News that the UK government is planning to grant the state new powers to monitor people’s communications has been met with a mixture of anger and confusion.
The story broke at the end of a bizarre few weeks for the ruling coalition, which managed to score a brace of spectacular own goals in reducing tax rates for the rich while increasing tax on hot food. Meanwhile, one government minister was actually encouraging people to panic buy petrol and store large quantities of it at home ahead of a potential, but by no means certain fuel lorry drivers strike.
The uncertainty over the new surveillance powers can, I think, be seen as part of this pattern. No one is quite sure why the government is doing this — or even what exactly it is they want to do. Roughly speaking, it seems to be about obliging companies to hold information on personal communications and allow government agents (from spies right down to local council workers) access at any time without a warrant.
You would think that such a controversial policy would emerge well thought out and with damned good reason. But Home Secretary Theresa May has absolutely failed to make the case, beyond muttering the usual nothing-to-fear-if-nothing-to-hide line (in itself an odd defence of increased official power from a government which has set out its stall as small-statist, even libertarian), and the utterly confusing position that previous crimes had been solved using these powers, (er, we thought they were new powers).
Writing in today’s Times, Heather Brooke points out the ease with which it is now possible to run a surveillance state through technology. Even if the UK government is sincere in its insistence that these powers will only be used to hunt criminals and terrorists, it severely undermines its power to criticise states that would use the same legislation to watch activists and dissidents. Have no doubt, this is a bad idea and Index will campaign against it should it go any further.
As so often happens with proposed web policy, there’s an element here of the technology leading the argument: it is possible to build surveillance back doors, ergo it is desirable to do so. This is not an attitude that should have any purchase with the supposed civil libertarians and conservatives that make up the government parties (indeed, the coalition agreement included a commitment to the “ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason”). But somehow here we are.
Conservative Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East, is not an MP who got in hot water over his expenses.
We need to get that out of the way, because any suggestion that Julian Lewis, MP, was not, er, wearing an entirely straight crease when he claimed £119 for a wall-mounted trouser press on expenses would be incorrect.
So incorrect that were you to suggest, say on the letters page of your local newspaper that what MPs including Lewis claimed on expenses was “unacceptable”, you would very quickly receive a solicitors letter, ordering you that should you ever repeat the suggestion, you would more than likely end up facing a lengthy, expensive defamation suit.
This is exactly what happened to Mr Richard Grant of Burley in the New Forest.
The government’s announcement today brings forward the first attempt at wholesale libel law reform in over a century
The Libel Reform Campaign has welcomed the announcement this afternoon by Justice Minister Lord McNally that the new coalition government will prioritise and bring forward a Libel Reform Bill by the 2011/2012 parliamentary sessions, after a consultation this summer.
Lord McNally emphasised that this was not a “vague promise” but a “firm commitment to act on this matter”. The Justice Minister also promised that the reform will ensure a “fair balance is struck between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation”.
After a national campaign that mobilised 52,000 supporters, English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science persuaded all three political parties to adopt libel reform in their general election manifestos.
Lord McNally said: “We recognise the concerns raised in recent months about the detrimental effects that the current law may be having on freedom of expression – particularly in relation to academic and scientific debate, the work of non-governmental organisations and investigative journalism.”
“We want to ensure that the right balance is achieved so people who have been defamed are able to take action to protect their reputation but so that freedom of speech is not unjustifiably impeded.”
The lack of a robust public interest defence for writers, scientists and human rights activists has led to English libel law being condemned by the UN human rights committee and Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport select committee. In recent years, there have been increasing instances of ‘libel tourism’ where wealthy foreign claimants use the High Court in London to silence their critics. Another area of concern is the multiple publication rule, which counts every internet visit in a new jurisdiction as a new instance of defamation. This judicial ruling predates the light bulb yet is still used in judgements in internet defamation cases. Currently, 90 per cent of libel cases in England and Wales are won by claimants, taking a case here costs 140 times the European average, and in a survey of GPs, half said they do not discuss drug safety because of fear of a libel action.
