A politician is a public servant: that is, an elected law maker who holds public office in order to represent constituents living within a defined geographical area. The media holds politicians to account. On 30th October the press and politicians were at loggerheads because the press do not accept that their work should be regulated and scrutinised.
The most compelling reason for regulation is to avoid abuses, primarily the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone. One may argue that politicians and celebrities (the architects of ‘hacked off’) can afford libel battles. Milly Dowler had no public life, she no longer has a life at all. The humble, ordinary victims of crimes and their families cannot afford their day in Court. Above all, the unknown victims of crime must be allowed privacy as they grieve. Something the media often fails to honour. A teenager’s telephone should be private. A politician’s phone should also be private.
The Leveson Inquiry has demonstrated that in this case politicians have the upper hand. The significance of the media, including the press must not however, be underestimated. Their finest hour in the last decade may be the relentless examination of the circumstances surrounding the allied British invasion of Iraq. The result is a chastened, cross-party, political class in Britain: horrified by the innocent civilian casualties, the loss of British military lives but above all by the deception surrounding WMD and the death of David Kelly.
Tony Blair took a decision to go to war in Iraq and fabricated intelligence to support his cause. He sought a UN mandate but when obstructed, believing himself invincible, became a global policeman with no authority. This undermined the might of the UN when Britain failed to negotiate support. The media tried to hold Tony Blair to account and warned him relentlessly about playing God because of economic interests. For this, they must be commended. I am not anti the press or anti media.
However knee-jerk, David Cameron’s response to the debate about military action in Syria shows his commitment to Parliamentary democracy. For this, he should be applauded because he listened to politicians from across the spectrum. The nation witnessed democracy in action and on this occasion, the majority agreed and prevailed.
The Coalition Government’s response to the expenses scandal has been fundamentally to involve the Police whenever necessary; publish diary commitments to bring greater transparency and avoid unreported, cosy chats with media moghuls; reform the register of interests to give it teeth. This year the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) has published the full database of MPs’ expense claims for the financial year 2012/13 and has asked many MPs from across the political spectrum to pay back claims wherever there has been an abuse of the system.
Rightly, Parliament has retained allowances for MPs who choose to employ family members. MPs should be repaying their debt and are struggling to justify a pay rise recommended by IPSA in light of the abuses. Family aside, surely a higher salary and fewer expenses must be more transparent and less bureaucratic? The majority of MPs are rightly (or should be) examining themselves because they understand the cost of public life which is accountability and the proper, read ethical, use of the public purse for the common good.
Let us compare the Government response in coalition with the response of the press: the press want their day in court.
David Cameron and his Coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, negotiated a Royal Charter to ensure effective self-regulation of the press while honouring its freedom. This freedom of expression and freedom to debate, is the cornerstone of democracy, the very essence of Britishness. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Hacked Off have profound misgivings about a Royal Charter.
Many favoured statute but David Cameron wanted to protect the power to scrutinise, question, and hold to account politicians and other public figures, while prohibiting the exploitation of the innocent. David Cameron is giving the press the opportunity to regulate themselves. It is already a compromise and the press are in the ‘last chance saloon’ with all parties aggrieved.
Regulation is the proper enforcement of the industry’s own code of practice. The suggestion is that independent arbitration will avoid costly legal battles and protect the public. It is significant that in the Observer on 27th October, David Mitchell did not dispute that the press is self-interested and materialistic. David Mitchell’s point is that the Royal Charter puts power in the hands of the politicians.
The cost of the Iraq war at the whim of a Presidential Prime Minister once again rises: the spectre of a Phoenix to haunt both Blair and the nation, rising from the oil-rich Gulf sands. David Mitchell writes in the Observer: ‘I think that the unprecedented involvement of politicians in the regulation of the press has, in the long term, the potential to be catastrophic, and is too big a risk to take, in an attempt to redress the obvious wrongs in the culture and conduct of newspapers. You think that there is either no risk, or a small risk to set against the bigger picture of injustices committed by the press. I don’t think you’re insane to think that – I just don’t agree.’ However, the Privy Council chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister will only set up and advise the regulator which will be independent like the Information Commissioner with more teeth.
The problem at the heart of this debate, is that politicians desperately need good publicity, although most survive the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ (Hamlet) and we elect them for this purpose.
Perhaps it is time the press came up with a robust solution to their own malpractice and acknowledged their own fallibility. As a start, the editorial defendants and their accomplices from the News of the World could plead guilty: “mea culpa” and beg for mercy. The press should examine themselves and clean up their own house before throwing stones. If they refuse, they may feel the full force of the law as never before. The press need to heed the warning of the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller: sign or be damned.