Signing off, moving on

December 7, 2010 Leave a comment

As my more regular readers will have noticed, this blog has, unfortunately, been laying dormant for some months. Due to a mixture of technical issues and general time constraints, I have no long been able to update here.

That said, all is not lost; I am currently doing a journalism course in Cardiff, and this involves further blogging. So to find more of my writing, do have a look at Theory of Devolution, a blog I run with two colleagues exploring the meaty but under-reported world of devolved politics.

Hopefully I shall see you over there.

Categories: Uncategorized

Nets and nooses

March 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Change, something that over time has become a lucrative buzzword championed by prospective and incumbent politicians, is often seen, or at least portrayed, as an overwhelmingly positive phenomenon and the key to an existence improved from the current one, for society in general and individuals alike. Yet this heady call for betterment, though preferable to the often counter productive nuances of negative campaigning, often overlooks the finer details of change as a concept; that it is commonly an arduous, weary process with long term rewards rather than quick gains, and that it can not only be effected, but must also be responded to at times. Change is not always necessarily a conscious decision.

Such has long been the case with technology; advances are made, but with new scenarios come unforeseen conundrums. Industrialisation of the western world brought advantages, but also endemic drawbacks for the people and industries it affected. The latest prominent technological revolution, the dawn and rise of the internet, is not dissimilar to this. It has brought greater efficiency and potential knowledge into everyday lives, but with that a plethora of issues, such as a threat to privacy, the menace of rife, unchecked disinformation and the presence of offensive, or even dangerous materials at the hands of younger, or more vulnerable individuals.

The political world, a realm which, though steeped in its own rites and traditions, must regularly adapt to the newly powerful or important forces within society, has made some slow but definite steps towards grasping the problems and solutions an internet era presents. The benefits and pitfalls of the internet within politics itself have become evident; politicians blog, “tweet”, campaign and update their constituents online, but are also becoming wise to the dangers of a new transparency offered by the medium; journalists have been keen to discuss the impact of political bloggers, such as Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale among the more prominent figures, on the upcoming elections, and public figures are ever wary of the enhanced scrutiny of a constant and ravenous news cycle.

More significantly, the internet has become an issue in itself that affects society and fuels political debates. Perhaps unexpectedly, internet access joined suffrage and legal representation in the admittedly unwritten list of things regarded as a a fundamental right, according to a recent poll for the BBC World Service, highlighting its growing importance in the public eye. Similarly, it was recently discussed as a tenet, and a strident, relevant aspect of modern society by the Queen, in spite of the monarchy’s seemingly anachronistic approach to the world. Fittingly, issues arising from the internet’s dominance and redefinition of various aspects of society are commonly fodder for news headlines, such as the recent controversy over deviant uses of social networking website Facebook.

Being now common in political discourse, and offering its own perks and dilemmas, the call for new laws concerning the internet is natural and expected, but must also be fair and considered. So, today’s passing of the digital economy bill in the House of Lords offers some hope of progress on the path to sanitising a somewhat untamed phenomenon, but with it numerous concerns.

The bill has some clearly positive traits. Plans to ensure universal broadband access by 2012, to bring about digital upgrades to public media and to involve large media organisations more comprehensively in the new internet age seem wise and forward-thinking if society views internet access, and content, as a good and deserved thing for all. Similarly, the concept of tax breaks for video games shows a more progressive eye being cast on the technology and culture of a fresh generation.

Other aspects of the bill, however, seem firm and perhaps necessary, but also unquestionably draconian. To the ire of the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights, measures to punish and deter the ills of internet use appear to verge on breaching an individual’s rights. Those accused of sharing files three times, for example, will see their broadband connection suspended, denying them further internet access. Another part of the bill, clause 17, initially proposed allowing the authorities to alter copyright law without consent from others. This was amended, but in a seemingly more draconian move, would now give the high court the power to shut down websites that host “significant” amounts of copyright-infringing material, leading to concerns over the future of major, highly popular hosts such as Youtube. Other concerns were voiced that these measures shared the wording and tone of regulations written by British music industry body the BPI.

