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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Vague threats are no way to guarantee a free press

Those of us who remember the infamous Sun headline in 1992, exhorting the last person who leaves Britain to turn out the lights if Neil Kinnock won that year's General Election, will know that those who control the media believe that they can influence public opinion to get their own way.

That may or may not have been the case 26 years ago, but the influence of the traditional press has waned considerably ever since, with many people relying on social media for their news.

That does not mean that a good old scandal does not resonate, nor that lies and partisan claims printed in newspapers will not spill over into new media. In fact, the nature of Facebook, Twitter and all the other on-line outlets ensures that this stuff spreads faster and deeper than ever.

However, the interactive nature of social media also means that there are instant rebuttal tools available, as well as thousands of sceptical and intelligent commentators who are able to challenge 'news' stories in a way that was not available to people in 1992.

My sympathy for Jeremy Corbyn and the nonsense being peddled about him by the likes of the Sun, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Express therefore, is tempered by the fact that he and his supporters now have the ability to effectively respond to it without resorting to law, and the knowledge that when these claims about him being a Czechoslovakian spy are put under the spotlight, they crumble away like the gossamer of half-truths, smears and distortions they really are. I suspect many others feel the same way, even if they do not support Corbyn and his remodelled Labour Party.

The point is of course that we have a free press, but we also have some of the most effective libel laws in the free world (if you can afford to use them). Politicians who place themselves in the front line know that they will become targets, that their enemies will resort to misinformation about them if they feel under threat and that modern communication methods enable them to respond effectively, if they are prepared to use them. There is no need to resort to threats, after all in a few years time the shoe could be on the other foot.

That is why I was disappointed in Jeremy Corbyn's response to the spy claims. As the Guardian reports, rather than taking on the responsible journalists directly, the Labour leader instead issued a video in which he said that Labour would 'stand up to the powerful and corrupt' without detailing what this action would mean:

He said: “A free press is essential for democracy and we don’t want to close it down, we want to open it up. At the moment, much of our press isn’t very free at all. In fact it’s controlled by billionaire tax exiles, who are determined to dodge paying their fair share for our vital public services.

“The general election showed the media barons are losing their influence and social media means their bad old habits are becoming less and less relevant. But instead of learning these lessons they’re continuing to resort to lies and smears. Their readers – you, all of us – deserve so much better. Well, we’ve got news for them: change is coming.”

These sort of veiled threats help nobody. In fact they undermine any good will Corbyn may have gathered by being the target of such an obvious smear in the first place. If Labour's response to fairly weak criticism and dodgy smears in the press is to threaten further regulation or restriction on their freedom to publish within the confines of the law, then that is very worrying.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental pillar of our democracy. For a major party leader and possible future Prime Minister to even consider restricting it in this way, raises serious questions about his suitability for those roles. This is the sort of authoritarian approach I would expect from a third world dictator. It has no place in a democratic country such as the UK.
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