Is a Free Press Good for Democracy?

In previous posts, I have asked a question in the title and then gone on to answer it with my opinions on the subject. This time, I do not claim to have an answer.

First, let me say that by ‘free’, I mean unregulated. There has been talk recently of the need for some regulation of the press recently, because of the scandal over phone tapping and the invasion of people’s privacy which led to the demise of the News of the World. However, what I am concerned with here is something quite different, namely the role of the press (including television and radio news programs as well as newspapers) in a supposedly democratic society. Of course, a press which is strictly controlled by the state is highly undesirable, being something which is normally associated with dictatorships, but is the opposite necessarily a good thing?

Yet again I will use an example from America, where the right-wing Fox News has such a poor reputation for veracity amongst liberals that it is often referred to as Faux News. One of their newsreaders was sacked for refusing to read on air a ‘news’ item which she knew to be untrue. She sued for unfair dismissal, but lost. Fox News’ successful defence was based on the fact that there is no law requiring broadcast news to be truthful. I presume that this is also the case in the UK.

In my previous post, which started as a preamble to this post but grew too big, I argued that the UK is a cross between a democracy and an oligarchy, with much of the power being exercised by a wealthy ‘elite’ who operate on an international scale. It is this elite who own and control the major newspapers and commercial television, and who therefore have the opportunity to use these media to influence public opinion in ways which will advance their own agenda.

Anyone who has been following a few of the pro-independence blogs should be well aware by now that the British press is generally keen to publish stories that can be given a unionist slant, and less keen to publish any that are unequivocally favourable to the cause of independence. This is unsurprising, given the ownership of the press.

The Tories are determined to demonise the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, to justify cutting welfare payments and harassing those who claim benefits. One of their aims appears to be to set those who have something against those who have little or nothing – a classic case of divide and conquer – to stop the electorate ganging up and voting them out of power. In this they are being all too ably assisted by some of the gutter press.

It is a real danger to what democracy there is in the UK that slanted, unbalanced or downright untrue news items can be used to manipulate public opinion, and to persuade the electorate to vote for a political party which will look after the interests of the oligarchs. One could argue that, in the interests of democracy, there should be a legal requirement that the press should publish only news stories which they reasonably believe to be true, and that opinion and speculation should be clearly identifiable as such.

The current Press Complaints Council is a voluntary regulatory body for British printed newspapers and magazines, but it has no legal powers and has been criticised as being ineffectual. As a result of the Leveson Inquiry, it is to be replaced by the Independent Press Standards Organisation; just how effective this will be remains to be seen, but it will, like the PCC, be under the control of the industry which it will regulate. I wonder whether its main role will be to protect the rich and famous from invasions of their privacy by the press.

In principle, an official body could be given the job of policing the press for untruthful stories, and the legal authority to require newspapers to publish prominent retractions when a story is judged to be seriously inaccurate, or when the newspaper cannot provide evidence to support claims that it has made. However, I doubt whether this would work very well; my guess is that it would be swamped by complaints, that only a few complaints would be properly investigated, and that any retractions would only appear long after the original story was published. Such a system could be open to complaints that it was a form of censorship; indeed, it could too easily be misused by a government.

In any case, untrue stories are only one of the ways in which a biased press can push a particular agenda. Some stories may be published while others are ignored. Inconvenient facts may be left out of an account. Slanted language is often used – a ‘warning’ by one side sounds more authoritative than a ‘claim’ made in rebuttal by the other side. Dramatic headlines which are not justified by the article underneath them are a way of getting a message across, even to people who do not read the article. Quoting remarks out of context can be used to discredit someone. Even the way in which different articles or photographs are juxtaposed can convey a subliminal message. How could these tricks of the propagandist’s trade possibly be regulated?

