Friday, 15 July 2011

A pincer movement of sheer lunacy - Part I

In the curry house yesterday I was asked whether I had been out in the sun, apparently my forehead was bright red and deeply blistered. The reason is not exposure to sunlight, it is relentless frustration with the stupidity of current political debate that has caused the vigorous and repeated application of palm to head. At the moment our Parliament seems to be dominated by two topics - the activities of the press and the government's desire to make electricity prohibitively expensive. Both subjects seem to have a magical power over MPs such that they spout complete and total nonsense without any comprehension of the lack of common sense behind their analyses. I'll deal with the press today.

The basis of Parliamentary hysteria seems to be the "revelation" that a tabloid newspaper published information gleaned from illegal phone taps and computer hacks. Well, well, what a surprise, who'd have thought any such thing has occurred in this country? Everyone, that's who. Another, secondary, "revelation" is that journalists paid money in return for information the law requires to be kept confidential. Well, well, what a surprise, who'd have thought such a thing has occured in this country? Everyone, that's who.

There is only one sensible reaction to these "revelations". It is to get the police to investigate the matter and charge anyone against whom there is sufficient evidence. The activities complained of are already illegal under our law so there is no need for any more laws. The one and only thing that should be done is to enforce existing law.

Instead a Court of Appeal Judge is going to be kept out of court for a year or more so that he can conduct an inquiry which will be called a whitewash if he says current laws are fine and a witch hunt if he says new laws should be passed.

In Parliament we have witnessed the unedifying spectacle of buckets of sanctimonious hogwash being sprayed around by hundreds of MPs, each trying to out-outrage the previous speaker with the level of their ignorant and hypocritical humbug.

Everyone with a brain larger than a pea knows newspapers act in underhand and, sometimes, unlawful ways to get attention-grabbing information they can plaster across their front pages. They all do it. Locals, nationals, broadsheets, tabloids - they all do it.

How do you think the Yokel Local Chronicle learned about the intention of Big Supermarket PLC to buy farmer Giles's front field for a new shop? It's obvious, someone working for the company leaked the news, probably in return for a fee or favour. In that instance the person working for the supermarket company broke the terms of his contract of employment and risked summary dismissal. He had to balance the benefit he gained against the risk of losing his job. The newspaper knew he was breaching his contract but also knew there was no realistic chance of being sued, so it published anyway in order to have a good headline, a reputation for having it's finger on the local pulse and the chance of greater circulation in future and higher advertising revenues. The only question that would trouble the editor is whether the information was true.

Paying for information obtained in other unlawful ways is different only in degree from paying for leaked confidential information about the intentions of a supermarket chain. The degree might be higher or lower, but the substance is the same each time. That some information results from activities that amount to criminal offences and other "feeds" involve a breach of contract but not a crime is a distinction without a difference in this field. We have laws against this sort of activity. Those laws provide a penalty for anyone proved to have breached them. There is one reason and one reason only why those laws were broken - the people breaking them considered the benefit of the breach to outweigh the risk of being caught and/or the penalty for being caught and pursued to judgment. Making the activity doubly unlawful will not change this because it is a matter of human nature rather than of law.

Increasing the penalty can make a big difference to how people behave but it brings up a wholly different matter that makes serious penalties impossible. How does phone tapping or hacking emails compare to burglary, or stabbing someone or holding-up a bank with a shotgun? Obviously infringements of privacy are not in the same league, so what maximum penalty can be justified without the law becoming absurd? There is no certain answer to that question although the general answer is that the maximum penalty, and the penalty actually imposed in any particular case, is unlikely ever to be so severe that it would deter those offered a chunky financial inducement.

Members of Parliament can huff and puff all they want about how morally reprehensible it is to tap the phones of the families of deceased soldiers and victims of crime. I doubt that there are many in the country who have not huffed and puffed in disgust. Nothing MPs say and no amount of hot air they expel can change anything. Newspapers will still use whatever means they can get away with to obtain the information they think their readers want to read, because more readers means more advertisers and that is where the money is.

