On freedom of the press

We were all suitably appalled by the phone hacking scandal at The News of the World, and the other media misdemeanours which came out in the investigation that followed in its wake. But were we really surprised? Shock horror – red tops do bad things. Knock me down with a feather.

I am, however, deeply concerned by the result of that enquiry. Lord Justice Leveson, the judge who conducted the investigation, published his findings and recommendations on how to improve media ethics in November last year. He found, predictably, that the voluntary, editor-led Press Complaints Commission did not have enough power or independence and needed to be replaced with a body with a few more teeth. Members of the new body would sign a code of practise and would be fined as and when they broke it. Membership should, he argued, be voluntary. All seemed to be going swimmingly.

Then came the spanner in the works. Leveson decided that, in order to account for the media organisations who did not sign up to his revamped commission and those willing to pay fines over and over again, there needed to be a ‘legal backstop’. Here, I stopped nodding along.

Britain is a democracy. Britain is a (relatively) open, law-abiding and fair sort of place. And yet, since November, we have seen our political parties squabbling over state regulation. Freedom of the press – a right to be venerated – is being questioned in a bid to score some electoral points. I am more appalled by this than I was by anything the enquiry uncovered.

On Monday the Liberal Democrats and Labour will table a motion in the Commons calling for Leveson’s recommendations to be enacted. In full. If enough annoyed Tories defy the party whip, that’s it. Bam – state regulation of the press. It’ll be a sad day.

I don’t think I have ever been in such firm, unquestioning agreement with Cameron while being so viscerally disappointed in Clegg. How can a party with the word ‘liberal’ in its name – indeed, which can trace its history back to the reforming masterminds of Gladstone and Lloyd George – support such a measure? It is populism, and it is wrong.

I do not write this as a journalist fighting in my own self-interest – nor even as someone who is obsessed with political debate. History and current affairs will show you what can go wrong when the press is stifled – look at pre-revolutionary France or modern Egypt – but you need not look that far. Ask yourself two questions: does common sense allow it? And is it right? The answers are all you need to know.

The Euro, Hollande and a strange British fixation

The euro has been in turmoil, on and off, for two years. We have become accustomed to doom-saying headlines, citing bond yields and sovereign debt, interest rates and double-dip recessions. At the beginning of these multiple crises, Europe was united. ‘Merkozy’ – the unfortunate Merkel-Sarkozy duo – expressed oodles of solidarity. Austerity was imposed – the banks took no notice.
The situation yo-yoed for some time. There were bail-outs in Ireland and Portugal – and multiple ones for Greece. We saw Italy loose it’s elected (if sleazy) government, which – along with Greece’s – was replaced with technocrats. In Spain a right-wing government came to power. Cuts in public spending became the order of the day.

But then things began to change. In Greece and Spain, people began to protest against the austerity programs enforced by Germany in return for cheap money. Anti-Europe sentiment has risen, as the solution has become more and more about integration. In Greece’s recent elections, no party won enough seats to form a government – but those who did well were those who pledged to renegotiate the terms of the bail-out agreement, and a neo-Nazi party did scarily well. A new election is now scheduled for mid-June, and the markets remain jumpy. Many hope that Greeks have now expressed their anger and will vote for pro-bail-out parties, but this is not guaranteed.

Meanwhile, in France Mr Sarkozy lost power to Francois Hollande – a Socialist. He was inaugurated with a promise for growth. He intends to achieve this by instigating a ‘growth pact’ to run alongside the euro-zone’s fiscal compact, comprising of measures to boost output and create jobs. The two agreements, on the face of it, will have to contradict each other. I feel inclined to explain the concept of aggregate demand here, but I’d be terrible at doing so and it would be very dull. Suffice to say, boosting output while keeping one’s fiscal situation on the right path is a tough call. Growth is needed to rectify the deficit, but more spending is needed if we are to grow. I can only wish Mr Hollande luck, especially as Mrs Merkel remains stone-faced and intransigent. With the Merkozy partnership gone, it will indeed be interesting to see what happens. A disagreement between Germany and France, who have so far acted together as Europe’s bank, could be what really ends the era of the single currency.

