In an earlier post I mentioned that the theme of Levellers Day 2016 was (Un) Civil Liberties. This covered, amongst other subjects, the issue of press freedom, a difficult topic largely due to the inclusion of the word freedom! The philosopher Isaiah Berlin identified over 200 ways in which the word ‘freedom’ has been used, leading him to conclude that it had become almost meaningless in practical terms, unless qualified in some way. Even in 1948 the United Nations must have realised the asymmetry of the clause in the Declaration of Human Rights which reads:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
But what about the right of each of us to be exposed or made aware of such ideas? Here is the essence of the problem.
As with most issues involving freedom the first questions to arise include freedom from what or, alternatively, freedom to do what? These issues lay at the core of attempts following the Leveson enquiry to regulate the press. A balance needed to be struck between protecting the freedom of the press from political interference against the freedom of the general public from unwarranted invasive press intrusion. In a real sense the press brought the problem on themselves with outrageous phone hacking and payments to officials such as the police. So the insidious activity of phone hacking and backhanders to gain a commercial or competitive advantage was inextricably wrapped up with the laudable aim of furthering the public interest by revealing wrongdoing in Government. Asreported here, many newspapers including the Daily Mail were vocal in opposing the setting up of a ‘voluntary’ self regulating body (Independent Press Standards Organisation, IPSO) via a Royal Charter as it carried the implicit danger of interference from politicians.
But it is now important to ask what the press does with its ‘freedom’. Who is the beneficiary? This has been brought into sharp relief this month (May 2016) when the issue of alleged Conservative party fraud involving election funding has gone virtually unreported by many of those originally crying foul over the Press Charter including the aforementioned Daily Mail, but also Murdoch’s The Sun and The Times, the Daily Express and Metro amongst others The situation is so ludicrous that ex-Conservative party Minister Michael Portillo claimed on television that he was completely unaware of the alleged fraud. This is despite investigations by a number of police forces carrying the possibility of forced by-elections which may mean the loss of the Conservative Government Commons majority. Clearly press freedom does not benefit Michael Portillo!
Last March (2016) I visited the Houses of Parliament for the launch of the We The People campaign for a Citizens Constitutional Convention. Like most visitors I entered through the Cromwell Gate right past the statue of the man himself. It was a moment of reflection, with Levellers Day approaching (on 14th May 2016, more here) and the issue of democracy and accountability which it inevitably raises.
There is much popular misunderstanding about Oliver Cromwell and people are often confused about his place in history, asking whether he should be viewed in a positive or negative light. The unhelpful answer is both, depending on which aspect of his career is under consideration. As a reformer of the English Civil War Parliamentary forces during the creation of the New Model Army he was invaluable. In particular his organisation of the cavalry wing, the Ironsides was a crucial development in the eventual triumph of Parliament. But increasingly after 1648 he behaved in an autocratic manner, crushing tolerant and democratic forces (such as commemorated at Levellers Day) and culminating in the replacement of the Commonwealth by the Protectorate.
The increasingly repressive methods of Cromwell and his associates such as son-in-law Henry Ireton can be illustrated clearly in one event, which also serves as a warning to us. On March 28th 1649 four Levellers, John Lilburne, Richard Overton, Thomas Prince and William Walwyn were arrested for publishing (on February 26th 1649) a pamphlet called England’s New Chains Discovered (you can read a transcript here). It was a clear and unambiguous criticism of Cromwell and outlined the dangers to liberty of the military government. A crucial worry for the Levellers was the status of the so-called Council of State, the body set up to replace the Privy Council following the execution of the King and declaration of a Commonwealth in 1649. Set up by the Rump Parliament (you can view a transcript of the Act here), its 41 members were appointed rather than elected and Cromwell was its first Chairman. The dangers of such an arrangement were clearly laid out and included the ability of the Council to dissolve Parliament (then consisting of just the House of Commons, the Lords having been abolished) without the necessity to immediately call the next. Another grievance involved the ability of the Commons to create or abolish Law Courts and so subvert the jury system which was regarded as the bedrock of justice. Likewise, the ability of MPs to be the ‘highest final judgement’ was viewed as particularly heinous as it placed them beyond the control of the laws they were enacting. That lawmakers should be subject to the laws they enact is regarded as a vital brake on any system of representative government. Central to all of this was the way in which senior army officers could sit in the Commons thus supporting military rule.