Very few of our current newspapers and magazines are in Scottish ownership, raising the possibility that, even following a Yes vote in the referendum, their owners might choose to pursue an agenda which is hostile to an independent Scotland. Should the government of an independent Scotland seek to impose limits on the ownership of Scottish publication by people outside Scotland? It would probably be too fraught with difficulties, and in any case many English publications will continue to be sold in significant numbers in Scotland.

As far as the newspapers are concerned, I see a problem but no good solution to it. In the case of the BBC, my view is that they must not be allowed to continue operating in an independent Scotland. If they had taken a fair, unbiased approach to the independence debate, some arrangement to share the BBC with the rUK might have been considered, but their blatant partisanship on behalf of the Union has rendered this unacceptable. We will need a Scottish state broadcaster to replace them.

Who Really Runs the UK?

In an earlier post, I questioned whether the UK is really a democracy, from a constitutional point of view, and said that I suspect that Britain is an oligarchy with a veneer of democracy. I would like to expand on that, partly by looking at the situation in the USA.

There are some people who believe in an a gigantic conspiracy, perhaps with an occult element, by the rich and powerful to impose an authoritarian world government, the New World Order. I am not one of them. However, it is undeniable that there are a small number of people who have acquired almost unimaginable wealth, and wealth inevitably brings power with it.

It has been said that the personality traits which make someone likely to be particularly successful in business are much the same as those which characterise sociopaths. It is reasonable to assume that someone who has acquired vast personal wealth, or gained control of some multinational corporation, is likely to be greedy, selfish, ruthless and amoral, although there are no doubt exceptions. The very characteristics which may have helped such people to achieve their goals are ones which, in an ideal world, should mean that they should not be entrusted with power, although perhaps something similar could be said in connection with certain politicians. Let us not be fooled by the fact that some of the mega-rich give some of their money for charitable purposes, to gain the description of ‘philanthropist’; Andrew Carnegie gave some of his money to good causes, but he had become extremely wealthy by ruthlessly exploiting his workers.

In America, there is a rather secretive organisation called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which pushes for right-wing, neo-liberal, pro-business legislation. Its members are mostly conservative state legislators and representatives of the private sectors, although the actual membership list is secret. It produces draft bills which members can customize and introduce for debate in their own state legislatures, generally without any mention of the connection to ALEC. One of these is the basis for the “ag-gag” laws in a number of states, which make it a crime to carry out clandestine photography or filming to expose mistreatment of animals by agricultural businesses; others are apparently designed to ensure that privatised prisons are kept full. Some of its funding has been provided by the multi-billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

The Atlantic Bridge, a conservative atlanticist organisation in the United Kingdom and the United States set up and partly funded by ALEC, included several leading Tory politicians on its UK executive board. It was dissolved after its charitable status was questioned. In such ways the influence of American billionaires reaches into the UK political system.

In America, the first requirement for a politician is money to pay for campaigning. Those who are not themselves rich need to attract donations, leaving them with an obligation to their rich backers. In 2010, the United States Supreme Court ruled (in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) that the Government cannot impose any limit on political donations by companies, potentially increasing the importance of campaign funding. There is a saying that America has the best politicians that money can buy, and it is certainly arguable that politicians who are dependent on large donations from wealthy individuals or corporations are well and truly bought, even if there are no cash-filled envelopes changing hands.

There is probably no New World Order conspiracy, but there is perhaps no need for an actual conspiracy. Rich people and multinational corporations will tend to have similar interests; they do not need some grand conspiracy to pull in much the same direction, which is to the right. Globalisation and free trade agreements weaken governments; some free trade agreements limit the right of governments to pass legislation which will adversely affect the profits of multinational corporations, even if the legislation is intended to protect the public or the environment. The people who would be part of the New World Order conspiracy, if it existed, have no need of their own World Government if they are stronger than national governments.

