Thursday, November 29, 2012

Time to apply the Stalin Test once more?

So very shortly some Judge, who obviously is more clever than all of us because he's a Judge, will publish his report into the press and media.

You'll remember that this Inquiry came about because some journalists at some papers allegedly cracked the voice mail messages of people in order to get stories.

You'll also remember that those journalists are now before the courts because in allegedly doing what is alleged they potentially broke already existing criminal laws. 

However, as this is Britain, and we rather like spending masses of public money on tea and biscuit chats with judges and lawyers, we decided to have an inquiry because "something must be done" in relation to these newspapers even though we're clearly already doing something about it in the criminal courts.

Of course we mustn't prejudge the Judge, but that hasn't stopped people doing so. On the one hand you have the newspapers and media promoting the notion that free speech and a free press is about to come to an end if we have some sort of formal press regulation in statute.

On the other hand you have those, such as witness to the inquiry and lawyer/blogger, David Allen-Green, arguing, and I paraphrase here, that the newspaper are alarmist fucking morons who don't understand the law and the difference between "statutory" and "state control" where the former probably isn't that bad anyway.

Personally, I have a different view in the middle of these two polar opposites. 

You see, David Allen-Green is right when he mocks the newspapers for arguing that free speech is coming to end. He's also right to point out that "statutory" is not the same thing as "state control". However, where he's errr'd, in my view, is his blind faith in the 'law' and its principles. Its not his fault of course, he's a lawyer after all, but that faith and consequential use of semantic definitional wordplay has, I think, blinded him to the question of "potentiality".

Yes its true that newspapers will not stop publishing post-Leveson. Yes its true that free speech is not over if the press finds itself formally regulated above and beyond the laws they, and all us, are already subject too e.g the Computer Misuse Act, the Official Secrets Act, and contempt of court. However, as with any legal changes that infringe on an element of freedom, we must view it in the while context of that which already exists and its potential as a tool in the future.

Its not the first time I've said what I'm about say, and I doubt it will be the last, but when it comes to statutory regulation of the press we really have to filter it through the Stalin Test. We must ask ourselves, would Stalin have liked what we're proposing? At this point I must stress that if the answer is yes it does not follow that the proposal is 'Stalinist', far from it in fact.

The purpose of the question is to ask ourselves what the potential future enabling power of our actions might be.

In fact, we don't have to use Stalin. We could as easily use someone closer to home, our own authoritarian and totalitarian dictator, Oliver Cromwell and his puritanical zeal. Would he like the idea of statutory regulation of the press?

You see, if the Judge decides to propose press regulation, and if the Government decides to enforce said proposal, then whilst we're more likely to see a flying pig than see freedom of speech disappear, what we will have is another building block in place that a potential future loony dictator could use to achieve that very thing.

Like so many small and tiny infringements of liberty that we have seen in the past 20 years it will be just another that has the potential to go horrendously wrong.

I'm not trying to be alarmist here. I'm not saying that we are sleepwalking into totalitarianism. All I am saying is that we are blindly building many small and seemingly unconnected parts that, when brought together, could quite easily be the enabling tools of a totalitarian state should someone come along that machinates their way into power to use them as such.

We've heard a lot from people in favour of such statutory regulations on the press. They tell us that it is an absolute necessity to do this. I would remind them, and I've said this before too, of the warning of Pitt the Younger, that "necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves."

Right now we live in a democratic country. We vote, and we can, at least every few years, remove the Government and put in a new one. As you mull over whether you agree with the statutory regulation of the press remember this, it might not always be that way, and if it isn't do you think such regulation will be a friend or enemy of any future tyrant?

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