the freedom of the press

Many many years ago, I was news commissioning editor for a student newspaper.

I think it was quite a good student newspaper: the editorial team were all pretty good writers, and we spent most of our weekends rewriting the things people had contributed, to make sure the whole thing was of readable quality. The paper got a few scoops, a few awards, and one of our columnists even got a few death threats.

One night I sat behind some undergraduates on the student bus to Leamington, listening to them rave about how good one of my articles was. There was no photo next to the article, so they had no idea that it was me sitting right behind them; but it made me happy.

But in retrospect, the thing I am most proud of as a news editor was not something we published; it was something we didn’t publish. A name.

He was from Africa somewhere, I think. Or possibly South-East Asia.

We had all the details right there at the time: I remember thinking he had quite a distinctive name, although of course I don’t now remember what it was. He was an international student so we weren’t sure if he was going to be deported or tried in the UK, but we did know he was in big trouble. He had, it was alleged, downloaded a load of child pornography and then, forgetting that there was a campus intranet set up where everyone could access each others’ files, left them visible to every single other person on campus.

I’ve heard it argued that it is possible to exhibit a level of stupidity which borders on immorality; if this is true then he had been doubly immoral.

The story had everything that the reactionary press at the time went nuts for: a foreign immigrant (check) paedophile (check) student (check), coming over here and living in our very midst! The Daily Mail or the Express would have squealed with sensationalist joy over it. If only he’d been a single mother as well, it would have been the perfect story.

We had to publish it, of course – everyone was talking about it already and even though the whole thing felt uncomfortably like we were straying into Mail-lite territory, we would have been remiss as a newspaper if we had just ignored it. We ended up putting it on the front page, too, at the insistence of the Editor, who had the final say over these things. I seem to remember the write-up was something of a team effort, and unlike most front-page stories nobody particularly wanted their byline on it.

There was, however, one thing we didn’t have to publish: the actual identity of the young man who had been arrested.

We talked about it at very great length before going to press. Would it be better to publish all the details we could, including the foreign paedophile’s name? We checked the dubious expertise of the two Law undergraduates we called our ‘legal’ department, and they said there would be no legal problem with naming him. And people would want to know a name, it was argued. It would make the story a better story. The doctrine of the free press holds the principle that information must not be suppressed if people want to know it.

On the other hand, we thought – well, I thought – what actual good would it do? Who would it help? If the allegations were true, the kid was obviously a pervert, and people would want to know if there was a dangerous pervert roaming around campus. But the thing was, he hadn’t been officially convicted yet, and if he was convicted then he certainly wasn’t going to be around campus any more to be a danger to anyone. So naming him would hardly make things better.

And then, of course, there was the online edition. Our website was getting a lot of hits so we had reason to believe that anyone who googled his family name, anywhere in the world, would see our story. It would, inevitably, bring shame on his family in his home country. And we had no idea what other consequences.

We argued, and I made the case that while I agreed with the principle of a free press, when we weighed up the overall good to be gained against the overall harm to be done, then on this occasion the principle could go hang.

And so we voted on it.

The death of Lucy Meadows this week reduced me pretty much to a blubbering wreck. A blubbering, almost violently furious wreck.

And not just at Richard Littlejohn. Yes, he is a publically cunty figure and if I heard that he had befallen some terribly painful infection to his male genitals that he seems so keen to celebrate then I would laugh for many, many happy hours.

But Littlejohn wasn’t alone. Lucy Meadows had contacted the Press Complaints Commission to complain about photographers and journalists outside her house at New Year, and Littlejohn hadn’t been one of them. There were many other newspapers which printed stories about her, and hadn’t broken any laws in doing so, so the police could do nothing.

And the PCC couldn’t do anything either, of course: they were an entirely useless organisation that couldn’t protect the contents of a sealed can of catfood from a cat with its claws removed. Or at least, it couldn’t protect the people who needed protecting. The PCC was a self-regulatory body, with no statutory legal backing, that was run by the newspapers themselves.

That was what Leveson said, wasn’t it? That self-regulation hadn’t worked, and that the result was that the press have “wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people”?

But they haven’t done it because they want to; They have done it because they hold to the principle that if people want to know something – and they are prepared to buy your paper to find it out – then the press must have the freedom to tell them the truth, or at least whatever portion of it they want to hear, and it must be published.

At any cost.

