Monday, 3 February 2014

The real gagging is political self-censorship

I don't often get abused online, but I've been thinking about something hurled at me on Facebook last week about my defence of the Lobbying Bill.  It has made me wonder why I find myself on the opposite side to people who I've got a great deal of time for - and whose judgement I trust (yes, I know, don't tell me - because I got it wrong?).

It is always disturbing when both sides think the other position is dishonest, but don't let's go there again.

Not just that, but I've also been wondering also why some issues get covered by the BBC and mainstream politicians and others don't.

The Lobbying Bill is the exception which proves the rule.  The Labour Party have been dragged into the controversy, and dragged rather reluctantly by 38 Degrees.  Perhaps it isn't surprising that this was reluctant since the Bill builds on the regulations set out by the original law passed by Labour in 2000, and keeps the basic pattern intact.

But otherwise, the political news management by Labour and the Conservatives is pretty powerful.  They keep the set of issues narrow and unimportant, and what is debated on the BBC seems to follow the same pattern.

Then the pollsters come and ask people what issues they believe are the most important, and they dutifully reflect what they have heard.

This is the great weakness of the UK parliamentary system.  It means the really important issues are often ignored, because there is no party advantage, because both parties are equally to blame, or because the opposition finds some aspect of it embarrassing.

Or because something far less important happens to obsess backbenchers.  The fox-hunting bill was debated for hundreds of hours in the run-up to the Iraq War, which meant that the war was never properly debated as it should have been.

I wondered in the last few days why something like the radioactivity leak scare at the Sellafield plant got so little coverage this weekend.  Labour hasn't got anything to say on nuclear energy so the leak is downplayed in the news, though the political implications if it was a leak would have been huge.

In other words, UK politics exists with herds of elephants in the room which nobody wants to discuss.

Which brings me to the US-EU trade negotiations.  They are happening in secret, and the potential consequences are enormous, yet they are barely reported at all.  Here is why they should be:

1.  The Investor State Disputes Settlement aspects of the treaty will allow investors to take legal action, through secret panels outside national judicial systems, which will potentially remove democratic control over environment regulations - for phasing out nuclear power or passing anti-smoking legislation, for example.  It will allow corporates to become the new Luddites, clinging to old patterns and technologies when they are no longer wanted, and give them absolute power over democracies to do so.

2.  If national health services are not explicitly excluded, it would allow foreign corporations to break into services where voters have decided against outsourcing.  I have no problem with private operators running some services, as long as they are held to account by voters - but I don't want our services chopped up and sold off to the lowest bidders by some external regulation.  Yet that seems to be what is on the agenda.

3.  It will extend the very same competition regulations which have rendered the EU single market so unpopular and bureaucratic, so beneficial for the biggest corporates and so expensive for the smallest.

And yet despite this continuing negotiation to hand over democratic sovereignty, there is virtually no discussion, except an occasional dutiful and very dull mention on the BBC.  Meanwhile, strangely for an issue around national sovereignty, UKIP sits on the fence.

If campaigners are really worrying about 'gagging;', perhaps they should think about how we gag ourselves so effectively in UK political debate.  And even without a Gagging Bill...


BruceK said...

I agree completely with you about the US-EU trade negotiations, and the lack of reporting thereof.

But this does not strike me as in any way a reason to support the gagging bill. In fact quite the opposite - it is a reason to break the stranglehold of the Tories, Labour, BBC and a few newspapers on deciding what counts as news, where the gagging bill reinforces it.

In the aftermath of this bill I find it hard to see my way to voting Lib Dem at the next GE.

David Boyle said...

Bruce, we might have to agree to disagree about the Lobbying Bill. But as I said, I think it's the exception which proves the rule - an issue forced onto the agenda against the wishes of the Westminster bubble. I wasn't suggesting that this was a reason to support it, or oppose it for that matter.