Former Labour cabinet minister Lord Mandelson has accused the British newspapers of feeling they are “above the law”, arguing that it is “politically suicidal” for any prime minister to consider taking them on.
In an afternoon at the Leveson Inquiry in which he lamented a “loss of deference” in society, Mandelson compared the press to Britain’s trades unions in feeling “untouchable” and wanting to “operate above the law”. He wrote in his witness statement:
Like the trades unions, when you try to apply the law, they shout from the rooftops about basic freedoms and fundamental rights. (…) Perhaps, because of all that has now happened and been revealed about the invasions of privacy, law-breaking and deceptions, the time for the press has also finally arrived. But it will take a brave government and I would not bank on their nerve holding.
Mandelson, one of the key architects of New Labour, lamented what he termed the “tabloidisation” of the British press, suggesting News International titles and others had “pioneered” a shift from “conventional news to a pre-occupation with celebrity, scandal, gossip and sexual revelation”.
“There are barely any broadsheets left, figuratively or literally,” he said, adding later that he felt the country would be “better off” if newspapers “spent more time looking into corporate misbehaviour and general wrongdoing rather than celebrity tittle tattle and gossip”.
He also expressed fears over the challenges presented by digital media. “Media business models are being ransacked, governments are losing control of the information flow and the public are being given access to a flood of undigested and unmediated ‘news’, all in the name of free speech,” he wrote.
He stressed a need to maintain standards in the press. “The media has to be challenging,” he said,”but it seems that every journalist wants to turn themselves into a [Bob] Woodward or a [Carl] Bernstein. They have to accept that sometimes people haven’t done wrong.”
Mandelson spoke out in favour of a body enforcing higher standards, but argued that corporate governance and transparency were equally important. “Just in the case of banks, you need regulation, but for banks to uphold proper standards they need better people running them,” he said.
He advocated independent, statute-backed regulation controlled by neither the press nor the government, disagreeing with Lord Justice Leveson’s suggestion that it might be seen as infringing free speech.
Elsewhere in his three hours of evidence, Mandelson described his time in dealing with the press in the run up to the 1992 elections and Labour’s takeover of power in 1997, when the Murdoch-owned Sun famously switched its previous Conservative party allegiance.
He compared dealing with media in the 1980s as “like living in a jungle, engaging in almost daily hand to hand combat with people who never seemed prepared to give you a break”, and described Labour’s relations with press around 1992 elections as “pretty dire” due to their antagonism with the party.
Ahead of the 1992 elections, Mandelson said, “we didn’t want to make permanent enemies of News International”, as the party tried to forge a friendlier relationship with the publisher.
However he was firm in rejecting the view that “some sort of Faustian pact” had been struck between the Murdoch-owned group and Labour at the time of the Sun supporting the party ahead of its 1997 landslide win.
On his dictum of press-politicians relations, which the Inquiry is currently examining, Mandelson said: “You can be friendly with journalists, but journalists are never your friends.”
The Inquiry continues tomorrow.
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So, I can’t speak for you lot, but I haven’t spent the week reading Peter Mandelson’s diaries. I haven’t compared and contrasted them to Alastair Campbell’s recollections of the same events. I haven’t felt moved to accuse him of betraying everything the Labour party is trying to do, or has ever done. And I haven’t reconsidered my understanding of the last 13 years in the light of his words. What I have done is skim-read about 10,000 newspaper columns in which the writers do one or more of the above. I’ve even skimmed over the meta-articles, in which the writer points out that all the jumping up and down and name-calling provoked by Mandy so far merely serves to prove that he was telling the truth all along.
And the reason I haven’t read his book, or excerpts or his book, or comments on articles about his book is because, if I am absolutely honest, I don’t care. I can’t imagine my view of the last ten years or so of government will be remotely influenced by hearing, again, that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown didn’t get on very well. I’m just not interested anymore. They’re both gone, best of luck to ’em, now can we talk about the something else? Like the fact that my GP is now supposed to be good at all kinds of things beyond doctoring, when I’m not completely sure she’s even up to mustard on that. Or the fact that the BBC might lose its licence fee, even though we will then end up with telly that makes Channel 4 look interesting.