Here, concerns are arguably valid, though they threaten to drown out equally relevant arguments. The internet, a home of unwarranted freedoms and potential abuses, may be in need of regulation, but not to the extent of an authoritarianism which blights the advantages it offers. Internet piracy is a problem to be tackled, but not at the expense of individual freedoms, and not at the dictation of corporate powers and their lobbyists, who arguably care more for their wares and income than the good of their clients. Similarly, websites such as Youtube may need to be managed more stringently, but there is a threat of stamping out their cultural input and the joy of their users in doing so over zealously.

Such cries must not be made, however, to the detriment of pressing discussion. Internet access may be a newly proclaimed right, but must also come with responsibilities of sorts. Piracy and any damage it causes to affected industries must be limited, and if possible, activities such as streaming and file sharing must find a legitimate form of existence. The internet, and the sweeping changes it will bring, may appear new and sudden, but any laws regarding these must first be considered at length.

Going public

The workings of a democratic system often ensure that the majority of a country’s citizens are not involved in but instead represented by the activities of government and its officials, with a politician voted into office on election day in order to voice the concerns of his or her constituents. As with any pattern, however, this is prone to loopholes and exceptions.

Public intervention in politics can be sporadic and multifaceted, but it is by no means intangible. People stage protests to sway governmental thinking or, less ideally, dissolve into mass riots at moments of volatility. Individuals can reach out to officials or fight publicly as a call to arms for their cause, and general opinion can be officially expressed through petitions and even referendums, the effects of which range from illustrating public sentiment to scrapping or amending laws.

Such zealous activity is not always usual, but at present it appears commonplace. Just yesterday, Europe saw two referendums take place; one in Switzerland over a relatively specialist animal rights issue, and another in Iceland, on the more sensitive case of the settlement of its debts with other countries following a financial meltdown in 2008. Similarly, yesterday’s anti-abortion march in Spain may raise few eyebrows following a rash of civil unrest cases across the continent in recent weeks over financial difficulties, both present and to come, in the more economically vulnerable eurozone countries. Greater participation in democracy, be it effective or not, appears rife.

Britain, the isolated neighbour to the continent, has not escaped this trend, which shows little chance of receding. Though David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty was broken not long ago owing to new developments, others, such as one on voting reform, have recently been proposed. There have been other signs of established institutions reaching out to the electorate, such as Cameron’s invitation last summer to members of the public to apply for candidacy for the Conservative party at the next general election, and the BBC’s perceived hint last week that it would save a popular but seemingly inefficient radio station targeted for closure, provided there was an adequate display of public outrage at its demise. In other cases, such as that of Denise Fergus, murder victim James Bulger’s mother, who is calling for the treatment of her son’s killer regarding a new crime to be carried out differently, the public appears more pro active within the political realm.

Like the level of public involvement in politics, however, the strength and form of reactions to it are routinely difficult to gauge in advance, and those in authority often approve or eschew public wishes based on myriad factors. In the case of Cameron’s stance towards the prospect of the Lisbon Treaty coming into force in Britain, engaging the public seemed favourable to him until, following the treaty’s ratification, the effectiveness of a referendum on the treaty vanished, or was at least greatly diminished, and seemed no longer viable. The BBC, with its recent appeal to those infuriated by the closure of a radio station, is not always so willing to bend to public whims; its decision not to broadcast an appeal concerning the Gaza strip conflict in early 2009 was unaffected by a swathe of public dissent against it, heightening an already controversial situation. Similarly, with government business, policy changes to fit public demand are rare, and strategy often remains unaltered in the face of opposing national sentiment. The decision to invade Iraq in 2003, a cause of great anger at the time, and something for which the prime minister was recently questioned, has not lost its controversy.