John Stuart Mill, in his masterpiece On Liberty, gives a compelling defence of freedom of thought, speech and publication, with which I agree. He is (as am I) quite radically liberal on the freedom of genuine, open thought and discussion; far more liberal than most of the journalists and politicians who have grumbled, in their classically fallacious slippery-slope-argument way, about the ‘rubicon of press regulation being crossed’.

But even Mill does not argue for 100% untrammelled freedom of speech:

An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard. Acts of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavorable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind. The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people. But if he refrains from molesting others in what concerns them, and merely acts according to his own inclination and judgment in things which concern himself, the same reasons which show that opinion should be free, prove also that he should be allowed, without molestation, to carry his opinions into practice at his own cost.

Mill could be easily misinterpreted here to say that circulating hateful views through the press is permissible, while delivering them “orally to an excited mob” would not. But this is to miss Mill’s point.

What Mill is saying is that we should be permitted to say, print, sing, whatever you like, as long as it is not likely to cause harm to others. By all means defend your views, your interests, and the interests of those you care about – and of course, if this involves publishing angry articles about the policies of your government or state in order to hold them accountable, then we must be free to do this.

But do not think that a defence of free expression must be unlimited. It must be limited, and limited by a more basic principle – the principle that we must try not to bring about harmful consequences to others for no good reason.

The principle of a free press is absolutely worth holding in a liberal society, most of the time. But principles are only worth adhering to, to they extent that they bring about the best consequences in real situations.

A more basic principle is that no principle at all can be beyond scrutiny by its consequences. When you don’t know how many harmful consequences will be caused by adherence to that principle, but you have reason to believe it will do more to fuck up the lives of innocent people than it will do good, then it is the principle that has to be lost.

The principle of a free press says that the press must be able to publish whatever they like as long as it isn’t false, and many journalists believe that principle is so important that it comes before the consequences, or before any other principles which might be relevant.

Like, the principle that one should not doorstep people after personal tragedies. Or the principle that one should not bully people over their gender to the point of suicide.

Or the very basic principle of just not trying to fuck up innocent peoples’ lives when they aren’t really harming anyone. (And no, a teacher changing their gender does not, by itself, harm schoolchildren. Not like constant barrackings in the press can really harm someone).

It seems so obviously wrong to most of us to think that the principle of a free press might trump the principle of not fucking up innocent people’s lives. But a lot of journalists don’t mind fucking up people’s lives. Because a lot of journalists are bastards.

The difference between liberalism and anarchy is that liberalism – unlike anarchism – recognises that for most of us to be free, we do need to try and stop the bastards. Because bastards, as we know, can’t regulate themselves.

I won the vote, and while we published the story, we didn’t publish the name of the paedophile student.

And I was pleased – not for the kid himself, he would have deserved it. But his family didn’t deserve to have their name associated across the internet with something like that. Not when it would have done no good to anyone at all. And that student newspaper, which I loved, deserved better than to be reduced to seedy xenophobia-tinted tittle-tattle.

On that occasion, we regulated ourselves. Only one of us voted to name the guy. (It’s not a coincidence that he is the only one who went on to work as a professional news journalist.)

A few weeks later, a former writer for the student paper came back from his work experience at the Express to give us some ‘training’. He kept asking, why we didn’t name the paedophile? Why didn’t we name him?

I explained our reasoning.

But you could have named him, he kept saying. You should have named him!

I explained again.

And then he explained, that if we had competition from another paper, we would have named him. We would have had to. And that anyone who wants to be a successful journalist had to be prepared to do that kind of thing if they wanted to succeed.

At the time, he said this in a way which was so arrogant that I wanted to punch him right in his nasty troublemaking hack mouth. But afterwards I had to acknowledge that he was right.

I had wanted to be a journalist since I was thirteen. I loved working for that student newspaper more than I had loved almost anything I’d done before that. But after that day, I decided I didn’t want to be a journalist any more. And instead, I became a teacher.

I guess my point is that I’m glad that the government seem to have now recognised that the press need proper regulation, and hopefully the Royal Charter solution will get us some way there.

But there is also this: that there may be precious little to console the pure, bitter rage many of us are feeling that some fucking evil bastard journalists have managed to destroy a teacher this week. But for me, there is some small consolation to think there was at least one occasion where they created one.

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diary of a floating voter, part one

It has occurred to me recently that I must be the thing that all politicians are trying to find: a genuine, bona fide, floating voter.

I exist! And not only do I exist, but I’m politically engaged enough to actually go and vote. And I honestly don’t have a clue who to for in the 2015 general election – or even if I will vote at all.

So I’m going to keep track, on this blog, of which way I’m leaning.

