by Ian Stewart
Before New Labour, in the mists of time before the red rose and “Meeting the Challenge, Making the Change” (remember that?), we used to have a wonderful little enamel badge, now beloved of collectors. Round, in red and white with gold detail – the pen, the shovel (workers by hand and brain), the torch and three simple words. “Labour”, “Party” and perhaps most importantly “Liberty”.
Yes Ed, “Liberty” – not “censorship”, not “revenge”, not even “royal charter”, just liberty pure and plain. It is a word that is threaded through the tale of radical and socialist politics of these islands for hundreds of years.
Every assault on power and privilege since the middle ages has met with repression and censorship together. Under the tyrant Charles 1st, Freeborn John Lillburne and William Prynne were imprisoned, censored, flogged and in Prynne’s case publicly mutilated.
In the early nineteenth century, owning Tom Paine’s “Rights of Man” would get you a free trip to Australia. Early feminists who wished to spread sex education and contraception were prosecuted under obscenity laws. Every faltering step forward by our side has seen gagging acts, libel actions by the wealthy, repression and imprisonment.
You know this, you are not an ignorant man. So why have you conspired with Nick Clegg and David Cameron to limit not only press freedom, but also the right to free speech and free investigation for everyone who blogs or writes in this country? The hacking scandal, exposed by Nick Davies at the Guardian is a fine example of investigative journalism – so why have you now made Nicks job harder? Who benefits from this? Sure, Hugh Grant is probably a nice guy, a plank of wood on the screen, but ok enough for a lunch.
Last week the government you oppose announced that for the international wealthy, British justice is the best money can buy. With our repressive libel laws that treat corporations as individuals, this is so for every dictator, every oligarch, every tax-avoiding press baron out there. Your response? To further gag and limit journalists, on the pretext of aiding ordinary people. So please tell me: how exactly does this help the patients of South Staffs NHS?
How does this strengthen the hand of corporate whistleblowers?
How does this encourage government openness and transparency?
How does this limit the power of media owners?
How does this make the powerful accountable?
The answer sadly is that your actions do nothing at all, save strengthen entrenched power. If satire survived Henry Kissinger’s Nobel prize for peace, then Harriet Harman’s assertion that only a small measure by our unelected, unaccountable House of Lords will bring this censorship about may very well have been the death blow.
My fathers’ uncle was father of chapel at the old Daily Herald in the 1960s, so I too shared in the general glee at seeing Murdoch and his minions humbled. I enjoyed watching Dacre fidget and bluster his way through questioning as much as any other leftist. Yet it remains the case that every bribe, every hack, every dodgy practice uncovered was already a crime. The real scandal remains the unwillingness of the police and lawmakers to crack down on existing illegality.
Neither you, nor Leveson propose anything to address the issue of cross-media ownership and control. Sky News will remain Fox News GB, the Mail Online will remain full of half-truths and downright fiction, and those in power get a free ride. It will be the powerless that suffer, alongside those enemies of truth and freedom the investigative journalists.
Whilst you enjoy this moment of apparent victory, remember that you, along with the Tories and The Lib Dems have reversed a struggle for freedom of speech that has been going on for centuries. You have given every dictator, every oligarch, every “guided democracy” in the world the opportunity to point to Britain and say; “even mature democracies have state control of the press”. Worse still, you are now complicit in the governments selling of our courts as a one-stop shop to gag their critics.
I have that badge by the way. Up until today, I wore it with pride. Now I wear it in mourning.
Ian Stewart is a Labour party member and blogs at http://clemthegem.wordpress.com/