By Richard Cottrell
There is only one thing worse than gutter journalism, and that is gutter politics. The British Government has decided that it knows better what people should or shouldn’t read in their newspapers or on the internet and thus becomes the first European government to endorse a system of full blown censorship.
Note: read Richard’s latest articles, “So what did you do in the Argentine Dirty War, Pope Francis?” and “Nazi-type eugenics introduced in the UK as ‘health service’ consigns patients – even babies – to death row“
In part, this is a fall-out from the massive phone-hacking scandal which wracked Rupert Murdoch’s press empire in the UK, provoked the closure of his flagship red top called The News of the World and continues to take a heavy toll among the scribblers of what used to be called Fleet Street.
The other side of the coin is effectively shutting down the Net by imposing penurious penalties on bloggers and web sites that refuse to co-operate with the new word order.
The accounts for the miraculous silence of all but one of the major dailies published in London. With the sole exception of the Daily Mail, buttoned lips are the order of the day. The daily rags cannot believe their luck: their chief enemy leeching readers and influence either takes the proffered keep-out-of-jail co-operation card or face enormous fines.
David Cameron is not a man of exemplary judgment. He is a perfect example of dog-and-bone politics. Once he gets hold of something, he refuses to let go, even though a modicum of common sense would tell him to drop it.
Thus at the height of the phone-hacking of well-known celebrities, he was still exchanging fraternal greetings with the former chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brookes. She and her husband, Charlie Brookes, a wealthy stud trainer, have both been charged in connection with the affair.
As it happens, the pair belong to an exceptionally privileged country mansion set roosting in the PM’s charming Oxfordshire constituency, and unsurprisingly that has been quite sufficient to get the tongues wagging, particularly as some of the e – mails which Cameron sent to La Brookes from Downing Street were, insiders insist, ‘rather salacious.’
To spice matters further, Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, Elizabeth, is another prominent member of the same exclusive country club and horsey circuit. Quintessentially English.
The prime minister thus has a direct – not to say rather compromised – interest in regulation of the press.
But the real seat of the forthcoming gagging of the media – which also targets, Chinese style, the content of foreign-registered blogs – dates to Murdoch’s attempt to grab full control of the B-Sky-B satellite platform. The greedy Aussie already owned a slice and wanted to bag the lot, which raised serious monopoly issues.
Cameron’s response was to openly back the Murdoch bid instead of sagely taking a back seat and allowing the monopoly commissioners to come up with a binding judgment. A neat demonstration of fingerprint-free politics. Not a bit of it. Cameron went to the wicket for the Murdoch team. Hence some of those gooey e-mails exchanged with the flame-haired Brookes, head girl at News International.
Now the nitty gritty.
The ruling Coalition – supported by the purely token ‘socialist’ opposition – has backed away from parliamentary legislation for the quite obvious reason that a press law might not escape a serious mauling – not to say defeat – in the awkwardly independent-minded and invariably cussed House of Lords.
So, using the ancient legislative device of retrieving a Royal Charter from mothballs of centuries, the government will create a complex system of media regulation to which the print media, broadcasters and ‘relevant publishers’ (that means the Net and blogs in particular) will ‘voluntarily submit’.
Both houses of parliament will not be asked to vote on the substance, simply to ‘take note’ of the existence of the Charter.
This is like offering the condemned man in front of the firing squad a see-through blindfold. Here’s what happens if the above organs refuse to co-operate.’
‘No newspaper or blogger would be forced to join the regulator, the Royal Charter system is a system of incentivisation.
However, those ‘relevant publishers’ that choose not to join the regulator would be subject to costs and could be subject to exemplary damages if taken to court. ‘Relevant publishers’ are specifically defined and could include blog sites that are written by multiple authors, have editorial control and are published in the course ofbusiness.’
That’s quite some ‘incentivisation’, wouldn’t you agree?
Whether this obvious stitch-up would survive a test case at the European Commission of Human Rights is another matter. Frankly, I think not. Is it any co-incidence therefore that the government recently declared its intention to take the UK out of the commission, patently before a test case lands in front of those famously feisty foreign judges.