Considering that it is usually provoked by delicate or contentious scenarios, judging public involvement in a general sense is both hazardous and difficult; each case can only legitimately be judged based on its individual merits and nuances, and the question of whether to initiate, or how to react to, such activity is often a highly subjective matter.

Public initiative is often heartening, and useful at that, but it can equally become counter-productive. Some public action, such as last year’s successful campaign for Gurkhas’ settlement rights in Britain, fronted by celebrity Joanna Lumley, serves as a timely reminder of public sentiment when a government seems out of touch with this, and can act as a balancing influence to decisions made contrary to the public will. It can also highlight both real and potential mistakes on the government’s part; opposition to the Iraq war, though failing to prevent the conflict itself, may arguably have cast a more critical perspective on it and any awaiting pitfalls. Others, however, may reveal the public’s disconnection at times from the complexities of politics when, led by emotion and little else, views are based on ideologies and feelings and thus bypass or ignore the realities of a situation, becoming unfeasible or irrational. Such may have been the case with some critics of Cameron’s revised stance on Europe following the Lisbon Treaty’s ratification, and with Denise Fergus, who, in her grief, may have lost a sense of the individual rights of her son’s killer, something a government is obliged to consider.

In the spirit of democracy and serving its public, a government must respect, and encourage, public interaction with the political world. This can lead to valuable debates and a voicing of the national mood. Such action, however, must also be viewed warily; policy, at its best, is devised to uphold ideals, but at the same time must ultimately heed the forces of reality and pragmatism.

Clearing the air

February 26, 2010 Leave a comment

To their credit, many politicians are men and women led in part by an altruistic desire for widespread change, but this gentle ambition is often hardened by the rough competition for strategic gain, the abrasive nature of discourse and the need to master a perpetual news cycle. Unsurprisingly, those prominent in the political arena are not foreign to Schadenfreude and the treasures released by the woes of others.

For an opposition leader, who has some administrative brunt but lacks the authority and resources available to those in higher office, the derision of those in power and vindication of their competitors makes for indispensable strategy, and the failings of government can lead to great gains on the other side of the house. This dirty, inevitable fact of politics can be nobly ignored, but this is both impractical and rare.

In this respect, David Cameron, currently the expected prime minister in waiting, has much he could ignore and too much pragmatism to do so. Gordon Brown’s administration has long been dogged by a plethora of slips and hardships; an economic crisis, two controversial wars, a less than photogenic leader and the party’s equally tired appearance brought on by around 13 years of now fading longevity. These factors and a miscellany of other, smaller issues leave Cameron with much to disparage.

It is perhaps in keeping with form, then, that Cameron has this week mocked an alleged rift in the Labour party, based on a time when Gordon Brown briefed aggressively against chancellor Alistair Darling (pictured) over a dire economic prediction he made, in 2008. The latest barb highlights not just Cameron’s habit of belittling his rivals, but also Labour’s ongoing legacy of internal feuds.

New Labour’s knack for survival over more than a decade, something that suggests its strength as a political force, belies its more fragmentary character; the tenure of Tony Blair, Brown’s predecessor, was marked by strife between the two, an old tale recently elaborated on by both a revelatory book and the prime minister himself, stemming from an agreement in the 1990’s that Brown would not challenge Blair in a party leadership contest as long as he could later inherit the position. This often compromised the party’s direction; Brown would remain chancellor once Blair took power, and was given significant freedom in this domain, leading to sometimes lax financial policy, something which left the country unprepared for the current recession. Worse, the party was embattled by feuds between the two individuals’ respective camps, ultimately accelerating Blair’s departure from office and muddling both Labour’s image and decisions.

