Posts Tagged ‘Peter Archer’

Fabian View of the Necessity of Press Regulation

April 20, 2014

Fabian Book Pic

I’ve posted a few quotations today from Peter Archer’s paper on ‘The Constitution’ in Ben Pimlott’s collection of papers Fabian Essays in Socialist Thought (London: Heinemann 1984). There’s another section from the same paper, which is also extremely timely, in which he advocates better regulation of the press to protect the public against propaganda and distortion. He believes this is necessary, as we needed a well-informed electorate with access to reliable, unbiased information to make democracy properly work. Archer states

The second, and converse, problem which has accompanied the expansion of the news industry is what, if anything, can be done about the abuse by large sections of the press of their opportunities for manipulating opinion. Those who wield a giant’s strength, in the absence of a saint’s conscience, are likely to endanger the very values which they helped to nurture (as the media are never tired of reminding the trade unions).

Electors cannot exercise their power of decision in a vacuum. Inevitably those who have access to presses and microphones will be in a position to control the supply of facts and ideas. And however high their standards, there are limits to the degree of detail or profundity attainable. The attention earned by any pronouncement will depend less upon its importance than upon its sensation value. Sometimes the sacred right to free speech will be invoked on behalf of the spiteful and the trivial. What is not inevitable is the veritable absence of control over standards of accuracy and fairness, which in the 1983 election probably reached an all-time low.

There is of course a whole range of inhibitions upon the right of the media to report information which has come their way. any civilised community requires rules relating to contempt of court, to defamation, to privacy and to obscenity. It is arguable that in some respects they are too restrictive, and the reports of Royal Commissions and committees accumulating dust on departmental shelves bear witness to the reluctance of successive governments to lift even a corner of the lid from this Pandora’s box. Almost certainly the subject will need to be treated as a package, but these statutory restrictions are sufficient neither to guarantee an informed electorate nor to protect the privacy of individuals. Every annual report of the Press Council offers fresh evidence of the need for a code of conduct relating to respect for privacy, the correction of inaccuracies and misleading innuendoes, and redress for unfair selectivity. There is also a need for a body with power to impose statutory sanctions. Indeed, the more responsible sections of the press (not only the ‘quality’ papers) have supported the suggestion. Of course, such a body would have to be independent of government. It would need to respect the vitally important freedom to publish facts and express opinions. But the existence of the Press Council itself demonstrates the need for restraints which go beyond the present legal categories. And in their absence, a democratic electorate is like a navigator dependent upon distorted instruments.

Well, the Mail on Sunday, along with its week-day sister and much of the rest of the press smashed its moral compass long ago. Murdoch’s journos are in the dock because of the phone hacking scandal, which has itself resulted in state regulation of the press. And today the Mail on Sunday printed a disgraceful and shameful attack on food banks, largely because their rise embarrasses the government’s claim people aren’t starving under their austerity programme. Mike over at Vox Political has expressed misgivings about the campaign on Change.org to have the journalist, who wrote the article, sacked. The man was simply given a job to do by the editor. This does not excuse him, but the real responsibility for the story lies with the newspaper itself, and it and its editor should be subject to extreme censure.

For decades the British press was allowed a large degree of freedom to print its lies and bile because both Tory and Labour administrations felt they could use its support. John Major felt that he should have moved to limit Murdoch’s power after the newspaper magnate abandoned the Tories for Tony Blair. And Blair was constantly worrying about what Murdoch and Dacre would have to say about any of his policies. As a result the power of the press has grown, and journalistic standards become even lower. And this vile, partisan attack on food banks is the result.

The Mail on Sunday should be ashamed of itself, and held to account for its lies and falsehoods for attacking the one institution that now stands between many people and starvation.

Fabian Socialist View of Democracy vs Public School Elitism

April 20, 2014

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Peter Archer in his chapter on ‘The Constitution’ in Pimlott’s collection of Fabian Essays, stresses the importance of democracy for Socialism, and gives a few brief descriptions of its opponents, one of which sounds eerily familiar.

For Socialists, it is fundamental that every issue is decided ultimately by the wishes of the majority. For any other method of resolution entails that an elite has allocated to itself the right to pronounce the majority wrong. For the High Tory, convinced that some are born to rule; for the Platonist, proclaiming that distinguishing good from evil is a question of knowledge; for the meritocrat, persuaded that only some are intellectually fit to be entrusted with deciding the course of history, it may appear justified to exclude the many from a share in deciding the fate of all. But an essential part of the commitment to equality is the belief that the right to play a part in guiding the affairs of the community attaches to each member of that community, irrespective of the names and status of their relations, the cost and nature of their education, the size of their fortune or the letters behind their name. Even the elitism of the early Fabians, referred to by Rodney Barker, was subject to the right of the people to call the elite to account. Indeed the Fabian commitment to gradualism arises, as Shaw explained, not from satisfaction with present injustices, but from a recognition that improvement cannot come about more quickly than we succeed in persuading the people that it will really an improvement.

