Freedom down to us

FREEDOM of information and the right to report what's going on depend on journalists organising, not laws. That was the conclusion of the London Freelance Branch debate at the House of Commons on 12 February. Alternatively, it was "The two most loathed and distrusted groups in society meeting and bemoaning their powerlessness," as LFB member Ros Bayley put it.

Yellowjacket says NO! to TV crew in Trafalgar Square

A Greater London Authority Heritage Warden asking a German TV crew for their "permits" to film in London's Trafalgar Square on 7 February. As if the GLA had set out to prove our point...

We had invited five panellists to consider whether the notion of freedom of information - which usually means access to documents - needs to be extended to the streets, into a "Right to Report".

David Shayler, a member of this Branch, kicked off with an example of "what happens in the absence of a right to report and a proper right to freedom of expression": the Ministry of Defence is once again taking out injunctions to prevent papers reporting the name of an intelligence officer. He named her, and others, but the Freelance is scared of testing the effect of a full report of a debate within the precincts of Parliament.

This climate of fear "leads to a general dumbing down," Shayler said. "In the absence of a right to report, what is the point of a journalist risking all when they could put something in the Style section instead?" The UK does "the absolute bare minimum to allow us to qualify as a democracy," he said: we need a strong Bill of Rights and properly trained judges.

Guardian Journalist Richard Norton-Taylor had `flu, and sent an email denouncing the Freedom of Information Act for leaving the security and intelligence agencies, including the National Criminal Intelligence Service, courts and tribunals untouched. And he slated it for the "entirely subjective test" which Ministers and civil servants can use to keep secrets.

Malcolm Bruce, LibDem MP for Gordon, considered whether the culture of rights in Europe might help. He's a member of the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee of the Council of Europe (not to be confused with the EU). The Convention on Human Rights is now signed by 43 countries. "Signing is not the same thing as implementing," he said: now that ex-totalitarian states have signed up "a glass is being held up to what you might call the mature democracies to see whether they are living up to their promises."

He recalled the events during Chinese leader Jiang Zemin's London visit in 1999: "not only were journalists bundled off the streets but MPs were also bundled off the streets to prevent them protesting about the abuse of human rights." He hoped that future use of the Human Rights Act - which facilitates the access to the European Court of Human Rights we've enjoyed since 1953 - "will confirm not just your rights, but citizens' rights, to information, subject only to the narrowest test of national security, objectively applied."

Sir Teddy Taylor MP had written to the Home Secretary asking for comment on the Right to Report - but had no reply at all. He saw the privatisation of formerly public spaces as a problem - "the Labour Party have privatised things we'd never have dared to privatise."

But to whom should a "Right to Report" apply? "Do you issue a paper to some people," asked the Tory member for Rochford and Southend East, "and how do we select them?"

Jeremy Corbyn (Labour) believes that the importance of everyone having a right to know what goes on leads straight to the question of media ownership, the cross-ownership that puts papers and TV in the same hands - and the control that the newspaper wholesalers exercise over distribution. Access to documents is vital: he told of a borough councillor in his North Islington constituency who was shown a document about the notorious Housing Benefit computer contract, only on condition he didn't tell anything to "that awful Jeremy Corbyn".

Discussion focused much more on access to information than, say, to Trafalgar Square (see picture caption). Parliament is, after all, about documents. And the Parliamentarians were un-animous in despairing at gaining control over the Executive. Jeremy Corbyn invited us to imagine what legislation would mean in the UK: "a Commission with Peter Mandelson in the chair and Charlie Whelan and Ali Campbell deciding what you can and cannot know."

Is it not better, he asked, to have strong journalists' unions with a strong code of conduct? Malcolm Bruce agreed in answer to questions from the floor that "Good, well-organised, democratic trades unions are essential to the working of democracy." Teddy Taylor - though known for his support of the belief that trades unions were out of order in the 1970s - was prepared to support this too. Over to us.

And the last word to him: "If you want rights for all, freedom and access for everyone, not just you, fine."

Last modified: 19 February 2001 - © 2001 contributors
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