There are countless other examples. Brown, challenged earlier this year in what was seen as the latest in a handful of coup attempts when two Labour veterans demanded a leadership contest, had to bargain with his colleagues to secure an admittedly lukewarm show of loyalty and see off the act of dissent. Similarly, the cabinet itself is familiar with power struggles, even after Blair’s departure; the degree of support for Brown wavers from one minister to another, as does Brown’s affection for each, resulting in tensions and outbreaks. One example is his abortive attempt to make loyal acolyte Ed Balls chancellor in a 2009 reshuffle, a possibility Darling successfully resisted. Such rifts, though not untypical of political entities, can be embarrassing and counter productive.

Cameron, as ruthless and vociferous as opposition leaders tend to become, would be loathe not to exhaust such dilemmas for their rewards. Yet this strategy threatens to backfire; playing on Labour divisions is savvy, but equally both unwise and disingenuous. Firstly, Cameron is not without his own problems. Brown’s party has become unpopular and divided, but seemingly remains committed to its 1990’s reincarnation as a political entity predominantly occupying the centre ground rather than the left. Cameron’s situation is the opposite; he has transformed the ‘nasty’ Conservative party into a more likeable, electable creature, but in terms of policy, Cameron’s progressive inner circle is far from the party’s unvanquished ideological instincts, leading already to a number of clashes between progression and continuity.

A notable conundrum is Cameron’s stance on the EU; since his bold declaration of an “iron cast pledge” to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty was neutered by the treaty’s successful implementation last year, Cameron has been caught between trying to satisfy his typically eurosceptic followers and succumb to the realities at hand, while at the same time attempting to avoid alienating valuable European allies. There are further disparities; a recent survey of prospective Conservative parliamentary candidates suggests that, though the Conservatives and Cameron both profess a hospitable nature to homosexuals and gay rights issues, only 28% of those questioned believe that the next government should legislate to make people behave in a “greener” way, in stark contrast to Cameron’s own image. The Conservative leader, keen as he is to explore Labour divides, will surely face internal skirmishes of his own if elected prime minister this year.

This is admittedly important, but the key argument against mocking party division is heftier, and more conscientious, than theories of political karma. Arguments between allies, though lambasted by their opponents and the press, are healthier than they seem. A lack of unity may result from weak personal and political ties, but it can also stem from debate, a natural and sensible method of reaching solutions to problems. Arguments over policy may hinder a process initially, but this is preferable to an unruffled leadership guiding obedient MP’s to folly, and should arguably be represented as such. Consensus is a valuable form of progress, but only when bitterly fought for.

A private public

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment

If politicians, media men and their loud, audacious claims are to be seen as a reliable water mark of general opinion, then in public eyes, transparency is arguably a good and desirable trait for those in high or strategic office. If pressed hard enough to be open about their methods and progress, operations with a responsibility to the public will theoretically avoid cutting corners to evade the bad odour of controversy and disrepute. Anticipating the hazards of skeletons perpetually kept in closets, a number of organisations are now keen to reveal information once hidden away.

This development is not recent, but it does appear newly catalysed; the volatile (and ongoing) fallout over previously undisclosed details of MP’s expenses revealed by The Telegraph last year has led to criminal investigations, numerous resignations and a loss of public faith in British democratic institutions, but also to an apparent urgency amongst certain organisations to avoid similar fiascos. The BBC, an outlet characteristically dogged by pressure over its direction due to taxpayers’ direct involvement in its funding, began to disclose a wealth of new information regarding its spending soon after the outbreak of the expenses scandal. This is but one example of a trend, where hidden information has seemingly become both a taboo and a curse in need of lifting; just today, a politician embattled by recent scandal was encouraged to release details about the incident as a form of potential vindication of his character and conduct. Similarly, one of the most unpopular aspects of the “Climategate” scandal surrounding a group of climate research scientists was not their allegedly spurious work, but their unwillingness to comply with a freedom of information request regarding it.