Many of the rich and famous who found themselves entangled in the phone bugging affair formed an ad hoc group calling itself Hacked Off, which in yet another display of contumacy, took part in the secret, wee small hours negotiations between government and opposition that resulted in the Royal Charter wheeze. Publishers or journalists were conspicuously not invited.
The ghost of Sir Oswald Mosley, pre-war leader of the British Fascists, hovers over these proceedings. One of the leading lights in Hacked Off is none other than Max Mosley, son of the old long-gone Blackshirt, widely known as the former boss of the motor racing organization Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA). He is also a tireless champion of those who consider themselves victims of press intrusion, either in print or on the Net, notably himself.
He was apparently present at the grand three-party summit which hatched the Royal Charter cop out. Mosley has had his own run-ins on the reporting of his private life and there can be little doubt that he sees the shackling of the media in general – and the Net in particular – as a personal triumph and the final pay off for all his years of campaigning.
His mother Diana, one of the Famous Five Mitford sisters, used to call her fluent German-speaking offspring der entsschlossener – ‘the determined one.’ This time he has truly lived up to his reputation.
How appropriate. Those who live and breathe the oxygen of publicity and the limelight will in future be protected from anything other than the shoddy tinsel of idol worship.
Charity begins at home, as they say. Members of the House of Commons are paid £65,000 a year yet it seems they cannot resist fiddling their expenses and allowances on a heroic scale. Scarcely a week goes by in which there is no mention of yet another episode of cooking the books, false claims for second homes, inflated invoices for first class railway travel, money charged out to friends and relatives as ‘consultants’, even in the past building duck ponds on country estates. Anyone would think Britain’s politicians were scraping a living.
Nothing would suit the self-serving governing class better than having all these inconvenient exposures kept away from cold print. The Liberal Democrats, junior partner in the Coalition, suffered an especially awkward spectacle in the lead up to the grand censorship summit. One of their former senior colleagues is now currently detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure for lying about some speeding points he transferred to his former wife all of ten years ago.
Applying the new regulations, the commentary leading up to the hearing of this case might be seriously curtailed and thus deny the public at large the information to make their own judgments, of some importance given the special election in the offing to fill the vacant seat. The offence itself and the details thereof are trivial but a serious embarrassment nonetheless because the MP concerned was a top flight Liberal Democrat minister in the coalition government.
The disgraced minister was hunted down by a number of bloggers, but none more so than Paul Staines, whose nome-de-plume is Guido Fawkes (after the great 15th century plotter apprehended while trying to blow up parliament and King James I with it).
The political classes quake at the mere mention of Guido and his boisterous widely read Black Hansard of parliamentary scandals. Small wonder that the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, who is a favorite Guido target, was so keen to reach for the press gag.
Staines has given his firm ‘niet’ to co-operating with the new Press Regulator and so has The Spectator, the world’s oldest (1711) continually published magazine of comment. The Speccie, as it is widely known and revered, is staunchly pro Tory and the decision thus poses a serious problem for Cameron. Will he attempt to prosecute and fine such a great tribune of the Right? The same applies to the demon Staines, who is ordinarily regarded as a scourge of the Left.
It gets worse. The Speccie’s ex editor is Boris Johnson, flamboyant and powerful Mayor of Greater London, who is breathing down the flagging Cameron’s neck for the Number Ten job. This seems be the perfect illustration of unintended blowback, although a more astute mind than Cameron’s would have seen it on the radar. I certainly see a War of the Words. The Spectator’s battle lines have been clearly set out by editor Frazer Nelson: ‘Readers expect us to hold politicians to account, not dance to their tune.’
So what is it now to be, show trials by a Tory led government of two arch-Tory pulpits? The famous riposte, ‘publish and be damned,’ uttered by the iconic victor of Waterloo, the Iron Duke of Wellington, upon receiving some seditious communication, springs to mind.
