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Commentary 347 – August 2011
25 July 2011 (00:41:19)

CAN YOU EXPLAIN, OFFICERS?

The astonishing course of the phone hacking scandal so far has seen the humbling of a media empire that many liberals will have seen as among their sworn enemies.

News International quite openly prostituted its tabloids’ political allegiance to whichever party it felt would be most pliable in advancing its business interests – one reason why its papers largely ignored the Lib Dems and vice versa.

They were the papers that helped put Margaret Thatcher in office and in 1992 the ones “what won it” for John Major. With the Tories doomed in the mid-1990s, they switched without a bat of an eye to supporting Labour, which returned the favour by doing nothing to control the Murdoch empire.

When they switched their allegiance back to the Tories in 2009, it was business as usual, with senior figures in News International serving as both employees and personal friends of the prime minister.

So far, the scandal has made David Cameron’s judgement look woeful, closed the largest selling national newspaper, stalled the Murdoch bid to control BSkyB and led to fresh calls for tougher press regulation.

But quite the most disturbing aspect so far has been the position of the police. If a disinterested observer were to conclude that the original phone hacking investigation was abandoned by the police because of a web of morally (if not financially) corrupting links between the police and News International, that observer would surely hold a reasonable view.

We have not, as yet, had any credible explanation from the police of why the first investigation ended with two people charged and the conclusion that hardly anyone was hacked. We also do not know who and what the police thought they were protecting then, and may never know.

But the whole thing stinks and, given how important the integrity of the police is to democracy, this matters a great deal more than does the conduct of News of the World journalists, appalling as some of that was.

The felling of a Tory tabloid, and the caution that is likely to impose on the Sun, might be causes for Lib Dem rejoicing. But the party should resist calls for excessive regulation of the press, as Nick Clegg has rightly done.

The scandal would never have come to anything without fearless reporting by the Guardian and Private Eye, and hasty legislation on the back of public outrage will inevitably be a disaster.

WITHDRAW THE WHIP

Any Liberal Democrat peer who votes against House of Lords reform should lose the party whip, a step that in itself would prevent them from being selected as a party candidate for any future elected upper house.

A century ago, a Liberal government was locked in combat with the House of Lords over getting its budget enacted. That battle took two general elections and was resolved only messily by limiting the Lords’ power to one of delay rather than rejection of legislation.

Since then, there have been various attempts to reform the Lords, each of which has been torpedoed by powerful vested interests or by those who wanted to make the best the enemy of the good.

A century after Asquith and Lloyd George realised that it is a fundamental offence to democracy that unelected people should be able to make laws, their successors now have a real opportunity to remove this anomaly, or at least to reduce the number of unelected legislators to a proportion that makes them largely irrelevant.

Yet despite Lords reform having been party policy for a century, out of the woodwork crawl those Lib Dem peers who rather enjoy their unelected and unaccountable power and do not want to have to trouble themselves with anything as vulgar as getting elected.

They enjoy the privileges and status of belonging to London’s ‘best club’ and do not want to lose the right to ponce around in robes making laws to regulate the lives of others while having no democratic mandate from anyone to do so.

The argument is advanced that peers are there for their expertise and that experts would not necessarily be easily able to secure election.

This is specious on two grounds. Firstly, an upper house can take evidence from any experts it chooses to. Secondly, peers are chosen for their expertise usually in one or two fields, yet they are able to vote on legislation concerning anything, including matters of which they may be wholly ignorant. Let the new upper house summon evidence from those experts qualified to give it as and when needed.

Another argument made is that the current House of Lords ‘works’. That claim could have been made by members of the all-hereditary house of 1911, whose members were doubtless of the same opinion in relation to their own rights and privileges.

The idea that those who make laws should be accountable to those who live under those laws is intrinsic to liberalism, and the minority of Lib Dem peers who want to frustrate reform so as to preserve their privileges and status are a disgrace.

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