Such requests, which enable concerned parties to demand at times sensitive and important information from organisations and individuals without the obstacles of rejection or evasion, have produced a new multitude of revelations and journalistic coups since their introduction in 2005. Though problematic to persons and entities in terms of potential scandal or embarrassment, as well as the naked cost of dealing with such requests (by September 2009 the BBC had spent over £3 million complying with them), they have, it seems, brought a new era of openness to the public realm, arguably a healthy state of affairs and an encouragement for more trusting, satisfied voters and consumers.

As greatly heralded as transparency may be, however, events point to the attitude that, between consumers and their providers, this should not be a reciprocal thing; corporate entities willing to make people’s details and activities public in whatever way are known to incur the wrath of their customers. Though also an issue of individual rights in general, the controversy over social networking giant Facebook’s removal of the right of users to delete their personal information at any time highlighted public anger at encroachments of privacy. This poignant lesson for the corporate world, though well noted at the time, was repeated this week to search engine behemoth Google. The company attempted to emulate Facebook’s online success by adding a social networking dimension to its email service, but ironically only succeeded in repeating one of its blunders, angering users by introducing a function that revealed who they had been emailing to their most regular contacts, a move allegedly in breach of privacy laws that was quickly amended. At best an oversight of human interaction, or even an overestimation of users’ extraversion online, this alteration came with worrying implications. Those with a legitimate need to keep their email activity and contacts private are abundant; journalists with anonymous sources, companies’ employees and the rival businesses they may have contacted concerning job offers, people with secret blogs or prying ex-lovers and others who simply enjoy their privacy. For all of these, the move could be regarded as an abuse of personal rights.

More unsettling for some is that Google, an entity proud of its “Don’t be evil” slogan, has already caused similar grievances in the past. Notably, its Google Street View system, which provides access to vertical photographs of streets across much of the world, proved controversial for openly showing people’s property and homes, prompting fears that this would aid and encourage potential burglars, and outcries about damaged privacy. The chasing away of one Google car, responsible for taking the offending photographs, by a group of angry Buckinghamshire village residents highlighted the strength of feeling generated by the intrusions. Such actions, coupled with the company’s rigourous expansion in the last several years, have visibly darkened Google’s once innocuous image across the world. As recently as January, German current affairs magazine Der Spiegel dedicated an extensive cover article of one of its editions to researching suspicious aspects of further planned Google hegemony, with the title “The company that knows more about you than yourself” (Der Konzern, der mehr über Sie weiß, als Sie selbst). Such coverage will only become more common as Google expands its horizons, and its range of privacy-threatening applications, in the future.

As a large company providing mainly useful technological advances that sporadically overstep boundaries, Google is not exceptional. Most obviously, Facebook and Twitter deliver useful social networking services but can be prone to abuse from both users and creators. Similar entities are multiple in number. These valuable, influential bodies must be appreciated, but also held to account by their users. As useful as transparency is for the public good, it is most dangerous where it is not needed.

Green eyed monsters

February 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Prone as politics enthusiasts may at times be to lamenting public apathy during Westminster’s less spectacular moments and, more significantly, at calls to the ballot box, people are notably alert to those things that affect their lives and sensibilities. The recent appearance of Tony Blair at the Chilcot inquiry, the current investigation of the Iraq war’s justification and execution, was a popular event in itself that hinted at the strength of reactions to the conflict; the rigorous bustle of people trying to acquire seats to watch the former prime minister being questioned, the occasional outraged heckler and the lukewarm protests outside were less than overwhelming, but may remind the country of heaving anti-war demonstrations, protest resignations in the commons, an electoral backlash against the government in 2005, a suicide, and a remaining unspent wealth of public and media outrage at the divisive conflict. Several years after the initial invasion, passions are still aflame on both sides of the debate, though the arguments themselves often give way to the chaotic outbursts and bitter disagreement they provoke.

