By Harry Phibbs
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The most high profile assault on freedom from the Blair Government was the outlawing of fox-hunting. I remember marching against the proposed ban a couple of times. However, although the ban came in, it has proved unenforceable. Fox-hunting continues more or less to the same extent and in the same way as it did before.
I wonder if the restrictions on press freedom which now seem likely to be introduced will fall into the same category. There will be a group of busy-bodies with power to decide what is or isn't accurate. Regular observers of Prime Minister's Question Time will appreciate that securing objectivity on this point is not always straight forward. Lobby groups will be able to come before the busy-bodies and engage in special pleading.
Legally, freedom of the press will have been lost. But will the draconian powers of state censorship be applied in practice?
One huge area where the whole oppressive mission seems destined to unravel is the internet. Even if one accepts the case for censorship it is difficult for anyone to come up with a logical or workable means to apply it. If it is applied to newspapers' printed material then why not newspapers' online material? If online newspapers, then why not blogs? If blogs, why not tweets?
"Relevant publisher” means a person (other than a broadcaster) who publishes in the United Kingdom:
i) a newspaper or magazine containing news-related material, or
ii) a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine)
So if the Recognition Panel are cross with The Spectator or Guido Fawkes for refusing to sign up, will those seeking their websites find the message:
Page can not be displayed.
This is what happens in China if terms such as "persecution" or "Tibetan independence" are Googled. But even the Communist Government struggles to make it enforceable.
I wonder how politicians backing press restrictions will like it if they are summoned before a committee and threatened with a fine if in their own blogs or tweets they are deemed to have failed the standards of "accuracy, and the need to avoid misrepresentation."
Would the new rules apply to the Labour Party's own website?
For example, it still has this speech up from Ed Miliband from 2009 which says:
The 2-week cancer referral guarantee – gone under a Tory government.
If I make a complaint about this to the Board of the Recognition Panel would they tell the Labour Party to take it down? Or the various other claims about pensioners losing their free bus pass or TV licences? What about the claims in the party election broadcast from Eddie Izzard for the Labour Party, that David Cameron becoming Prime Minister would mean 15% interest rates and three million unemployed? Would the Board have a long discussion about whether Mr Izzard's claim was meant as a joke and therefore could remain on the Labour Party website?
This attack on freedom of expression would be sinister were it not so apparent that it will be farcically unworkable.