being a more widely read, or even a richer, libertarian in a country that has become less free? No, I’d rather miss out on the opportunity, thank you very much, Brian.