Fans of the Big State – which can already monitor what you read on the internet – will be pleased to hear that it now has ambitions to control what you read there, too: its new targets being ‘fake news’ in general; and, more particularly, freedom of expression on media-platforms spawned by the traditional press (the Daily Mail and, at the other end of the spectrum, the Guardian perhaps being the UK’s best known brands).
To take fake news first. Some of the desire to expose it is admirable: people simply should not have lies presented to them as truth. So if Mark Zuckerburg can weed out inaccuracies on Facebook – fairly, and regardless of political slant – then good luck to him. However, the desire to regulate against fake news – as German Chancellor Merkel has already demanded – smacks unmistakably of self-interest.
Cue Labour MP Ben Bradshaw. Following speculation over the role Russia played in revealing information unfavourable to Clinton in the recent US presidential elections, Bradshaw has now started blaming Putin for the Brexit vote.
Now here is a man who knows that the real war of ideas in June was taking place in cyberspace, not at the hustings; and one who realises that he and his kind are increasingly irrelevant. So what does he do? He somehow conflates the phenomena of so-called ‘populism’, fake news and Russian hacking – and comes to the conclusion that ‘something must be done’ to police the inconvenient rise of voters’ self-empowerment.
He is, of course, hysterical – just like all the MPs who piled in to condemn the Daily Mail for it’s ‘Enemies of the People’ headline, following the High Court’s decision on Article 50. (After all, what is the point of the press if it can’t express opinions, based on evidence which – if not incontrovertible – is at least admissible?) And, like most MPs, he’d probably prefer a press that was restricted in what it could say about him personally.
After Tony Blair, the expenses scandal, Keith Vaz, Baroness Scotland – where should we stop? – the idea that parliamentarians should have sway over those who call them to account is risible. But that – by sleight of hand – is exactly what the government intends in a new law known as ‘Section 40’.
True, under current libel laws and press practice, it is difficult for any but the rich to obtain proper redress for the media’s failings – and the government should be encouraged to look at ways of ‘protecting ordinary people’. But to back a proposed regulatory body called Impress (bankrolled by the spanking ethusiast Max Mosley) against any plans for further self-regulation by journalists seems too conveniently repressive.
The Impress constitution includes a requirement that, in any legal action against a media outlet, the latter must pay the costs for both sides. And as the Spectator’s editor Fraser Nelson has pointed out, that would not only threaten the ability of journals such as his own to operate but would even cramp the style of major players such as the Sunday Times. Yet that is what we face unless parliament is made aware of public resistance.
At the moment, the government is running a ‘public consultation’ on Section 40, which will close on 10 January; and as Nelson says, the only representations so far have been from the well-funded Hacked Off campaign, which even has an email template on its website for people to complete and send in support of Impress.
For those who want to object, he continues, ‘the government’s online form is here, but it’s about as user-friendly as a tax return. The alternative is to email email@example.com asking the government to repeal the appalling “Section 40” and desist from further harassment of the press.’
However, that hardly matches an email template for ease of dispatch. So if you have any computer programming knowledge and a spare few hours, Nelson has asked that you mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with offers of help. And do pass it on.
by Winston Smith