Britain in the 2010s often feels like a very un-free country indeed.
We have the highest ratio of CCTV surveillance cameras per head of population in the world, watching and recording almost every facet of our daily lives conducted in a public place. We can be convicted for the absurdly-named “hate crime” of questioning whether travellers should be able to get way with flouting planning laws. We can be arrested and tried for sending malicious or threatening communications as a result of a merely ill-judged, if tasteless, tweet.
In 2005, a 20-year old gamekeeper was arrested for the “crime” of wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo “Bollocks To Blair”. Also in 2005, a protester who read aloud at the Cenotaph the names of our Iraq war dead was convicted for the “crime” of breaching the Serious Organised Crime & Police Act, under its provisions banning an unauthorised protest within half a mile of Westminster.
We can be detained for up to 14 days, in violation of Habeas Corpus, without charge, or without any recourse to due process. And, as of recently, we shall be able to be tried in a secret court hearing not before our peers, if the government arbitrarily determines it to be in the interests of national security.
So Thursday 25 April 2013 should be marked as a day on which the forces of liberty redressed the balance a little. For yesterday we gained not one, but no fewer than three victories in the battle to regain some of our liberties.
Firstly, Royal Assent was finally given to an amendment to Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, one of the effects of which was to remove “insulting” in the description of public behaviour deemed to be an offence against the Act. Prior to this, Section 5 made it an offence to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour” or to display “any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting” within the hearing or sight of a person “likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby”.
Section 5 in its un-amended form was used to prosecute expressions of free speech as diverse as the display of anti-Islamism posters, (note: Islamism being the totalitarian political ideology derived from Islam, and not synonymous with the religion itself – but so what?), the expression of religion-derived views on the acceptance of homosexual marriage, and a case of swearing at on over-officious policeman.
The potential curtailment effect on free speech has been chilling: campaigners for a change in the law rightly stressed the importance of free speech to a liberal society, and the danger that the restriction opened the way for the authorities to discourage the exercise of it on the most spurious of imaginary offence-giving or offence –taking grounds. Its demise should be welcomed.
Secondly, it was announced that there will be no Communications Data Bill in the Queen’s Speech for the next session of parliament, and certainly no Snoopers’ Charter. Not content with the powers already available to it under RIPA, the Bill as drafted by the Government proposed to record every website visited, email sent and social media communication by every British citizen.
The Home Office actually misrepresented the work of the Child Exploitation & Online Protection Centre to try and justify the Bill, before internet service providers and technology companies pointed out both (1) the powers already available where a crime has been committed and (2) the economic disincentives to inward investment in the UK that such a draconian provision would create. That’s before considering the public sector’s disastrous record of safeguarding private information entrusted to it – most will remember the tax details of up to 25 million taxpayers with child benefit going missing, and still not retrieved to this day. We should all applaud the dropping of such an illiberal measure.
Finally, and possibly most important of all, the Newspaper Society announced that its members, which include most of our daily national Press, would not sign up to or participate in the Royal Charter-backed procedure emanating from the Leveson Inquiry. This half-baked solution, cooked up in a shabby cross-party 3.00.am deal brokered by Hacked Off, the pressure group of Leftist academics and its millionaire flawed-celebrity funders, may have employed some elegant structural obfuscation, but at its heart was the threat of state regulation and even implied control of a free press – one of the bastions, whatever its occasional misdeeds punishable by existing law – of a free society.
The Leveson / Hacked Off model, whatever the protestations of its advocates, would have featured, and not by accident either, the state at the end of a complex procedural tail. But, however complex, a press regulation tail at the distant end of which stands the state is, ultimately, a state-regulated press. There’s no such thing as light-touch state-regulation of a free press – the press is either totally free, or it’s un-free. A free society is one where government is constrained by a free press – not one where a free press is constrained by government.
The alternative Royal Charter proposal published yesterday would still comprise one of the toughest forms of self-regulation in the Western world. It would provide the same safeguards and redress for ordinary members of the public, but without any involvement on the part of the state. It would, moreover, be cost-neutral to the taxpayer, being funded by the industry itself. And it could be up and running fairly quickly.
With this alternative out in the public domain, the Government’s cross-party / Hacked Off stitch-up is effectively dead in the water, despite the desperate verbal flailings of DCMS Secretary of State Maria Miller – surely one of the most egregious manifestations of the Peter Principle in recent political history – attempting to maintain that the cross-party stitch-up “remains on track”. If the majority of national and regional press refuses to have anything to do with overt state press control, it will die, and rightly so.
Three wins in one day – not a bad day for freedom. We should fight to ensure more days like it.