This doctrine continues to come under attack from two directions. First are the high priests of the classical tradition, who are prepared to concede to the masses a right to choose, provided that they choose within the frame work of beliefs established in the public schools of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

He then goes on to discuss the other source of opposition, the doctrinaire refusal of those on the Left to compromise their policies for the sake of winning elections.

But the description of the High Tories, the presumption of the moneyed elite to have the exclusive right to rule, and the limitation of democratic choice to Victorian and Edwardian Public School ideas, just about perfectly describes the attitude of Cameron, Osborne and this current government of public school toffs.

It’s time we took democracy back from them, and voted them out.

Fabian View of the Need for Freedom of Information in Government and for the People

April 20, 2014

Fabian Book Pic

Peter Archer, in his paper on ‘The Constitution’ in Fabian Essays in Socialist Thought ed. Ben Pimlott (London: Heninemann 1984) 117-131 also strongly recommends the ending of information given only on a ‘right to know’ basis to ministers in government, the removal of part of the Official Secrets Act and the passage of a Freedom of Information Act.

But this has given rise to two problems which Dicey [19th century constitutional theorist] scarcely envisaged. One relates to freedom of information. Those who are entitled, and indeed expected, to make informed judgements, need the information on which to make them. And this is true not only of electors, but of those within government itself. The circulation of documents on a ‘need-to-know’ basis sometimes denies even to Cabinet ministers information on matters which are essential if they are to be more than departmental administrators.

For the general public, the inhibitions are even greater. The time is long overdue for a repeal of section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, which in a single sentence, bursting with alternatives and disjunctions, creates over 2000 separate offences, and would render liable to prosecution anyone who passes on information about the cost of a military uniform. Even the Society of Conservative Lawyers, in evidence to the Franks Committee in 1971, did not ‘consider it appropriate, in a free society, for journalists or other interested persons to face the prospect of criminal penalties merely because their investigations in the sphere of government activity proved to successful for the comfort of the governors’. But open government requires more than freedom to disseminate information. It requires an obligation upon government to make the facts available, except where there are specific reasons for concealing them. In 1982, the Fabian contributors to Making Government Work proposed a Freedom of Information Act, providing for a Director of Open Information. There would be ‘a presumption that all information of a factual and analytical nature available to government would be disclosed’. and where it was necessary to apply a criterion, it would be decided (subject in certain cases to a final government right of refusal) by the Director.

I don’t know whether documents are still circulated amongst ministers at Westminster on a need-to-know basis. However, I got the distinct impression that under the increasingly presidential system of British politics, the independence of Cabinet ministers is still severely circumscribed and they are pretty much departmental administrators, expected to do the wishes of the Prime Minister.

As for the Freedom of Information Act, this has indeed been passed, complete with an Information Director. However, this is another pillar of open government, which the government is reforming in order to curtail the public’s right to examine the operations of government and its decisions. As for ‘the presumption that all information of a factual and analytical nature available to government would be disclosed’, the government has consistently denied this view. Researchers asking for information on the government’s Workfare programme have been refused it on the grounds that it would generate opposition, make the policy unpopular, and stop it from working. Mike over at Vox Political and other bloggers, who have requested information on the number of people, who have died after having been assessed by Atos have had their requests refused, and then been denounced as ‘vexatious’ for daring to ask them. Mike is due to have his case heard by the Information Tribunal later. We wish him the best of luck. However, the operation of the Freedom of Information Act needs to be reformed so that there is a positive presumption in favour of releasing the information, regardless of whether or not such information will make the people’s governors uncomfortable.

Fabian View on Necessity of People Knowing Legal and Constitutional Rights

April 20, 2014

I found this paragraph in Peter Archer’s chapter on ‘The Constitution’ in Fabian Essays in Socialist Thought, ed. Ben Pimlott (London: Heinemann 1984) 117-31 (122).

Fabian Book Pic

Secondly, if the rights of the citizen are to be effective, it is vital that everyone should be aware of their entitlements and their obligations, should understand what conditions are required to activate them, and should be entitled to argue their case to those who adjudicate upon them. The right of free people to be heard embraces not only the political debates which precede the legislation, but decisions about its application. there is a pressing need to ensure that adequate advice and, where necessary, representation, is available to all. Until the numerous barriers to advice are broken, each new right merely widens the gap between the articulate and assertive, those with knowledgeable friends, and those with neither the resources nor the confidence to avail themselves of their entitlements. Since I have developed this theme elsewhere I do not propose to pursue it here, except to reiterate the need for a national body, with local subsidiaries, to coordinate and supplement the advisory services.

Unfortunately, the provision of bodies informing the public of their rights is even more necessary now. The Citizens Advice Bureaux are under serious attack by the Tories, and have seen their budgets savagely cut. As with the abolition of legal aid, this is less about saving money than with denying the poor, the underprivileged and the exploited knowledge of their legal rights and the ability to challenge injustice by the rich and corrupt.