If not yet a consistent talking point, the back and forth over climate change, global warming and the progress of the green movement is similarly becoming less and less a case for indifference, regardless of one’s particular viewpoint. The issue is increasingly provocative, if also the subject of wildly divergent, and in some cases almost schizophrenic opinion. The long-standing green movement, it seems, has experienced both something of a heyday and a meteoric crash shortly afterward; just last summer, British adverts boasting a companies’ green credentials rather than say, prices or customer service, were prominent, hinting at a flourish of support for environmentalism amongst consumers, who inadvertently define the projected image of corporate entities. Similarly, the movement’s advocates have boldly pushed their agenda; The Guardian, a strong supporter of efforts to cut CO2 emissions, rallied like-minded publications in a call to arms for those attending the Copenhagen conference in December 2009, while continuing to endorse people’s everyday attempts to become more environmentally friendly through the 10:10 campaign. A number of pundits, such as the same newspaper’s George Monbiot, who once wrote an article “awarding” what he saw as the greatest falsehoods written about global warming, have adopted a mocking, aggressive tone towards skeptics of climate change theory. Politicians have obediently catered to the perceived opinion, with each of the major parties stressing their green credentials to voters.

Opinion may, however, have swayed, if not violently; the scandal now dubbed “climategate”, in which, shortly before the Copenhagen conference in December, hacked data showing correspondence between University of East Anglia (UEA) scientists and others working on climate change research was released, revealed what appeared to be malicious sentiment towards climate change deniers and, more seriously, was used by the scientists’ critics to suggest that both the peer review system determining contributors to journals, and the scientists’ research itself, were being, or in danger of being, abused to make the case for climate change appear more credible while smearing or marginalising some of its opponents. The case for climate change has been dogged further by recent setbacks, with palpable scrutiny on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its chairman due to a mistake in one of its reports, and controversies surrounding its chairman’s professional and personal life respectively.

Unsurprisingly, any fervour for theories of global warming appears to have been momentarily dampened; a recent BBC poll found an increase of skepticism amongst participants about both the concept of global warming and that of the phenomenon being man made, by 10% and 15% respectively. This trend appears to have also spread to the political realm, with the claim that the majority of Conservative MP’s, members of a party still regarded as the current government-in-waiting, are unconvinced by the consensus on climate change.

Though distant ideologically, climate change believers and their naysayers are similar in their malevolence to one another and their willingness to create sensation and vitriol to discredit their opponents. The ridicule climate change deniers are subjected to by pundits such as Monbiot is intense, degrading and often one-sided, whereas the UEA scientists have not only had data stolen at what was a politically sensitive time, but have also suffered career-threatening disrepute and even persecution; Professor Phil Jones (pictured), the man at the centre of the scandal, recently prompted allusions to the late Dr David Kelly by claiming to have contemplated suicide due to the severity of the global backlash against him following “climategate”. Here, as with the issue of Iraq, there is a danger that the arguments on both sides of the debate are dwarfed by the louder presence of drama and character assassination, leading to a muddying of any real discussion. This, at least for those attempting to push progress and form a consensus, can be distracting and counter-productive.

Having exposed both the malicious tendencies of certain climate change scientists and the corrupt measures their opponents are prepared to take to discredit them, the scandal does offer limited hope that those fighting for either side may reconsider such tactics, if only fleetingly, leading to a clarification of the issues involved. Climate change may or may not be an important, and valid, theme for coming generations, and, as the BBC poll suggests, many may be oscillating in their stance to it. Without a clear, frank, factual and unspectacular debate, however, the topic may be lost in the heat of political conflict.

Guilty until proven factual

February 1, 2010 Leave a comment

As a staple and highly lucrative source of media content, the conventional celebrity story, often involving the praise and subsequent vilification over time of a well-known individual based on their merits and misdemeanours respectively, is a common affair within the news cycle. In this respect, the recent humiliation of footballer John Terry (pictured) due to some extra-marital indiscretions is unremarkable. The backlash against Terry in the public sphere, however, is harsh and considerable in comparison to other such cases. As The Economist‘s Bagehot column argues, this suggests Terry’s handling of the information, rather than the scandal itself, may be the cause of such violent rebuke.

