With friends like these …

No-one can have a detailed and expert view of every topic that comes into the public domain.  Many issues involve value judgements, but relatively few can be judged without some factual or historical input.  And, regrettably, if you have ever mastered an area of public controversy – like the workings of the social security system or the reasons for a housing shortage, for example – you will know that the common discussion is very impoverished.  The man who is as sure about penal policy as he is about Iraq or taxation is likely to be a saloon bar boor rather than a polymath.  It can be argued that we are in a democracy, and so we must do what the people want, but my take on democracy is that we allow the people to decide the broad thrust of policy, not have a plebiscite on every issue.  Getting a round of applause on “Question Time”, as Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse have deliciously shown, is not a sign of wisdom.

One factor that often affects my viewpoint is the intellectual honesty of those making an argument.  I feel that someone cannot be very confident of their stance if they feel the need to bend the truth or cut logical corners when making an argument.  This can sometimes influence me, even when I am sympathetic to the argument made.  For example, the euro.  Now, I used to teach economics, and economists are (generalisation coming up) broadly in favour of smaller currency areas.  They enable economies to adjust more easily to changes in productivity, avoiding the need for socially damaging deflationary measures that raise unemployment, or import and export controls that interfere with efficiency.  I am actually in print at the time of the EEC referendum in 1975 arguing against a single currency.  But once the anti-euro brigade got going, I began to wonder whether I was right, simply because of the dishonesty of the arguments made.  “This will mean we no longer have the Queen on our currency” – well, if that matters to you, a cursory glance (or visit to Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Spain etc) will confirm that European monarchs are on euro coins. “The Queen will no longer be on our notes” – well, monarchs weren’t on our £ notes before 1960, and no-one complained.  “Once we are in we will not be able to leave the eurozone” – nope, there are plenty of examples of countries leaving currency unions in our lifetime.  The list includes Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, which we should remember because it was the £ sterling they gave up.  I was in  France when they converted to the euro, and it was a trouble free experience: even the car-park meters were faultlessly changed overnight.

Now we have the controversy about the recommendations of Lord Leveson’s report on the recent press abuses.  Now, I think there is an overwhelming case for a tougher press complaints authority of some sort, and the argument that it needs a statutory backing seems to me to be strong.  Otherwise, how to stop it sliding back into the old pals’ act we have suffered for the past 60 years or so ?  But I am willing to be persuaded, especially as people who I respect – like Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, and the Times columnist David Aaronovitch – seem to be so opposed.  But the arguments against the Leveson proposals are beginning to show the same intellectual dishonesty as the Euro-nutters.  For example:

  • William Hague tells us that having a statutory backing will reduce our influence in the world in favour of press freedom, and will encourage tyrants to control their media. This rests on the idea that Kim Jong-Un, Bashar al-Assad and Robert Mugabe will free up their press and TV in response to a decision to abandon Leveson.  Which begs the question – why have they waited so long before becoming Guardian reading liberals ?
  • Simon Jenkins tells us in the Guardian that there must surely be better things for the government to concern itself with when the economy is depressed and the nation at war. This is not quite out of the Sir Humphrey Appleby book of why not to do anything, but gets pretty near.  It suggests that a government spending £681 bn. (that’s nine noughts) and employing 5.8m people cannot be engaged with more than one matter at a time.  Now, I know people say the public sector is inefficient, but …
  • He also says that it is bad law for the victims to decide how offenders should be dealt with – and others making the same point hint at mob rule. But no-one is putting victims in charge: what is required is a system in which victims can have some confidence of redress.
  • David Aaronovitch tweets that Ofcom (the agency that it is suggested assesses the effectiveness of any new scheme) has allowed the Jeremy Kyle Show to continue, which presumably shows that it is unfit to supervise any arrangements for the press. Might we ask what his view would have been had Ofcom intervened to ban a TV programme because it offends people ?  Wouldn’t this have been used as an argument against their involvement, as it would be an attack on editorial freedom.
  • Another argument is that the reported abuses are against the law, and so it should be left to the law to deal with it. But one of the abuses was that the police are paid by the press, and the first police investigation into phone hacking reported that there was no problem, just before the officer in charge started writing for the Murdoch organisation.
  • John Kampfner tells us that the Leveson proposals will prevent the press from scrutinizing matters like WMD pre-Iraq and financial weaknesses pre-crunch. Er, you mean, rather like they the way failed to scrutinize matters like WMD pre-Iraq and financial weaknesses pre-crunch ?  You might even argue that spending less time in Steve Coogan’s dustbin will free up the press for more important matters.
  • Then we get the ‘slippery slope’ arguments, which basically mean “what you’re proposing seems sensible, but might lead to something stupid in future”.  Ok, let’s not do something stupid in future.
  • “It’s all changing because of the internet, and who is regulating that ? Well, answer me that ?”.  This is at base the idea that because we cannot solve everything, we should solve nothing.  The term for this has recently been coined – “whataboutery”.

None of this is to be pro or anti Leveson.  There are strong arguments about press freedom, many of which involve issues of ownership, of defamation, which have not played a full part in discussions.  Similarly, the euro debate never seemed to me to go into issues like transaction costs or gains from trade, which might have been more powerful than the flexibility offered by individual national currencies.  That’s the problem with intellectual dishonesty – not that it annoys the hell out of me (though it does) but that it prevents real debate about genuine issues.

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