By coincidence, I am also a 100% accurate bellwether voter: in the three general elections in which I have been eligible to vote so far, I have always voted for the winning MP in that constituency, and the party I have voted for has gone on to be in government. (I voted Labour in 2001 and 2005, and Liberal Democrat in 2010).

But I haven’t seen much evidence since 2010 that either of those parties deserve another vote from me. I would call myself, broadly speaking, a kind of socially-conscious modern liberal, so ideologically I suppose I ought to vote Lib Dem, and I think Nick Clegg has his heart in the right place; but I have been bitterly disappointed by the Liberal Democrats’ weakness in the coalition.

And while I grew up supporting Labour, I still feel betrayed by their record in government. It was partly over Iraq, civil liberties and their economic reliance on a banking and housing bubble that means only those of my generation with parental wealth will be able to afford a place to live in twenty or thirty years. But it’s also the way they governed: they were so obsessed with spin and appearance that they lost sight of doing the right thing.

I don’t think I’d ever vote Tory; and yet I sometimes think – although I say it quietly amongst my more lefty friends – that David Cameron is actually quite an intelligent and reasonable fellow. So while I would feel like a terrible traitor for doing so, I wouldn’t rule out a Conservative vote, if only I could be persuaded that Cameron can get his more reactionary backbenchers in line.

On the other hand, I’ve also been impressed with some of the Green Party’s achievements in Brighton, as well as some of their more socially liberal policies.

Basically, I’m anybody’s.

(Well, maybe not UKIP’s. But that doesn’t make much difference: I know plenty of old Tories who say they’d vote for UKIP now, but they’d never take the risk of voting for them in a general election if it meant Labour would get back in. So it’s my vote rather than theirs that the Conservatives need if they ever want to get another majority.)

To scale things up a notch, I am determined to vote in a marginal seat in 2015. It’s looking likely that I’ll be in a Labour vs. Lib-Dem marginal constituency; but if not then I intend to register at my mum’s house in Northampton North – a three-way marginal at the last election – to make sure that my vote really counts.

So I am basically the guy that any party needs to persuade if they want to get into government at the next general election. If they can persuade me, then they’ll probably be on the right lines.

With this in mind, I should say that what I’d really like is to be won back by Labour. The trouble is that they just can’t seem to stop doing things which come across to a floating voter like me as annoying party politicking. Ed Miliband always seems to be trying to make jokes and snide remarks at Prime Minister’s Questions rather than presenting a credible alternative. And I like jokes, but he’s no Beppe Grillo.

And then, this week’s Labour proposal of adopting the Lib Dems’ Mansion Tax policy would have been a welcome one, if it had been a genuine pledge to recognise the merits of that policy and include it in the 2015 manifesto. But it transparently wasn’t that, because there was no such pledge, just a clumsy attempt to make Clegg et al look like they had abandoned the policy (and therefore, we were supposed to assume, their principles). Since pretty much everyone who voted Lib Dem in 2010 is now reconciled to the fact that the Lib Dems have made compromises in order to do things like getting Gay Marriage passed and protecting the Human Rights Act, it just looked like a stunt. Why rub the Lib Dems’ noses in it that they’re locked into a coalition agreement that means they can’t get everything they want right now? They wouldn’t be able to get it from the opposition benches either.

Labour, and Ed Miliband in particular, don’t need to win Tory voters to win the next election. But they do need to win back the people who deserted them to vote for the Lib Dems in 2010. The trouble is, they don’t seem to understand why we deserted them – it was because they were too busy trying to keep power to think about coming up with policies that would improve people’s lives. They took their voters for granted.

They have a long way to go before they look like a government. And until that happens – I’m open to solicitations. Even from UKIP.

this new government might just be quite good – thanks to new labour

Okay, I’m going to say it: the outcome of this election is – so far – pretty much the best that any liberal or social democrat could have hoped for. Better, in fact.

There, I’ve said it.

Why would I say such a thing? Have I gone mad? How could I be satisfied – hopeful, even – about the idea of a Conservative government, having struggled so hard against it? How could I be pleased that the Liberal Democrat party I voted for, campaigned for in the hope it would help keep the Tories out, have helped it to happen?

Well for one thing, I might be a Liberal Democrat now but I still love the Labour Party, and this result is actually very good for them. They are in a position where they have not only proved they still have a lot of loyal support and can rack up a respectable number of seats in parliament, but they also have a batch of really good, smart potential leaders who are ready to rejuvenate the party now that they don’t have to worry about running the country.