A theme that ran through contributions in the debate in the House of Commons was a call for regulation not just of how newspapers obtain information but of what they publish. This deserves to result in blistered foreheads across the nation. Do these people really think the interests of the people of this country as a whole are best served by newspapers being constricted in what they are permitted to print and how in buggery do they think such restrictions can be imposed?

Only two restrictions can ever be justified. First, they should not publish things that are untrue. The law covers that already (albeit imperfectly) through the law of libel. Secondly, they should not publish anything that causes them to lose business. This is nothing to do with the law, it is all about the little people voting with their feet. Editorial judgment must be exercised to decide whether a story will be good or bad for circulation. If it will be bad it should not be published, if good it should be published, if it appears good but turns out to be bad the paper can look for a new editor. No other restrictions can have any justification under any circumstances. I hear you cry: what about kiddy porn? Simple, advertisers will disappear overnight, only a few pathetic dribblers will buy the paper, the publisher and numerous editorial staff will face lengthy time behind bars and next week there will be no newspaper.

The very suggestion that there should be any sort of State control over the content of newspapers other than the law of libel is so absurd as to be obscene. Some might suggest it is part of a plot by politicians to protect themselves from criticism, I do not agree. I believe it to be nothing other than an irrational knee-jerk reaction to extremely distasteful newspaper activities that have been exposed recently. The politicians want to be heard expressing disgust so they can have their local paper report they have stood up to be counted. OK, fine, let them say it and get their favourable editorial, then they can return to the real world and acknowledge that what was done was unlawful so no new law is needed and that any attempt to censor the press is bound to fail.

The question they are really addressing is this: should Parliament legislate to prevent publication of the truth? Sadly, they do not seem to be willing or able to understand that this is what they are doing. In any event, how can Parliament legislate to prevent publication of the truth? The key here is "prevent publication". How can Parliament - which can only do anything through the laws it passes - prevent someone doing something? As the law now stands there are penalties for doing naughty things once you have done them, and only then if you are caught and there is sufficient evidence to prove you did them. It is the risk of penalty that is preventative. Short of physical restraint, all the law can do is threaten a penalty in the hope the threat will prevent naughtiness.

So, how do you prevent the truth being told? The simple answer is that you cannot, all you can do is pass laws imposing penalties for telling the truth and therein lies the fundamental flaw in all the guff spouted in Parliament. They can moan about invasions of privacy and the extreme distastefulness of some of those invasions until they are any colour in the face they choose, but they cannot produce a rational argument for the truth being suppressed. If that truth is not to the taste of a newspaper's readership there is a risk to advertising revenue, if it is to their taste the till will ring triumphantly. The little people will vote with their £1 coins. Parliament is an utter irrelevance on this issue. Honourable members should shut up and keep their fingers crossed that their peccadillos remain below the radar.


john miller said...

Nothing to hide, nothing to fear.

Well, that's what they told us when the socialists passed the law enabling any squirt at GCHQ (and therefore, in reality anyone at all) to read all our private emails and texts.

Time Traveller said...

Didn't Watergate involve some pre-digital age hacking courtesy of one Deep Throat? Aren't Woodward and Bernstein regarded as heroes?

If true, the Millie Dowler aspect was a sorry affair, only to the extent that it gave false hope to the family; this was surely unforeseen by the NOTW.

If the 'hacking' had saved Millie Dowler's life or found her killer as a result, we wouldn't be having an enquiry now and the journos would have been collecting their Pulitzer Prize.

It's a strange world..

John Pickworth said...

And lets be clear here - because hundreds of acres of print and thousands of hours of reporting simply hasn't been - we're not talking about hacking phones, or tapping lines at all!

What they bad guys did was call up the target's phone number and listen to the response from an answer machine (if one was present). From that, they could hazard a guess at the model of machine. Then with the aid of the internet (or just prior experience) they would enter the 'default' remote pin number to access the messages. For mobiles, they might guess the default pin from the network the mobile was on.

The point is, in nearly all the cases, they were simply gaining access because the twat having bought his brand new Binatone answer machine home from Argos skipped page one in the instructions... the one telling you to change the default pin.

And now these self same twats have got all upset and are threatening to sue the bad guys! Only in the UK!