In Britain, there is a vaguely defined Establishment, associated with wealth and privilege. A couple of hundred years ago, this consisted largely of the hereditary aristocracy and wealthy merchants, industrialists and bankers who were able to buy estates, and sometimes even titles, as evidence of their status. These people were largely able to control who would be elected to the House of Commons, through their influence or even by bribing some of the few people entitled to vote; many of them sat in the House of Lords. Thus they controlled Britain. Since then the importance of the aristocracy has declined, and the importance of career politicians and senior civil servants has increased, but the Establishment persists, with a high proportion of people from wealthy backgrounds, educated at fee-paying schools and then either Oxford or Cambridge.

In Britain, money is much less of a factor in political campaigns than it is in America, because here campaign expenditure is limited by law. However, political parties still need to raise funds, and membership fees can never be sufficient. Wealthy donors making large donations may be suspected of seeking to influence policy, and it would be interesting to know how much is being spent by companies on political lobbying.

It would be nice if corruption amongst politicians was something that was only known in other countries, but scandals such as “cash for questions” show that not to be the case. If one is cynical (as I certainly am), one might suspect that such reported incidents are merely the small tip of a large proverbial iceberg. When a retired politician is given a directorship in a company, or paid £10,000 or more for a single speech, is this because the company expects to benefit from the politician’s contacts and influence, or is it payment for services already rendered?

America and the UK are similar in that their politics are dominated by two major parties which differ more in their rhetoric than in their policies when in power. For example, opinion polls show that in Britain there is strong public support for re-nationalisation of the railways, yet no major party offers it as a policy.  Such a policy would be anathema to the wealthy individuals who profit from the present setup, and so the electorate is denied the opportunity to make a choice. Labour have embraced, apparently enthusiastically, the Tory policies of cuts and austerity for all except the rich, who somehow just get richer still. The Tories are in favour of this; the best that can be said of New Labour is that they are not opposed to it.

The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is also a concentration of power. It may be an exaggeration to say that the UK is an oligarchy, ruled by the rich, with Parliamentary democracy a pretence, serving merely to conceal its true nature, but I fear that it is much closer to the truth than the comforting fiction that we live in a true democracy.

Scottish independence is no panacea in this respect; there is no easy escape from the negative consequences of globalisation. But it will be a major shake-up of the system here, and it will bring government closer to the people. It could give us an opportunity to reduce the influence of the billionaires, American and otherwise, and look towards the Nordic countries where levels of financial inequality are much lower than in the UK and America. If we remain part of the UK, I am pessimistic about the outlook for democracy; with independence, I will be optimistic.

What is the Problem with Devolution?

One answer to the question above is the infamous West Lothian Question. The Westminster Parliament is three separate institutions messily rolled into one. (For the sake of simplicity, I am going to ignore the existence of Northern Ireland.) For matters which are not devolved to the Scottish Parliament, it acts as the UK Parliament. For matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but not to the Welsh Assembly, it acts as a Parliament for England and Wales, while for matters devolved to the Welsh Assembly, it acts as an English Assembly. Yet all MPs can take part in any debate and vote on any issue, and it can be possible for Scottish MPs to tip the balance on a vote on legislation which will not apply to Scotland. Some people see even the possibility of this happening as unacceptable, and there have been mutterings about constitutional changes to resolve this issue, should there be a No vote in the referendum. (I find it ironic that the opposite situation, whereby English MPs could, by virtue of their greater number, out-vote Scottish MPs on matters relating solely to Scotland, caused so little concern that it was allowed to persist for nearly three hundred years.)

The danger with any approach which removes the right of Scottish MPs to participate in certain debates or votes in the Commons is that it could reduce Scottish MPs to a lower status, and make it more difficult for any MP for a Scottish constituency to be appointed to certain ministerial positions, including that of Prime Minister. The result could be that Scotland would be under-represented in the Cabinet, which is arguably the real UK Government. There is also an argument that some things which do not directly affect Scotland can still have indirect consequences; for example, cuts to the NHS budget in England will reduce the Scottish block grant through the Barnett Formula, perhaps forcing the Scottish Government to make equivalent cuts.

