Cartels of politicians do not serve public interest

Allister Heath
WHENEVER I see politicians of all three parties patting each other on the back and congratulating themselves on their brilliance, I panic. Consensus in politics is a disaster. When government and opposition agree, and the checks and balances of robust democratic argument are suspended, something awful inevitably happens. Dissent is good; conformity stinks. It leads to freedoms being curtailed, pockets being picked and a conspiracy against the public interest. Few people would support cartels in business, so why are cartels of politicians so often welcomed? Ideological and political competition is just as important as commercial competition.

So yesterday’s cross party support for what any objective observer would have to describe as political regulation of most of the print and online media was dreadful news for anybody who believes in untrammelled free expression. It is the thickish end of an enormous wedge, the first time since 1695 that newspapers will be subject to statutory regulation (for that is what happened yesterday, regardless of semantics). It is unclear whether some of the new system of press regulation’s provisions are compatible with article 10 of the European convention of human rights, which protects freedom of speech. It is also unclear whether the threat to slap “exemplary damages” on those who refuse to sign up to the new body would be legal.

There is no way that Britain’s new framework would ever be possible in the US. The first amendment to the US Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”, a rule which fortunately has largely been upheld by the courts. A US Congress that attempted to impose yesterday’s Royal Charter on US news organisations would be laughed out of court.

There was a time when enlightened folk – especially liberals – used to support free speech and the freedom of the press, defined as the right of anybody who could rent a printing press and purchase paper and ink to publish whatever they wanted, subject to simple rules on libel. In the present climate, however, arguing, as John Stuart Mill did, that “there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered”, would be considered eccentric at best.

Needless to say, proper supporters of the free press are disgusted by the phone hacking scandal and all other criminal behaviour that a minority of unscrupulous journalists inexcusably engaged in in recent years. This was utterly wrong. These people should have been stopped and prosecuted a long time ago; it is a travesty that it took so long for anything to happen. But there was no need for any new laws: phone hacking and corruption were already criminal offences. This was a failure of enforcement, not a failure of law-writing – a problem we have seen in other industries.

Media outfits got other things wrong; in most cases they have already paid a large price for their sins, under existing rules. But the Press Complaints Commission undoubtedly needed a drastic shake-up, and parts of the industry were in urgent need of a cultural revolution. But none of this should have been seen as giving politicians the green light to regulate all national and regional papers, magazines and news websites, most of which have behaved impeccably. The many are paying for the sins of the few.

Many readers will disagree. They believe the crimes of some have been such that the whole industry deserves collective punishment. Many are angry that journalists constantly call for new regulations for other industries, and routinely take regulators’ side, and yet resist these same policies for themselves. Others believe free speech is always abused. But while I have a self-interest in a free press, my defence of it is merely an extension of my overall support of free markets accompanied by a strong rule of law.

Part of the problem is that we have fallen out of love with freedom. The public supports snooping, paternalism, curtailing civil liberties and endless regulation. Many have no problem with the state dictating how much people can be paid and telling people what they can eat or drink, and what they can do with their property. We may recoil in horror at the proposed state looting of bank accounts in Cyprus – but most Brits support wealth taxes. Freedom, ultimately is indivisible; the only reason why regulation of the media didn’t happen any sooner was because newspapers were too influential. Now that their power is waning, they are fair game, like everything and everybody else.
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