The Leveson Report does not have to come down to a stark choice between freedom and state control, writes Joyce McMillan
CIVIL SOCIETY: it’s a concept that has never quite caught on, in popular political debate, and it’s easy to see why; civil society is the kind of phenomenon that we tend to take for granted, until we notice that it is no longer there. It refers to all those forms of human connection and association that belong neither to commerce, nor to government; to all the autonomous, self-organised, not-for-profit social activity that flourishes in a free society, from sports clubs to arts organisations, faith groups, and political parties.
And on St. Andrew’s Day, it’s worth noting that it is a concept with which Scotland has a long and special association; partly because Scottish Enlightenment philosophers such as Adam Ferguson were among the first great theorists of civil society, partly because our civic institutions have played such a key role in maintaining Scotland’s culture and identity since 1707, and partly because Scottish civil society – drawing inspiration from the changes in Eastern Europe – played such a vital part in the campaign which finally delivered the new Scottish Parliament, in 1999.
In the 21st century, though, the idea of civil society is facing new threats; and if you want to understand them, you could do no better than consider the debate on yesterday’s Leveson Report now raging across the UK media, and the battle lines that have been drawn. On one side stand the abused victims of unethical press behaviour, including the Dowler family, and Kate and Gerry McCann. With them stand most politicians not linked to the Conservative Party, and a range of bodies concerned with the future of the media, including the National Union of Journalists; along with Lord Leveson himself, who has recommended that in order to end the period of ineffectual and discredited press self-regulation through which we have just lived, a more robust regulatory body is required, underpinned by legislation which will guarantee its independence from undue industry influence.
Against them, though, are ranged the massed ranks of Britain’s newspaper industry, the Prime Minister, and a large majority of Tory MPs, who insist that Britain’s tradition of a completely unregulated press has broadly served us well, over the last three centuries. Some of their arguments have real historic force; but when the chips are down, many of them seem to be arguing that in the matter of press regulation, there are only two choices – either to leave the press strictly alone to run its own affairs, or to have what they call “state control”.
This kind of stark binary argument about policy choices has become increasingly popular on the political right over the last few decades; faced with an apparent choice between “freedom” and “state control”, most people will naturally choose “freedom”. And it has to be said that the eagerness to implement Leveson’s recommendations shown by some politicians – including Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond – hardly adds to the attractiveness of the proposals; the First Minister himself only narrowly escapes serious censure by Leveson over his relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s News International empire.
Yet if we accept the argument of Leveson’s critics, and concede that there is no means of effectively regulating the press without dictatorial “state control”, then we are effectively writing ourselves, as free citizens, out of the picture. First, we are accepting that the civil society organisations to which we belong – churches, or trade unions, or community groups – can have no real way of contributing to the proper regulation of big economic actors in our society. And secondly, we are accepting the pre-Enlightenment argument that the governments we elect, through our democratic institutions, are not our representatives but our enemy; and that they have no legitimate place – even at a substantial arms’ length – in setting the rules under which this uniquely influential industry operates.
Now of course, given the many spectacular failures of the current generation of politicians, it is easy enough – in every area from banking regulation to arts policy – to make this case against politics. Yet it becomes increasingly obvious that the development of a genuinely free and democratic society requires a dynamic partnership among all the main social actors; among businesses which accept their social responsibilities; among politicians who draw inspiration and legitimacy from strong links with civil society; and among citizens who are strengthened in their civic activism by the knowledge that their voices will be heard and taken seriously, and that they have effective allies in formal politics.
In supporting the Leveson recommendations – and a press regulation body on the model of the new Press Council of Ireland – Alex Salmond, therefore, seems to be gambling on the idea that Scotland is still more like that kind of society: a society in which people will trust government to enact the statute and then stand back from direct interference, and in which civil society will weigh in to the process, to make sure that the new regulatory body works well, and guarantees press freedoms.
Yet in an age when the print media are surviving on the very edge of extinction, it seems to me that all bets are off. The pressures on journalists, editors and proprietors are immense; and Scottish civic institutions – once closely united in the drive for devolution – are now deeply divided over independence. In these circumstances, it may be as difficult to make a Leveson-type solution work in Scotland, as it is at Westminster.
What is clear, though, is that if we make the attempt – perhaps with some adjustment of the model, to give absolute guarantees of freedom from government interference – we will at least be honouring a long tradition, here in Scotland, of effort to include civil society voices in major areas of public life. We will be making a statement about the kind of society we want to be, in or out of the United Kingdom. And we will be reaffirming that it’s only through the relationship between a free and dynamic civil society, and a responsive and truly representative government, that we can guarantee real freedom to all citizens; along with the kind of protection from abuse for which the Dowlers, the McCanns, and other victims have begged, and which we must now act to provide, and to guarantee.