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Votes in the House of Commons tomorrow, 30 January, will tell us a great deal about the kind of Labour Party Keir Starmer intends to lead into this year’s general election and the kind of government he envisages beyond that.
With the Government’s Media Bill reaching its report stage, Labour must choose whether to back amendments which would keep alive the possibility of Leveson-style reform of press regulation – or to do nothing and allow the Conservatives to bury it for good.
The choice it makes will tell us whether it hopes ultimately to govern the country on an independent agenda or whether it has decided to let billionaire press owners continue dominating the country’s politics by their familiar unscrupulous means.
The Leveson Inquiry – into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press – took place following the exposure of the phone-hacking scandal in 2011-12. It made a number of recommendations.
Until now, Labour policy has been pro-Leveson – a position that goes back beyond the Jeremy Corbyn years to when Ed Miliband was leader. But it is also a policy feared and hated by the big national newspaper groups.
In recent months, all the body language of the Starmer leadership has suggested it is now ready to appease the billionaire owners of the Mail, The Sun, The Times and the Telegraph, evidently in the short-term hope that they will give it a softer ride in election coverage.
The precise issue tomorrow might seem obscure: whether to repeal section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act of 2013 – a piece of legislation which, thanks to the unscrupulous blocking tactics of the Conservatives, has never been allowed to enter into force.
Section 40 is the key to making the Leveson reforms of press regulation work. It was designed to make possible independent, effective press accountability of a kind that the UK has never known. More than that, it would also give press journalism unprecedented protection against bullying by the rich and powerful.
Murdoch, Lord Rothermere and the Barclay family fear press accountability like nothing else – because their newspapers simply could not function as they currently do if they were truly answerable for inaccuracy, distortion, intrusion and other ethical misconduct.
If Starmer’s Labour abandons a decade of commitment to Section 40 tomorrow, therefore, they will be giving the press what they want: licensing the big national newspapers to continue abusing ordinary citizens and misleading the public as a whole.
And everything suggests that that is Labour’s intention.
Not only has it failed to table any amendment relating to repeal of section 40 (and amendments are what the parliamentary ‘report stage’ is all about) but the party leadership has dropped heavy hints that it will not even support weak amendments tabled by others.
You might say that it does not matter, since the Conservatives have the votes to get what they want whatever Labour does, and that may be so. But the position Labour takes on this will send a clear signal to Fleet Street and to the public.
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Appeasing the press is not merely a tactic for getting through an election. It will show that Labour is ready to accept right-wing press influence over its policies when it is in government.
Only a fool could imagine that the Murdoch and Mail papers do not intend to bully and hound a new Labour government, no matter how big its majority. Only a fool could believe that they do not intend to use all their unscrupulous methods to force Labour’s hand on Europe, on welfare, on climate change, on refugees – on their whole bigoted, selfish agenda.
If Labour takes them on, if it makes them responsible to an effective, independent regulator, it will be able to govern in the interests of the public – in other words, of ordinary people. If it does not, it will have its arm twisted permanently behind its back by the press billionaires.
And it would be naive and wrongheaded to imagine that Labour might duck the issue now but turn around and take action on media abuses after it has been elected, without a manifesto mandate. British politics does not work that way.
Tomorrow’s votes will tell us a lot.