Or we could talk about books which have a real impact in the real world, and not just in the op-ed pages and on the Daily Politics (much as I love it). Alan Shadrake, a freelance journo, has been arrested in Singapore, for writing a book about Singaporean justice. And Singaporean justice seems to be as much of a contradiction in terms as Mandelsonian Loyalty (see how I tricked you into thinking that section was over and then called it right back? I am sneaky beyond belief).
And Shadrake is 75-years-old, has recently recovered from cancer, and has high blood pressure, so being arrested might not be the same walk in the park for him that it might be for you or me. In spite of his illness, he still found time to write Once A Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice In The Dock. He has interviewed the country’s most prolific (is that the word, in this context?) hangman. And he hasn’t snuck away from Singapore like any other person in their right mind would do. He’s stayed there to promote the book, and now he’s been arrested. Arrested and charged with defamation, for which he could be imprisoned for two years.
You might be wondering who he defamed. The country’s most prolific hangman, perhaps? Or a judge? Or a policeman? Wrong every time, sunshine — he’s charged with defaming the country’s judicial system. How can it be possible to defame a system? Has he hurt the feelings of individual lawyers? All of them? And if so, couldn’t they bill someone for an extra hour, cackle softly, and grow the fuck up? I hope Index on Censorship readers will jump up and down and make noise about this: his lawyer hasn’t been allowed to see him yet, and Singapore’s justice system doesn’t need another victim.
The Digital Economy Bill — now under attack from quarters as diverse as Billy Bragg and the Federation of Small Businesses — threatens to grant Business Secretary Peter Mandelson’s successors the power to censor web content for any reason, and to punish innocent people for failing to prevent other people from infringing copyright.
The punishments being envisaged for copyright infringement might have, of course, included normal powers, perhaps to fine, as we do with fare dodgers, who commit what might seem a comparable financial offence.
But instead, Mandelson has opted for a medieval approach equivalent to banishment of the offender from everyday society: disconnection of them and their family or business from the internet.
The government knows full well that it cannot actually find out who has downloaded copyright material, only what internet connection has been used.
Because they are unable to identify actual infringers, the government has opted to use an iron fist and simply blame anyone whose internet account has been used for copyright infringement.
This has understandably got libraries and schools very worried, they too face the possibility of being disconnected because of the actions of their pupils.
Similarly, businesses such as hotels, pubs and cafes are getting worried that they too might be punished for the actions of their customers.
Additionally, the powers in clause 11, and the disproportionate punishments have worried groups like Liberty, and now Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, who said:
“We do not believe that such a skeletal approach to powers which engage human rights is appropriate. There is potential for these powers to be applied in a disproportionate manner which could lead to a breach of internet users’ rights to respect for correspondence and freedom of expression.”
Liberty warn that clause 11 might be used as a broad power of censorship, and point to the mis-application of widely drafted powers including Clause 44 “stop and search powers” introduced for terrorism, and now used to justify searching teenagers across London.
The Secretary of State could for example order that those accessing websites that fit a particular criteria be cut off – for example political or religious websites considered to be extreme. It takes little imagination to envisage where such a power could lead. What has been described as a power to cut off illegal file-sharers is in fact better described as a power to cut of internet access for whomever the Secretary of State sees fit.
The music and film industries have demanded harsh punishments for offenders, but insist that legal processes should be limited, must be paid for and ensured that there are no reasonable defences. Evidence alone is enough to get your business, community group or family cut off.
Copyright holders are mistaken to think that punishments are the key to getting their new businesses to work. Laws rarely work when they need to be backed up by harsh and unfair punishment, especially of the innocent: our sense of fair play will tend to conclude that something in the law itself is at fault.