The United Kingdom has been moving steadily towards an authoritarian state since the explosions on the London Underground in July 2007, which injured 784 passengers and killed 52. Blair’s government began an immediate crackdown on civil liberties in order to ‘preserve freedoms’, though his Home Secretary John Reid was curiously on record a full year before the outrage stating that many precious freedoms might have to go because liberty was ‘being abused by terrorists’.
With one per cent of the world’s population, the UK has more than 20% of the planetary roll out of closed circuit cameras. Anyone trundling around London for the day might be spotted up to six thousand times. The militarized police have given over to pursuing thought crime instead of real crime.
A new Kafkaesque Bill winding its way through parliament allows government the power to hold secret Soviet-style secret court hearings at which the accused individual will not appear, nor be told the charges or even allowed legal counsel. The government will appoint a ‘representative’ – who will not however hold any audience with his ‘client.’
This is not an extract from The Castle or The Trial, but life in a modern nation state of the European Union.
When government creates a system of secret courts, then democracy has vanished out of the window. Secrecy practiced by officialdom always equates with tyranny. Autocrats rule, they do not govern. Ask any former inhabitant of the Soviet Empire, like the millions in Eastern Europe who are now free citizens (at least for the time being, allowing for the EU liberty-crushing juggernaut).
Censorship is another turn of the screw in the slow, deliberate extinction of shrinking civil liberties in the United Kingdom, thanks to the sedation of the population on high octane celebrity worship. The Cult of Diana seeps from the grave, as we see with the steady inflation of her successor, Colgate Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, metastasizing into another identikit fairy goddess manufactured to order.
Royal Family PLC has obviously learnt nothing from the last episode. It means there is no respite from a demure fashion dolly who has nothing better to do than change costumes for the benefit of the paparazzi caravanserai half a dozen times a day.
Further distractions run to all the electronic gadget smog cancelling brain cells, invariably rigged public tournaments such as football and organized Roman games like the ghastly Olympics and the recent ‘royal jubilee.’ When the queen went to hospital the other day with a runny nose, one would have thought the end of the world was nigh, as the combined British media reached for the smelling salts.
The necessity to focus the glare of inquiry on powerful institutions and individuals is one of the key check points in a functioning democracy. There are necessary laws which redress unfair statements and untruths, which is why London’s courts and their generous awards are renowned for libel tourism.
What the suffocating ancient language of the Royal Charter seeks to achieve is a blanket silence wherever and whenever something which is considered demeaning to authority appears in print or the electronic universe.
One of my parliamentary friends calls it ‘the Slap Staines Charter’ because so many of the political elites itch to be rid of the loathsome busy body Guido Fawkes and his endless mischief. Maybe, but what is being done will be hard to undo, given that laws are now made by a cross-party consensus in closed chambers in the witching hours, with carefully invited guests.
The odious Mosley, for example, openly expresses that the government should reach for the kill switch – ‘rip out the wires’ – to castrate the Net. He is to the Net what Herod was to children’s homes.
The hapless Cameron came to power pledged to roll back the Big Brother boulder. Instead we have been given back door identity cards posing as health entitlements, Nazi-style eugenics practiced in government run hospitals, yet more powers and gear for the utterly over-pampered police, secret courts and inquests, US drones operating from UK soil, a tax on domestic spare rooms (there being little else left untaxed) and now full blown censorship.
What is especially depressing is the constant grinding away at personal liberties: the freedom to read what we like, where we like, without monitoring or interference, to be treated as adults within a society which is supposed to be our common property. These are priceless inheritances and they are almost all gone.
UPDATE: The Economist says No to Big Brother censorship
“Society has a choice. If it values freedom from intrusion more than freedom of expression, it needs state regulation. If it regards the Press as so important that freedom of expression must be protected at all costs, then it must avoid state regulation like the plague. We believe society gains more from a free Press than it loses from the tabloids’ occasional abuse of defenceless people … now a late-night deal between politicians could give politicians power over it. Fortunately, their proposal is such a mess that it looks as though it may fall apart.”
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