This constitutional messiness could, in theory, have been avoided if devolution had been implemented more thoroughly. One solution would have involved creating an English Assembly, with exactly equivalent powers to the Welsh Assembly, and a Parliament for England and Wales (PEW), to deal with all matters which are devolved for Scotland but not Wales. The PEW could consist of the two Assemblies in joint session, meaning that AMs would handle exactly the same range of business as MSPs. Video conferencing technology could mean that Welsh AMs would not have to travel to London. With the resulting large drop in the workload of the Westminster Parliament, the number of MPs could have been cut and the House of Lords abolished, freeing accommodation for the English Assembly in the Houses of Parliament.

There is one obvious reason why this was not done, and probably could not have been done. The creation of an English Assembly would have required (not constitutionally, but in practice) a referendum in England to approve it, and it seems very unlikely that approval for such changes would have been given. I can just imagine the howls of protest against the abolition of the Lords, and the ending of hundreds of years of English tradition to suit the Scots and the Welsh. Let the Lords remain, and the protests would be about the increase in the number of politicians.

Thus the current devolution settlement stayed clear of any changes which would have provoked a demand for an English referendum, and the West Lothian Question is the result. This has implications for the possibility of any significant increase in the powers of the Scottish Government following a No vote. Radical constitutional changes which require to be validated by an English or UK-wide referendum are probably even less likely to happen in the foreseeable future than they were in 1999, given that surveys have shown increasing opposition to devolution in England. Without such changes, additional powers would exacerbate the underlying problem and increase the likelihood of Scottish MPs having their status downgraded. Arguably, this is rather academic, as there is very little chance of any significant devolution taking place, if the threat (to the British Establishment) of Scottish independence is removed.

Opinion polls have consistently shown that devo max, whereby the Scottish Parliament would have full authority over everything except defence and foreign affairs, is a popular option; superficially, it appears to be a sensible compromise proposal. If there was going to be a second question in the referendum on devo max, it is almost certain that the result would be No to independence and Yes to devo max.

It has been suggested that the Scottish Government never wanted a second referendum question, but did not want to be seen to rule out such a popular option. So they said that they would consider having one, knowing that the unionists’ knee-jerk reaction would be to oppose anything which they thought the SNP wanted; David Cameron duly delivered the desired result as part of the Edinburgh Agreement. I find this view plausible, and I believe that the Scottish Government showed good judgement.

Devo max is fatally flawed; it cannot be implemented in any sensible way without radical constitutional changes which are very unlikely to be approved by the English electorate. A vote against independence and for devo max could have been disastrous, as Westminster would have been unwilling, or even unable, to deliver the necessary constitutional changes to make devo max a viable solution. My guess is that the UK Government would have put a bill before Parliament and then let it fail, while insisting that the No vote on independence must stand.

This links to a second answer to the question I posed in the title. As long as Scotland is part of the UK, Westminster trumps Holyrood. The powers of the Scottish Parliament are limited to those allowed to it by Westminster, and Westminster will never forget that there are about ten English voters for each Scottish voter. UKIP wants to see the Scottish Parliament turned into a committee of the Commons, and it is possible that they could be future coalition partners with the Tories, many of whom probably see the Scottish Parliament as a nuisance; neither party has much to lose by offending the Scottish electorate. Only independence can ensure that the Scottish Parliament is not stripped of some of its existing powers or even abolished.

The present devolution settlement is much better than what went before it, but it is not an adequate substitute for independence. I hope that in the future the verdict of history on Scottish devolution will be that its main benefit was that it enabled the people of Scotland to take control of their own nation.

Constitutional thoughts

It is often said that the UK does not have a written constitution, but this is not completely true. What passes for the constitution includes a number of conventions which somehow just developed over the years, but it is mostly cobbled together out of various Acts of Parliament, which are are most certainly written down. A more precise statement is that the UK does not have a codified constitution. There is no single document which sets out such important matters as how the country is to be governed and the rights of its citizens. In this respect, the UK is very unusual, but since the country has got by for over three hundred years without a codified constitution, it clearly is not essential.