Along with all the hoo-haing in Europe, we in the UK have been subjected to David Cameron. Let’s ignore the shenanigans about the Levison Enquiry (it really is about time that ended) and the pasty tax. What has really got up my nose recently is the PM’s insistence that the UK is somehow not in Europe. And as ridiculous as that is, it is only symptomatic of a wider feeling prevalent in a majority of the public that ‘we’ do not belong to the Continent. I mean, come on – if we are not European, what in God’s name are we? It is about time that the British accepted that we are not important enough anymore to do without belonging somewhere. The Channel is a paltry fifty-odd miles wide – it hardly constitutes an ocean.

Now I’ve expressed my Europhillic views, I’ll sign off to go and check the euro is still in one piece. I have a feeling that its days are numbered and its impossible to tell if the final moments are indeed upon us or if the politicians have put off the day of reckoning a bit longer.

When the spark fades

Nick Clegg and David Cameron have been remarkably chummy for more time than many of the media thought was possible. The coalition survived budget negotiations, the thrashing of the Lib Dems at local elections this year, even general clashes in ideology. However, Cameron’s appalling performance at the latest European summit (a whole other story of failing politicians) has finally exposed some rather deep cracks in the facade of political unanimity.

In my opinion, the fault lies squarely on Cameron’s too-well-fitted suit shoulders. The Euro has been lurching from crisis to crises without the European leaders deciding to carry out what was really needed, namely treaty change. This week, finally, it looked as if they might just attempt to rewrite the current Lisbon Treaty and secure the financial regulation that the markets are so desperate to see implemented. They may have saved the Euro by now, if Cameron had not been such a fool.

In recent years Cameron’s backbenchers have been getting more and more agitated about Europe (and, one could say, more and more delusional). They have no doubt been quietly waiting for a nice, juicy crisis to make themselves heard. This they did, when 81 of them defied a three-line whip and voted against Mr Cameron and in favour of an EU in-out referendum last month. Incidentally, this farcical idea did not, thank god, pass. However, Cameron found himself in the bizarre situation of not being able to negotiate at the summit, having pledged not to agree to anything before he even got there. At this point, I had my head in my hands, fully expecting him to leave the EU altogether and overturn the ECHR – you never know with these Tories. Ironically, Cameron himself is not that much of a Eurosceptic. What we have witnessed, then, is a party leader submitting to some old-fashioned, nagging and irresponsible men a few rows behind him.

Why does it matter, you may ask? Well, instead of a change to the Lisbon Treaty, about which Britain could have had a say, there will now be an ‘accord’. This will mean, possibly, that the 26 other EU countries will all come to an agreement by themselves while Britain is rightfully ignored. Oh, yes – well done Cameron! As a half-French, half-English girl I have one question – why do the Brits think that they are not really Europeans? I would advise a quick look at the map; we very clearly are in Europe. Accept it. Move on. Grow up.

No longer bons amis?
Having successfully enraged an entire continent (impressive really) Cameron probably returned to London for some light relief – and possibly to lap up some praise from the aforementioned old men. To start with, he seemed to be getting both, and happily played the darling of Little England. No one, apart from some pesky Labour supporters, made much of a fuss. Then, Nick Clegg himself broke coalition ranks. Not subtlely either – no, Clegg went on national television to express his disappointment in the summit’s conclusions.

Any politics student will tell you that this breaks the convention of collective responsibility. Any political analyst will tell you that the coalition looks rather shaky. Any Liberal Democrat will be at once elated and jibbering with fear (ponder that image, if you will). That is because Clegg has finally stood up to Cameron and defended Europe like a true Liberal. Here, surely, is reason to cheer. However, there is a flip-side. With the Lib Dems currently polling at a lowly 10%, should the coalition break up and an election be called, they would win nothing like the power they have now.

Luckily for them, the coalition may manage to squeeze some polyfilla into those cracks. Nick Clegg, having landed an important punch, will probably decide he has done enough for now and start mending fences. And even the Tories know that a general election now would freak out the very markets they are supposedly protecting from Europe. So, for now, the coalition will grit its teeth and carry on – maybe lacking the fake smiles and hearty back-slapping. We’ll miss it.