Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Congratulations, sheep.

Maybe it's a world first. A government that -- for once -- says it doesn't want to curtail a fundamental freedom, and an electorate that seems to be baying for it.
Forgive me the farmyard metaphors today, but it's that time of year. Turkeys, sheep... you'll see where I'm going with this.

While half the world is marching in the streets demanding less state control and more civil liberties, swathes of punters in good old Blighty are insisting that the government does us a favour and removes some of that confusing, difficult, brain-aching liberty stuff. Yes, there is public support for curbing the media by law. I doubt if many people who feel that way have actually read the Leveson report, but maybe they should at least study the summaries and look beneath the surface. Turkeys can be persuaded not only to vote for Christmas, it seems, but even demand it.

If you're a politically aware reader, then you'll know that the Leveson enquiry published its report on press behaviour this week-- behaviour as in bad, all that phone hacking and intrusion stuff. (If this is news to you, just click that link and get yourself up to speed, because this matters.) In some quarters, the report is being treated like a telegram from Jesus, requiring compliance with all its recommendations.

But however much hand-wringing concern and righteous indignation on behalf of the powerless has been poured over the Leveson report, this has very little to do with ordinary people or even celebs and luvvies being treated badly by the press. It's all about handing politicians control of the media. It took four telephone books' worth of paper to say it, but that's about the long and the short of it.

The report didn't look at the internet and social media, which makes the whole exercise largely irrelevant in terms of media intrusion and libel anyway. It just looked at the print media. The report stated the bleeding obvious at great expense to the taxpayer: some sectors of the press behaved appallingly and caused enormous damage and distress to people subjected to their intrusive hounding. Yeah, we already knew that. And media folk, cops, and civil servants are facing trial as a result, because these excesses were already illegal.

But the really unpalatable stuff in the report is hooded by oblique language about voluntary codes underpinned by statute, with proposals about which body might administer that. All of those suggested bodies are ultimately controlled by the government in some form. There's no way of avoiding that conclusion, however much you try to spin it.

Statute means law. Forgive me for not respecting fellow speakers of Weasel, but a voluntary code is one that isn't underpinned by statute. Anything else is a new law -- a law to establish control over the press, for the first time in centuries. And I really don't like that sort of bullshit. A free press is one of the few scraps of democracy that's left in this country, and I'm pretty attached to it. I'd rather have press barons who can be brought down if people stop buying their papers or who can be sued senseless than politicians who vote themselves powers that can't be taken away by us.

We already have criminal laws that cover all the worst excesses of the press. Hacking people's phones and e-mail accounts is illegal. Paying police and government servants for information is illegal. Contempt of court is illegal. Libel is a civil offence. Basically, the press (this report deals only with newspapers and magazines, not broadcasting) could have been busted under existing laws. But there was no enthusiasm to do it, even though the police seemed to know it was going on. And the ordinary bloke in the street couldn't afford to take libel cases to court. New laws won't address that at all.

Predictably, Labour jumped on the "let's control the press" bandwagon, because they always want state control of the media anyway, and they oppose everything as part of their opportunistic, self-serving knee jerk. But the Lib Dems -- allegedly part of the government -- have jumped on it too, which is both disappointing and unsurprising. All my experience of Lib Dems has shown that they're neither liberal nor democratic when push comes to shove. As the navy might say: they're a bloody good kid in harbour. It would be misleading to see this issue split along party lines, though. It's causing intra-party splits as well.

Regular readers will know that I have no time for the Conservative party these days, and that they'll never get my vote again. But Cameron came close to making sense to me this week, a situation that almost made me call my doctor to see if my meds needed upping. I see Cameron as an oily, lightweight idiot who breaks every election promise and lurches from crisis to crisis, but for once he managed to nail it when he dared say that he had "misgivings" about the Leveson recommendations. His view was that if we introduced any legal constraints on the press, then some future government could amend them to become much, much more oppressive.

It really is a slippery slope. Once a law is on the statute books, it usually stays there forever, and subsequent changes tend towards more than less. This is a step that can't be untaken, and remember the old rule of threat evaluation -- it's not intent that matters, it's capability. However sorry you feel for the Dowler family, do you really want a change in the law that could -- and probably would -- be used to suppress news of what politicians and the police get up to? We already have a heavy-handed legal response to Twitter over here, and people have been jailed for moronic posts that don't actually appear to be illegal, simply cretinous and offensive, the kind of thing that if said in the pub would get you a socially educational punch in the face so you'd learn not to do it again.

Speaking as someone who's had their fair share of internet abuse, I don't want to see laws that stop people being arseholes online. Post their real identities, by all means, preferably with a picture: let's all see them and have a bloody good laugh, because they tend to live up to their stereotype. But criminalising them is dangerous for the rest of us. If people break the existing laws of libel, racism, or threatening behaviour, then let the legal process commence, because publication is publication. But for me, tolerating semi-literate virgin morons in their mums' basements who don't actually break real laws is a price worth paying if genuine comment that offends politicians, the police, and other powerful groups can be made equally freely.

When the Leveson enquiry was announced, my immediate thought was that MPs were so angry about press exposure of the vast scale of their expenses-fiddling that they would exploit the enquiry to make sure that they never got outed by the media again, and that they'd cynically use genuine, ordinary victims of press intrusion as a Trojan horse to do it. I can't help feeling that I'm seeing exactly that now.

Here's the hard bit that we need to get used to. We don't have a right not to be offended. We don't have a right not to be upset. The harsh reality is that a free press is going to do bad shit from time to time, but there are laws to deal with that already. So I think we have to live with that as collateral damage because a government-regulated press would be far, far worse for every one of us. We should handle it by enforcing the criminal laws we already have, and enabling the average bloke in the street to take civil action for libel or harassment by making it cheaper and easier to do so. As things stand, only the wealthy can afford to sue the media.

Dan Hodges (a Labour Blairite, so not exactly on the same political page as me by any stretch of the imagination) sums it up the whole sorry spectacle far better than I ever could, so I'll just leave you with his comment and suggest you read his blog post. (And this related one.)

"But we cannot tear up a centuries-old principle of press independence solely out of sympathy for them. And certainly not out of sympathy for Steven Coogan, Hugh Grant or Charlotte Church."

Amen. Nobody said freedom of expression was easy.

And if you disapprove of salacious stories about celebs and crime, then don't buy the frigging newspaper, okay? Vote with your wallet. That's far more democratic. And it works.