Sunday, December 02, 2012

Leveson and the enemies of freedom

I'm already more than a little hacked-off with the celebs for censorship campaign but I'll do a deal with those who disagree; I'll refrain from making the ad hominem point that the most vocal among the pro-Leveson camp are a bunch of spoiled celebrities if they do the same with regards to the fact that it is largely the Conservatives who have, rightly in my view, identified the potentially statutory underpinning of any new system of press regulation as a Rubicon that should not be crossed.

The title of the post is deliberately provocative.  I don't doubt that many of those who support Leveson's proposals believe in a free press but I do think they are being naive in the extreme if they imagine that they represent some kind of British version of the 1st Amendment to the constitution of the American republic.  As Kenan Malik points out, this does not impose a duty on the state to guarantee the freedom the the press but rather carries an obligation to refrain from interfering with it.  While he doesn't use this phrase, Kenan Malik correctly identifies the division among liberals as one between those who favour what Isaiah Berlin called 'negative liberty' and those who do not.  I don't have much to add to this except to note that while Leveson's supporters may sincerely support free speech, there's been rather a lot of them that have used modes of argument that have had a familiar whiff of authoritarianism about them.  Among these are the following:

Something must be done!   Something always has to be done because, we are assured, the status quo is 'unsustainable'.  We are in 'new territory', the world has changed, that what is happening now is unprecedented.  With regards to this, it has been suggested to me that what is unprecedented is the degradation of the press.  What seems more likely to me is that it is our knowledge of this is the thing that is unprecedented.  I read about it in a newspaper.

The victims!  What about the victims?  An authoritarian argument wouldn't be complete without some victim-waving.  Don't you care about them?  This is why 'something must be done'.  If you reject regulation of those who made them victims you're as bad as those who perpetuated the original injury.  There's obviously a fair amount of moral blackmail here, as well as the insistence that you come up with an alternative.  "Well, what do you suggest?"  When what is being proposed strikes me as being less desirable than the present situation, I propose doing precisely nothing.

There's also the way in which 'accountability' is touted as an unarguably Good Thing.  Who could disagree with accountability?  It's like motherhood and apple pie.  You question the need for accountability?  You might as well own up - you shot Bambi's mum, didn't you?  And there's the usual managerial response to the discovery that laws have been broken.  What we need is not the present laws being enforced.  No, let's have new ones.  But what concerns me most is this...

What press freedom?  When you suggest that Leveson puts the freedom of the press at peril, it is put to you patiently that you are being so painfully naive.  "You can't possibly imagine we have this now?"  I can't see from behind my keyboard in sunny Glasgow the facial expressions of those who say this but I imagine them rolling their eyes at this point in the way that Marxists used to do when you'd failed to understand the Laws of History or something.  That many of these taking this line are Marxists or former Marxists is no coincidence   The notion that 'press freedom' in this context serves only the interests of corporations like News International is merely an updated version of the idea that 'bourgeois freedom' is an illusion that masks the dominance of the ruling class.  It has formed part of leftist thinking since the 19th century and despite the sinister trajectory it has taken in European political movements of both the extreme left and right in the 20th, it is still being wheeled out in the 21st.  I'd like to suggest that history teaches us that these 'illusory' liberal freedoms tend to be missed when they're gone.

Another thing: Through the power of social media it's being suggested that something should be done about the disproportionate market share enjoyed by certain companies.  Yes, but Leveson didn't even touch on this.  What's he's proposing is a system that would make those working in these 'monopolies' behave better, rather than doing anything about their dominant position.  (Using inverted commas because they aren't monopolies.) 


Paulie said...

I'm glad you've brought up the idea of 'negative' liberty because I've been chewing over writing up a 'negative censorship' idea (lack of pluralism, interests of owners, etc, determining what goes on the page).

I broadly agree with you here, albeit with all of the enthusiasm that I'd use in arguing that Richard Hammond shouldn't be publicly castrated.

You don't make money in media industries by beating the competition. You make it by beating regulators. Leveson was always going to reach the wrong conclusions because it looked at the wrong problems. Phone hacking and hounding the innocent McCanns of this world - they are, by comparison, venal sins in comparison to what Murdoch achieved in the 1990 Broadcasting Act. He bullied successive governments into allowing him to make £billions that he shouldn't have, and he gave British democracy a series of flesh-wounds into the bargain.

And another thing: let's not treat this love of Press Freedom as a Tory trait. All sides are treating this in a very short-termist way. Anti-Leveson Tories are largely keen on a populist-leaning media for reasons that have nothing to do with principle.

Shuggy said...

Agree with much of that. Short-termism is right. One of the ironies of this is it's got that sense of moral panic about it, of the kind that the tabloids were often, rightly, accused of whipping up. Can we also agree that Steve Coogan and Hugh grant have to go?

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