Some people would argue that the lack of a codified constitution is a good thing, as it allows a degree of flexibility that the rigid framework of a constitution would not. Indeed, if one looks at the American constitution, there are bits that are well past their ‘best before’ date. For example, there is the electoral college system for presidential elections, which made sense when the Twelfth Amendment was ratified in 1804, but which means that only voters in ‘swing’ states can influence the outcome, and the candidate with the greatest number of votes may not win the election; in 2000, Bush received 543,895 fewer individual votes than Gore nationwide. Also, debates on gun control can end up as arguments as to exactly what the Founding Fathers meant by the ‘right of the people to keep and bear arms’, although the Second Amendment was written in very different times and a muzzle-loading musket is very different from a modern assault rifle.

Another argument against the value of a codified constitution is that a government may choose to ignore parts of the constitution which get in the way of what it wants to do, particularly if it has the judiciary on its side. Many people would argue that the extent to which the NSA is spying on American citizens, according to recent revelations, is a wholesale breach of the Fourth Amendment, yet there is no sign that this surveillance is likely to be significantly curbed.

On the other hand, although a codified constitution may have its limitations, the lack of one does create potentially serious problems. Firstly, is a convention enforceable? What would happen if, for example, a future king were to be so strongly opposed to some bill which had been passed by Parliament that he refused to give it the Royal Assent? The only thing that is certain is that there would be a ‘constitutional crisis’.

Secondly, a codified constitution would typically require a supermajority or a referendum to approve any changes to the constitution, but the Acts of Parliament which make up so much of the British constitution are no different in principle from any other piece of legislation, and can be repealed or modified by simple majorities in both Houses of Parliament. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 will have the effect of increasing, at least slightly, the period between general elections, but was passed with little publicity; there are probably many people in the UK who do not know that a Prime Minister no longer has the power to call an early election, or that in certain circumstances there could be a change of government without an election.

In the UK, the Parliament (formally, the Crown in Parliament) is held to be sovereign. If the government is ruled to be acting illegally, then Parliament can change the law to make the government’s actions legal, even if this means passing ex post facto legislation (prohibited by the constitutions of many countries), as was done to avoid paying compensation to unemployed people who had been coerced into performing unpaid work. Taking this concept of the sovereignty of Parliament further, if a government with a working majority facing defeat in the next general election were to pass a bill cancelling that  election, this would presumably be constitutional and hence legal (although probably far too risky in other ways).

Good government requires a system of checks and balances. In a representative democracy, the electorate entrust a great deal of power to those whom they elect to Parliament. A carefully designed, codified constitution, changes to which must be approved by the electorate in a referendum, can allow the electorate to retain more of that power and reduce the risk of the Parliament abusing its powers. The constitution is then effectively the supreme law of the country, which cannot be amended without the consent of the people; if the government oversteps the limits set by the constitution, they can be challenged in the courts.

The Scottish Government has pledged that, if they are re-elected in 2016 as the first government of an independent Scotland, they will develop a new constitution following a debate in which the government’s voice will be just one amongst many – a manifestation of democracy which we would not be offered by Westminster. The British Establishment’s representatives may indulge in rhetoric about democracy, but they will do all they can to keep power in their own hands, so that they can protect their own interests and maintain their privileged position. A codified constitution would constrain them, and so they will continue to use the superficial attraction of tradition to maintain the status quo.

In my view, the promise of a proper constitution for an independent, more democratic Scotland is one of the most important reasons to vote ‘Yes’. Independence will give us the opportunity to create a modern constitution, encapsulated in a single document and hence accessible to every citizen, rather than a vague patchwork of laws and conventions cobbled together over hundreds of years and subject to the whims of an archaic parliament of ‘Lords’ and ‘Commons’.