For Labour this may even have been – and I think, deep down, they know it – a good election to lose. They won’t have to be the ones making the cuts, and they’ll be a better party after they’ve had a rest and regrouped. Plus, of course, they are the only opposition now. When it comes to Prime Minister’s Questions that will count.

But that’s not the main reason why I’m hopeful. The main reason I’m hopeful is that, having read the coalition agreement between the Tories and the Lib Dems, it’s actually really quite good.

I mean, it’s not perfect: Trident will still be replaced; any idiot will still be able to open their own schools and expect other schools in the area to pay for it; and the idea of ditching the Working Time Directive should appall anyone who’s ever felt their employer might be stealing their life.

But when you look at what the Lib Dem negotiators got in return, it’s just remarkable – it’s almost frightening to see just how far the Conservatives have come.

In particular, the tax agreement that will help people on low incomes (rather than the disgustingly unjust inheritance tax cut the Tories originally proposed); the pupil premium for poorer students; the commission to separate investment and retail banking (which has got Vince Cable’s delicate, expert fingerprints all over it); the fully elected House of Lords – elected by proportional representation, for goodness’ sake…

It’s almost hard to believe that this is the same party at all.

The reason for this, of course, is that under David Cameron’s leadership, it isn’t the same party any more. I’m not quite sure what it is; it’s some kind of capitalist party, of course, but a surprisingly liberal one which is prepared to increase funding for the NHS and scrap ID cards and give tax breaks to low earners.

Which means that everything we thought we knew about the Conservatives: the nasty party; the wreckers of lives; the slashers of schools and the NHS; the police-state Thatcherites we were fully justified in hating…it all goes out of the window.

And with it, perhaps, goes our dogmatic party tribalism, and our ridiculously over-simplistic ‘left-wing/right-wing’ distinction (which never fully accounted for the authoritarian/liberal difference which really matters). And in its place comes this seemingly genuine talk of fairness and reform and collaboration.

But what, you might ask, if it’s all a con? What if our instinctive Tory-hating was right, if Cameron is a bizarre anomaly, and the Conservative backbenchers who represent the ‘real’ Tory party intend to smile now but wreck it all later? Well then, it will be those ‘real’ Conservatives’ fault, everyone will know it, and they’ll be punished by a resurgent Labour Party at the next election for sabotaging a promising new kind of collaborative politics.

And if it works? Then it will have been proved that coalitions can work, and that a fairer electoral system would not lead to unstable governments at all. Basically, it’s a win-win situation.

And who is to thank for this? Gordon Brown.

Well, Brown and Blair, really – New Labour. Blair and Brown forced the Tories to change or face permanent opposition – Tony Blair even once said something along the lines of that his job would only be done when the Conservatives had completely abandoned Thatcherism. And, in getting David Cameron – and, of course, the Liberal Democrats – into government, it looks like maybe they have.

I’m not saying I’d ever vote Tory, of course; and I’m as surprised to be saying this as anyone – but…perhaps this is a Conservative government that – if the Liberal influence can keep a check on the mad backbenches – might just be better than we thought possible.

the dream team

So the UK General Election seem to have become a two-horse race between the Conservative Party (led by David Cameron and supported by the wealthy, the foolish, and most of our newspapers), and the Hung Parliament campaign (led by Nick Clegg and supported by everyone else).

Obviously since I am neither wealthy nor foolish, I’m hoping for a hung parliament. But if that happened, what would the executive branch of government actually look like? The cabinet obviously wouldn’t be made up of members of just one party.

But – what if that meant that the best person from ANY party could do the job? How great would that be? It won’t happen of course, but since a) dreaming for better is my ‘thing’, and b) I had nothing better to do, here is my

DREAM CABINET

Prime Minister: Nick Clegg (LD) obviously

Deputy PM: Alan Johnson (Lab) for his competence

Chancellor: Vince Cable (LD) has a PhD in Economics

Business Secretary: Ken Clarke (Con) knows his stuff

Home Secretary: Ed Balls (Lab) he’s basically a decent guy

Justice Secretary: Baroness Scotland (Lab) for her legal expertise

Foreign Secretary: David Miliband (Lab) because he’s doing bloody well

Transport/Environment: Dave Cameron (Con) he’d be really good at this

Children + Schools: Ed Miliband (Lab) because he’s cute and clever

Higher Education: David Willetts (Con) see above, only not as cute

Defence Secretary: Paddy Ashdown (LD) actually knows what war’s like

Equalities Minister: Harriet Harman (Lab) she’s done it well so far

International Development: Chris Huhne (LD) knows his stuff

Work + Pensions: Lynne Featherstone (LD) a proper businesswoman

and so on, etc etc

And by the way:  See? I don’t hate all Tories.