While the fallout of the scandal is adequately covered (Terry is potentially facing divorce, the loss of the reputable captaincy of the English football team as well as lucrative sponsorship deals, along with the possibility of further adverse publicity.), media eyes appear more keenly trained on the issue of the super injunction originally used to suppress the story, a draconian legal maneuver that prevents news organisations from reporting not only specific information but also the existence of the restrictions themselves.

In this case, the overturning of the super injunction provides more questions about press law than about Terry’s lifestyle; super injunctions are by their secretive nature impossible to number, but some worry they are being deployed excessively and preemptively to thwart negative publicity in the press. Terry’s is not the only, nor the most serious case of such legal action; as recently as October 2009, the British oil trading firm Trafigura dropped an order obtained to prevent The Guardian and other media from reporting on parliamentary proceedings related to its dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast, following an online campaign to spread the information being suppressed at the time. Similarly, at the time of the Trafigura story, the same newspaper claimed to have been served with at least 12 such orders so far in the course of that year, compared with half that number in 2006. Some of the celebrity-focused tabloids routinely receive “a handful” of these each week, according to sources for the same article.

The prediction could prove accurate that super injunctions, vulnerable to internet sabotage (in the case of the Trafigura story) and at times more controversial than the entity seeking them (in Terry’s case), may lose favour in the eyes of courts and solicitors and thus fall out of use. The concern remains, however, that reportage vital to the public interest, such as revelatory information on morally dubious corporate undertakings, is being unnecessarily silenced, and the strength of the media as a preventative to corruption is being dangerously undermined.

Fears about diminished press freedom are not allayed by the workings of the English libel law system, which currently allows foreign entities with little or no British-based interests to pursue their detractors, curbing negative publicity (and with it free speech) with the threat of costly, drawn-out lawsuits or hasty financial settlements, which are often cheaper but equally damaging. The Economist, a frequent advocate of libel law reform in England, notes that one American author’s book about the funding of Islamic terrorism sold just 23 copies in Britain, over the internet, but a Saudi businessman nevertheless sued her in a London court and was awarded over £100,000. The effects of such litigation are not repellent to authors and journalists alone, but also to scientists, historians, pressure groups and others dealing with sensitive or disputable information, for whom opinions expressed about corporate or professional bodies are often legally perilous. The libel system, which requires the defendant to prove what he said to be true, fair or legally privileged and, unlike American law, disregards free speech as a grounds for defense, is regarded as the world’s most claimant-friendly. A recently established government libel panel, however, consisting of senior lawyers, journalists and scientists, may provide hope for a more robust stance taken in protection of free speech, or at least reduce the feasibility of “libel tourism” in England.

Those lamenting a stifled press are not without ammunition in miscellaneous forms, and not all barriers to press freedom are legal. BBC journalist Andrew Marr’s book My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism tells not only a background of the industry, but also bemoans attempts by the Tony Blair Labour government during Marr’s tenure as BBC Political Editor to smother bad press by smearing, bullying and refusing to cooperate with journalists they regarded as disobedient to the party line. A free and effective press is competent at making the influential accountable to others, but doing so attracts powerful opponents.

Though press freedom, and the accountability of those bearing great influence or responsibility to the public, are paramount to a fairer democracy, journalists themselves must also be held to account, to dissuade unchecked, irresponsible reporting; in cases of negative publicity, spurious claims about a person or entity are as damaging as true ones, and some invasive coverage, such as pushy celebrity pieces, may have little more than a tenuous claim of representing the public interest. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC), a body that essentially allows the press to self regulate, was recently targeted for potential change by a charity, which claimed measures such as the removal of newspaper editors from boards, the acceptance of third party complaints and the monitoring of media bodies were essential to making the watchdog, and the organisations it represents, more transparent and accountable. This move is arguably necessary; in an effective democracy the press must be a counterweight to, rather than an example of, corruption.