John Kampfner, the CEO of Index on Censorship said:
Today the government listened to the 52,000 people who backed the English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science campaign to redesign our libel laws and have committed, for the first time in a century, to wholesale reform. We are delighted, but obviously we’ll need to see how bold the government will be – they must stop libel tourism, cut the obscene legal costs involved and give cast iron protections to free speech.
Jonathan Heawood, the Director of English PEN said:
Until the Libel Reform Bill is actually passed, the right to free speech in this country will be conditional on writers or scientists having deep pockets or a willingness to fight for years through the Courts. It should no longer be a matter for judges but Parliamentarians should decide on how we balance free expression and reputation.
Tracey Brown, the Managing Director of Sense About Science said:
Lord Lester’s Bill is the first time in over a century that there has been a case for fundamental reform before Parliament. We are delighted that the government has responded. The Libel Reform Campaign, supported by over 50,000 people and many leading commentators, will continue doing all we can to ensure that the minister’s response to the debate today is translated into meaningful change in the lives of bloggers, science writers, NGOs and small publications facing threats and bankruptcy under the current laws.
The Libel Reform Campaign is a coalition of English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science. For more information please visit: http://www.libelreform.org
In the run-up to the general election, the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war is being kept out of the public eye, with no new documents published during the campaign in order to keep out of party politics. But the result of the election could well impact on the inquiry. Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties have both promised to rethink the way it operates if they are in government after Thursday’s poll.
The Liberal Democrats have said they would introduce a fast-track freedom of information procedure and ensure the publication of key documents that the inquiry has been prevented from publishing. The Tories have repeated a threat to “revisit” the terms of the inquiry.
Since Gordon Brown announced the inquiry last June, he has come under fire from opposition parties for its lack of transparency. The prime minister initially said the inquiry that would sit in secret, but had to backtrack after fierce criticism from MPs on all sides and former mandarins, including former cabinet secretary Lord Butler, who led a 2004 inquiry into the use of intelligence in the run up to war.
In November, as public hearings began, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg ambushed Brown in the Commons after it became clear that a Cabinet Office protocol would severely limit the inquiry’s ability to publish and publicly discuss the documents that, according to chairman Sir John Chilcot, form the “great bulk” of its evidence.
Chilcot and other committee members have since expressed their frustration during hearings at the restrictions. In January, Tories and Liberal Democrats called for the “gag” on the inquiry to be lifted after former attorney general Lord Goldsmith said while giving evidence that he did not agree with the government’s decision to prevent publication of key papers.
The inquiry has not published any new documents since early February. I asked its spokesman whether this was because none had been cleared by the government or because the inquiry had chosen not to publish any during the run-up to the election. He referred me to Chilcot’s closing statement [pdf] on 8 March that “The Iraq Inquiry intends to remain out of the public eye over the period of the election.” The implication of this is that if the inquiry has documents that it is entitled to publish it has chosen to deny voters knowledge of their contents.
But a new Liberal Democrat or Tory government or coalition could see significant changes to the way the inquiry operates. Liberal Democrat shadow foreign secretary Ed Davey told me: “Labour has suffocated the Iraq Inquiry with rules and red-tape, effectively preventing publication of key documents. Liberal Democrats will review the protocol and appoint an arbitrator between the Cabinet Office and the Iraq Inquiry to rule on the publication of documents. This will act as a fast-track freedom of information procedure and ensure transparent and swift publication of documents.”
A Conservative spokesman said: “We have always said that a Conservative government will reserve the right to revisit the terms of the Inquiry. At the same time we have accepted that the Inquiry needs to hold some of its sessions and proceedings in confidence.”
The Labour party did not take up my invitation to comment but neither Labour nor ministers have given any indication that they plan to loosen the existing restrictions on the inquiry.