Why Bother With Gnats On A Windscreen When We Stand On The Edge Of An Abyss? (YP)

published in the Yorkshire Post 11 June 2012

As I write these lines, the economies of Europe, including our own, are on the edge of a black hole. Entire nations face the prospect of bankruptcy and barter, financial institutions could founder (again) and a major world currency could disappear in its present form. No business, no job, no community, no family in Britain would escape the consequences of such multiple disasters.

The government has started contingency plans for the arrival of hundreds of thousands of angry and destitute EU nationals, although there is no reason to believe that Britain would be a safe haven. We already have a stagnant economy, an intractable deficit and official unemployment of 2.6 million (over 8 per cent). One in five young people, over a million, have no work. All our public services are creaking, and that’s before any real cuts have kicked in. Our doctors are about to take industrial action for the first time in forty years, and a new wave of teachers’ strikes is threatened next term.

Against this desperate background, the nation has been asked to pay attention to the texts and emails of a ludicrous lobbyist, Mr Fred Michel. One wonders why his employers News International bothered to pay him, since the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was lobbying for them for nothing. Neither the piffling PR nor the cringing Cabinet Minister deserve the attention they have received. They are gnats smeared on the windshield of history.

The Leveson inquiry which exposed them points up the failure of the British political system to cope with the big questions which matter to the British people. Its creation was a response to scandals which are important to the political class and the media, but have minimal impact on the lives of anyone outside. It has been in progress (if that is the correct term) for seven months. Even with the assistance of six counsel and six expert assessors, there is no reason to believe that Lord Justice Leveson will produce worthwhile recommendations on the issues assigned to him – or that he should be doing the job at all.

The most important of these issues, hacking and corruption of the police and public officials, are already criminal offences for which numerous people have been arrested and charged. The inquiry cannot involve itself in these cases, and until they are completed it cannot draw any useful conclusions from them. (That said, it might usefully consider the terms of a “public interest” defence for hacking. How about “the detection and prevention of crime or the exposure of dishonesty or malfeasance by public officials?”)

As for the other issues on his plate, Lord Justice Leveson is no more qualified to write a new code of media ethics than I am to write a new manual of practice for the Supreme Court. He is not equipped to judge the relationships between politicians and the media, as his inquiry has demonstrated many times over: that is a political issue, not a legal one.

Above all, it is not Leveson’s job to devise new proposals to regulate the media or to give people new means of complaint and redress against them. These too are political issues, which the elected government and Parliament should sort out. Leveson was especially misguided in calling for all-party support for whatever proposals he comes up with. It is the job of politicians and parties to disagree about legislation and argue about it, and when this happens in a free and determined Parliament we all get better law. By contrast, there is a long history of bad law being passed with all-party support – from anti-terrorism to dangerous dogs.

Suppose for a moment that the Leveson inquiry has dramatic results. What would they really mean to the British people? Shaken by sobs of contrition, Jeremy Hunt resigns. He would be replaced by another horse from Caligula’s well-filled stable. Leveson devises a new tribunal with cheap and effective remedies against media abuses. Most beneficiaries would be rich or famous people, or powerful businesses and organizations – because very few unfamous, unrich and unpowerful people are actually victimized by the media. Leveson inaugurates a new, tough formal code of media ethics. Newspapers and broadcast media become more timid and more dull, and lose followers to unregulated online media. They either go out of business or ignore the new code. Prompted by Leveson, politicians adopt elaborate written rules to distance themselves from media interests – and do more business with them off the record and hiding behind the nearest tree.

Meanwhile no one in our country has any better hope of getting a job, or a decent education, or a home or a worthwhile pension. No one is better protected from crime, or sickness, or destitution. No one will get a better prospect of affordable and sustainable energy, or a neighbourhood where it is pleasant to live. Our country will have no better idea how to remedy the enduring defects in financial markets which threaten it with collapse, or how to find a better way to make a living in a tough world economy.

In setting up the Leveson inquiry, our politicians have behaved like the directors of an insolvent company deciding to relaunch its in-house journal.

13. June 2012 by rkh
Categories: Journalism, politics | Tags: , | Comments Off on Why Bother With Gnats On A Windscreen When We Stand On The Edge Of An Abyss? (YP)