Cross-posted at Bright Blue
The political hue of a government by no means tells you where it will stand on defending freedom of expression when the chips are down. The signals from Cameron and his team so far are mixed but by the end of 2012, judgements good or bad are likely to start rolling in. A whole mixture of issues, laws, domestic statements and foreign policy stances add up to a picture of whether a government is promoting, defending or limiting freedom of expression – free speech, a free press, freedom to receive and share information online and off. So why is autumn 2012 likely to be so critical in telling us if the government is standing up for one of our most fundamental rights in a democracy?
Three particular issues are on the agenda this autumn, crucial to whether the UK can stand proud in the world as a democracy where free speech thrives: the defamation reform bill, the communications data bill, and the report from the Leveson Inquiry. The rough state of play on these goes as follows: defamation report bill — very welcome but some critical gaps need plugging at committee stage this month; communications data bill — very unwelcome, risks the UK being the pariah of the democratic world in digital surveillance; government response to the Leveson Inquiry — all to play for. If all of these go in the right direction, there will be reason for celebration and plaudits for Cameron indeed. If the three go in different directions, the government may well end up looking confused on freedom of expression. If they go in the wrong direction, criticism is likely to come in from around the world.
Index has been campaigning for three years (with its partners English Pen and Sense about Science) for a reform of England’s libel laws for the last three years. And it was a huge step forward to have the defamation reform bill in the Queen’s speech this May – the bill is likely to complete its path through parliament by the end of the year. In its current form, there is much that is positive — major steps have been taken to tackle libel tourism, so that nationals of other countries no longer use the English courts on the excuse of a small even negligible extent of publication in the UK, just to benefit from the complainant-bias in the existing law. But some of the most notorious cases of libel in recent years — such as those of Simon Singh or Ben Goldacre, both dragged expensively and at length through the courts (even though ultimately cleared) for debating and challenging scientific and medical practices – could still occur. The defamation bill crucially needs a proper public interest defence to be added at committee stage — so that open, reasonable debate can take place without the chill of possible expensive libel suits. Without it, a major opportunity to bring English libel law firmly into the 21st century will have been missed.
The Comms Data Bill – aptly labelled a ‘snooper’s charter’ by the press – has no saving graces. The Bill would lead to collection and filtering of data across the entire British population – emails, mobile and landline calls, websites visited, the list goes on. Monitoring and surveillance of this kind impacts directly both on the right to privacy and on the right to freedom of expression. No other democracy is proposing such an extensive approach to data collection – and it is the kind of approach that would normally be associated with regimes such as Iran and China, who will certainly be watching whether the Bill goes through with interest. If it does, it will be very difficult for Cameron or Hague to tell Iran, China, Russia and others that they must allow and respect internet freedoms when they will no longer be doing so at home. The report stage of the Bill is expected to conclude in November – the committee has an opportunity then to call for the withdrawal of the Bill, and the government should do so.
Then there is Leveson — expected to report in mid-November. It is too soon to say exactly what Lord Leveson will propose, or how Cameron will respond. But many are speculating that Leveson will recommend introducing a so-called ‘light’ form of statutory regulation of the press — through a statute that would go to parliament determining what an ‘independent’ regulator should look like. If so, this would be the thin end of the wedge — introducing government control over how the press can behave — a development which would risk taking the UK in the direction of Hungary with its increased state intervention in the media. Tougher, more effective independent regulation of the British press is surely the direction of travel. But if Leveson goes down the statutory route, Cameron needs to stand up for the basic principles of press freedom — journalists cannot hold government (and opposition) to account if government in the end determines how the press is controlled.
Three crucial choices face the government in the next two months — by December, we hope Index will be applauding Cameron on all three fronts. If not, it will be a sad moment for freedom of expression in the UK.
Kirsty Hughes is Chief Executive of Index on Censorship