Leveson: Labour has allowed itself to be cast as the enemy of freedom

Among a large part of the population, ‘Labour’ still means ‘authoritarian’. Over Leveson, it has once again revealed its authoritarian streak.

Padraig Reidy is senior writer at Index on Censorship

Among  a large part of the population, ‘Labour’ still means ‘authoritarian’. CCTV, ID card schemes, all the way to the various legal battles over terror suspects and secrecy.

In 2010, in the run up to the general election, I attended a panel discussion hosted by Privacy International. Nick Clegg made much of the authoritarian streak in Labour policies, even offering a Littlejohnish “you-couldn’t-make-it-up!” as he told the assembled digital activists how Labour had even made up a law banning people from detonating atomic devices (for the record, this sounded like an eminently sensible move to me).

Labour were powerless to fight the ZaNu Liarbore narrative, and the election was duly lost.

Step forward to now, and we’re constantly being told that new Labour is nothing like New Labour. Mark Seddon wrote in the Guardian last week of how this was “not the party that went to war in Iraq.” Those bad old days of control freakery and conspiracy are over, replaced by a new spirit of discussion.

All very nice, but Labour’s behaviour over the recent Leveson negotiations has carried the exact same hallmark of scheming and authoritarianism that was supposed to have been left behind.

The attachment of Lord Puttnam’s Leveson amendments to the Defamation Bill was a disgrace. Let there be no equivocation about this.

Here was a bill which had been built by consensus, with popular support. A bill that could go a little way to making this country a little freer. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an improvement.

Lord Puttnam chose to sabotage it. On Twitter on Friday evening, Chris Bryant was telling people that the defamation bill would pass without amendment if Labour got what it wants on Leveson. It is a tawdry political move.

Meanwhile, Labour’s insistence on statutory underpinning for the post-Leveson press regulator revealed that the authoritarian streak is alive and well. Is there a problem? Only another law can sort it out. A new Quango for the people. The party knows best.

All this in spite of the fact that many journalists are already facing prosecution for hacking and other breaches. We have laws for this sort of thing, so what exactly is this new law for?

Labour could have been brave: they could have pointed out that the focus after Leveson is almost entirely on the press, while politicians get off free. They could have said that here we have an issue on a principle of free press, and discussion about principal is not helped by emotive campaigning.

They could at the very least have signalled some interest in free speech by allowing the Defamation bill it had committed to continue on its path unmolested.

The Labour party chose to do none of these things, and in doing so has once again allowed itself to be cast as an enemy of freedom.

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