Like I say, though, it won’t happen… (sighs)

decisions, decisions

I just don’t know who to vote for in the General Election now. I thought I did; now I don’t. It’s the toughest electoral decision I can remember.

The question for me is very simple – it’s really the same as it has been for the last six or seven years: ‘what can I do to help keep the Tories out of power, without giving Labour a mandate to do very much either?’

All my other general election voting decisions have been easy. My first one was in 2001, where I was so impressed with Tony Blair’s first term, and so annoyed that I’d just missed out on getting to participate in the 1997 mini-social revolution that he’d brought about, that it was basically a no-brainer. I voted in Northampton North – a constituency that was a straight Labour/Tory toss-up – for Sally Keeble, who had been one of the incredible influx of brilliant women into the Labour government in that first term and was doing a pretty impressive job as a junior minister at DFID.

2005 was tougher, but not by much. I was living in Leamington Spa, doing teacher training at Warwick; and if it hadn’t been for Labour’s huge investment in education and the increase of teacher’s pay to a decent level, then as a fairly high-level master’s graduate I wouldn’t have been considering teaching at all. I know a lot of amazing teachers for whom the same thing is true. So Tony and Gordon had stayed true to the promise of making education a priority.

But they hadn’t stayed true to Robin Cook’s principle of an ‘ethical foreign policy.’ I’d been one of the million that had marched against the Iraq war and written letters and been ignored or dismissed just like Cook himself was. So voting for Labour after that wasn’t so easy.

Still – the Leamington and Warwick constituency was another straight Labour/Tory toss-up. So even though the Labour MP, James Plaskitt was a slippery, disingenuous tosser when I met him on the Parade (he was going round telling people he ‘didn’t vote for the invasion of iraq’ when what he’d actually done was voted for every motion which led up to the invasion, ie on the votes that claimed we didn’t need to see WMDs or get a second UN resolution before invading – and then just didn’t bother to turn up for the final vote on declaring war) I voted for him because even though he might as well have been a Tory, the leaders of his party weren’t. (And of course, the leader of the Tories at the time was Michael Howard, a genuinely appalling man who tried to position the Tories just a few notches away from the BNP and was surprised when the British electorate didn’t want that).

Anyway, I voted for Plaskitt, gagged a bit, and then made up for it by voting Liberal and Green in the local council elections (which are done by proportional representation so there’s no need for tactical voting.)

This time around, though, I’m so depressed with Labour: with their infighting – including from Sally Keeble, one the MP’s who idiotically called on Brown to resign because she basically knows she’s going to lose the Northampton North seat – and their failure to come up with a single policy that seems genuinely useful.

But my constituency is Islington North. It’s a very safe Labour seat, currently held by Jeremy Corbyn, who is probably one of the most fundamentally decent MPs in the Labour Party. He always rebels when he thinks it’s right, and he also has a very nice beard. I like him and when he keeps the seat (which he will), I’ll be more than happy for him to be my MP.

But on the other hand, that means I don’t have to actually vote for him. I can vote for whoever I like. And if I vote for the Liberal candidate, I can help increase the overall Liberal share of the popular vote, which could be important if there’s a hung parliament and we get a proper debate about electoral reform…plus I like the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg is a good, principled leader who speaks five languages (very useful in foreign affairs) and would make a smashing Prime Minister, and Vince Cable would be a Chancellor who actually has a PhD in Economics and knows what he’s talking about.

Plus…I don’t even hate David Cameron. I mean, I know he hates me. Or at least, doesn’t consider me or my family and friends worth looking after as long as he gets to do his tax breaks for the super-rich and married couples, which doesn’t include me. And I know he’d cut teacher’s salaries back again to the kind of obscene level they were under the last Tory government.

But I don’t really hate him, because he’s tried to remind the Tories that they once used to stand for maturity and a strong society and a government that keeps out of people’s way when it’s not needed. And these are good things. I mean, I could never vote for a Conservative party candidate because with the exception of Ken Clarke and John Bercow, the rest of the parliamentary party seem to be the same greedy, xenophobic, homophobic bastards with that irritating sense of entitlement that they always were.

So it’s going to be tricky. I’m going to read the manifestos and see what I think after that. I’ll probably let you know.