A Free Press, Moral Outrage and Leveson

There has been much discussion recently about the sad story of Lucy Meadows. I won’t go into the details of the case here, as this is still very fresh for the people involved. A lot of the focus has been on one particularly-renowned hate-peddler, from my least-favourite national ‘newspaper’, so this is another reason not to name or link to them; I don’t want to grace them with any traffic that they may benefit from. However, for a libertarian this case raises some interesting challenges.

I read the article by this author and found it very distasteful, poorly hiding an ugly streak of bigotry under a very thin veneer of sympathy. I was offended by antediluvian views that I would have hoped to have died out by now; it demonstrated prejudices that you could imagine a decade or two ago referring to homosexuals, or forty years ago referring to black people. Whilst pretending to care for the subject the author expected them to quit their job and seek work elsewhere, which may have been difficult given the nature of their situation. The reason cited was the old faux-outrage mantra “will anyone think of the children”. Having my own children grow up with contemporary relationships amongst their peers’ parents I know that children adapt easily, especially at primary school, which is where Lucy taught. Parents, on the other hand, may struggle more, especially where their own prejudices take control. I am not surprised that this happened at a faith-based school (in this case ‘Christian’), as prejudices and dislike of outsiders no doubt are factors that encourage parents to send their children to such a sterile monocultural environment. Reading the published information it appears the school was supportive of Lucy, but at least one of the parents was so disturbed about this change that they felt obliged to contact the hate-rag in question.

So the initial situation caused some moral outrage that then was referred to the professionally outraged. They treated Lucy with disrespect and contempt and now she is dead. There may be no causation between these facts, despite correlation, but the fact does remain that she received awful treatment from the media since the story broke. Now there is moral outrage from another group about her death and (understandable) vitriol against the author and newspaper. Sadly, coming so soon after the disastrous agreement on how to implement Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals by the various political parties, there is considerable mileage in using this sad case to further the cause of the pressure group Hacked Off. As a libertarian I oppose any additional controls over the press, believing that there are plenty of existing laws to cover the press’s worst shenanigans (and many people will undoubtedly be going to prison for the worst of these soon). There is a case for libel reform and for ensuring legal aid is available to victims of newspaper smears and innuendos. And I for one don’t care what a paying customer of sex workers gets up to in the privacy of a hotel room –  that is not public interest, just prurience.

So what am I suggesting if not legislation? Do nothing? No, not necessarily. There is a vigil planned for Lucy on Monday outside this particular newspaper publisher’s offices. I don’t know if I would attend this, as unfortunately it will probably be high-jacked by too many special interest groups with their own agendas; I wouldn’t be surprised if the usual rent-a-mob idiots from the Socialist Worker Party will be there, for instance. I’m certainly not signing the petition to get the article’s author sacked: I’d rather this scummy hate-monger stayed where he was rather than polluted another newspaper. I can’t boycott the newspaper as the last time I bought it was 1986 at University, and that was simply to wind up the socialists in my flat as I disagreed with its headline policies then (pro-hanging, anti-immigration, etc.).

So where does this leave me as a libertarian? I can hope that the family of Lucy bring a civil case against the newspaper and its vile columnist. I can hope that it turns out one of their crew did something illegal, like hacking for instance, and faces prosecution. The one thing I don’t want is more legislation, especially anything that limits press freedom. Remember it was the Telegraph (acting illegally) that brought the MPs’ expenses scandal to light? And the Guardian that uncovered phone hacking within News international. The British press can deliver amazing high points of journalism, and simultaneously leave you in the depths of despair with its underhandedness, stupidity and depravity: this week has demonstrated that. So what answer is there, how do we as libertarians deal with this? Apart from civil action or boycotts there’s little we can do; nobody said being a libertarian was easy. But we can stand for a free press, although sometimes that press can leave you with a nasty taste in your mouth.

 

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The Story Of A Town Council: Democracy In Action

I was reminded of this story by a brief discussion on Twitter yesterday.

I used to live on a road that was a mix of residential housing, factories and offices. Almost across the road was a sizeable factory that closed a few years after I moved in. For many years it lay derelict, a waste of useful land and a loss of jobs to the town.

It wasn’t even as useful as another disused factory on the same road, which was discovered to be a cannabis farm.

One day I discovered that there was planning permission requested to bulldoze the site and build a data centre. The intricacies of planning permission meant that although this factory was almost across the road from us, and the construction traffic would pass our house, as would the staff when built, we weren’t informed. I discovered the plans by accident; however people on a street that overlooked to site were informed, even though they never needed to travel along our road. I’ll come back to these residents shortly.

So I downloaded the plans from the local district council’s web side and was impressed. The plans outlined a fantastic glass and steel state-of-the-art data centre that would employ 25-50 people. There were details about acoustic predictions of the chillers, how they would minimise the local impact of production and projections of traffic to-and-from the site. I had some questions about the acoustic predictions, especially when operating the backup generators, so I thought I’d attend the Town Council public meeting that was scheduled to discuss it.

This brings me back to the residents of the adjacent road. The way I found out about this planned data centre was a flyer put through my door from a residents’ association from the adjacent road: they were raising attention as they wanted to prevent the project going ahead. This was astonishing for a number of reasons:

– They weren’t affected by construction traffic
– They weren’t affected by the employees driving to-and-from work
– They weren’t affected by the sight of a derelict factory on their road

So I attended the Town Council meeting to hear the case put and how the decision would be made; a large number of the adjacent road’s residents attended too. Unusually for a council meeting they allowed the chair of this residents’ association to speak. He gave a short speech outlining their objections and was supported by angry shouts from his associates. The council briefly discussed this, led by the local councillor, followed by the chairperson calling for a vote.

I’m sure that you can imagine the result. They voted against it: a new hi-tech business in the area; local employment; and the removal of an unsightly derelict factory. These objections were led by a group that had no direct impact by the new building: typical of many special interest groups.

This just supports my distain for democracy, tyranny of the majority. As David Friedman has highlighted many times before, governments take from the taxpayer and give to vocal special interests. This was an even worse case where the council takes business rates and a share of local council taxes, but is actually limiting its own tax base by protectionism. It was preventing new business establishing just to keep a very small vocal set of voters happy, who have virtually no direct interest.

Democracy stinks.

After the vote had been taken and recorded the following conversation happened:

Chair: “So what is a data centre?”
[lengthy pause]
Councillor: “Er, I think it’s where computer companies store hard disks…”

Amazing. Democracy in action.