It is sometimes difficult to decide whether a Government decision was the result of incompetence or an unscrupulous attempt to suppress debate. Since we are frequently kept in ignorance, the viewpoint I take often depends of the charity of my current mood. It was revealed by the Observer newspaper in February (in this article) that the Cabinet Office was imposing new rules from May 1st 2016 which would effectively censor recipients of Government grants from using their results to lobby for a change in policy. After a high profile protest by senior scientists, including the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, the Government has partly backed down (report here). The problem is that the wording of the exemption is so imprecise that a researcher may be tempted to abandon a funding application for fear of contravening the rules. Likewise the sanction for such a contravention was not made clear
Why is this important? Firstly, it is the duty of all Governments to protect their citizens, not least from their own policies and evidence of such harm must be made public. The attempt to control and suppress such information is redolent of corrupt totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. Secondly, the Government Minister (in this case Matthew Hancock) seems to have forgotten that it is our money – there is no such thing as Government money. As I argued in an earlier postThe Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th Centuries was built upon the ability to question and challenge authority using reason and argument. This remains true today and public bodies have a duty not to restrict the ability of its citizens to access information which informs such debate. There are many topics at the present time where the evidence is hotly contested, not least in Climate Change, Defence and Social Policy. So do I think the Government is bring incompetent or acting with malice? The original decision to muzzle scientists could be viewed as incompetent but the way in which the Cabinet Office is confusing the situation rather than making a clean retraction is inclining me to view the aim as yet another devious attempt to stifle opposition.
In two earlier posts this week I blogged about the pernicious effect of sycophancy towards the royals and the way in which their Public Relations machine has positioned them within the celebrity culture. So what is the aim of all this, what is the end game? Once again the visit of William Windsor and his wife Kate to India and Bhutan gives us a clue. On a very short tour to Bhutan they spent one day on a personal climb up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery. Incredibly this provoked a very rare criticism from the BBC royal reporter Nicholas Witchell who pointed out that the Bhutan trip was at taxpayers expense and thus it was not a holiday but a business trip.
So what was the justification for what was a sightseeing jolly? As mentioned in a previous blog, William views himself in the role of a country squire (evidence the move to Norfolk) living at the expense of someone else, but it seems his education failed to impress on him a fundamental constitutional fact. The royals get to retain their privilege, wealth and residual influence in exchange for the Government using Royal Prerogative powers and a large measure of control over them for political and diplomatic purposes. It is on this basis, for example, that Charles Windsor is sent at frequent intervals to deeply unpleasant and autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia to secure lucrative arms deals – though there is no reason to suspect that Charles objects to a knees-up with his privileged mates. So if politicians send William to Bhutan at our expense they must see some advantage (note that it occupies a very strategic position bordered by both India and China!). They are not going to be pleased at the perceived waste of money when they are already under fire for punitive austerity measures.
It is a recurring line amongst royalists that they would prefer to pass quickly over Charles as the next king (or even bypass him altogether) since he is perceived as being eccentric, meddling and downright unpopular. It is likely that he would soon grate with politicians who would resent his constant interventions. Although less of an activist, a lazy and idle King William with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement would present a different by no less pointed set of problems. Hugely more interested in pursuing his own interests rather than fulfilling his duties he would be perceived by the establishment as superfluous and his removal would be sought. From my point of view this presents an opportunity, but only if the have a well worked out plan to move to a republic. Maybe the recent spate of problems raised for the Windsors by the press (such as the Sun Brexit story – my post here) are the first moves of an establishment with their media allies preparing for such an eventuality