Billy Bragg Fight Songs

Billy Bragg - Mermaid Avenue

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HOW WOULD I FEEL IF MY SONGS WERE SUBJECT TO STATUTORY REGULATION? Some thoughts on the Leveson Report - 2012-11-30 13:23:10

After months of public hearings and deliberation, Lord Justice Leveson yesterday delivered his report into the culture, practices and ethics of the (British) press.

Over the past days, the print media have heavily trailed their opposition to any form of statutory regulation, claiming that it would amount to an attack on their freedom of speech. This morning we’ve witnessed the hypocrisy of newspapers such as the Mail, Sun, Telegraph and Express, who constantly complain that victims of crime never get redress, suddenly become cheerleaders for the rights of offenders.

As someone who considers themselves to be a defender of freedom of expression, I’ve found myself wondering how I would feel if there were statutory regulation of songwriting.

Lets imagine that the government passed legislation requiring any song sung publicly in the UK to be first cleared with Ofsong, the independent regulator for the music industry. I very much doubt that ‘Never Buy the Sun’, my song attacking the collusion between News International, the police and MPs that led to phone hacking and the cover-up at Hillsborough would be passed for performance.

This legislation would clearly be an infringement of my right to freedom of expression. I oppose such draconian measures, whether they’re applied to songs, performances or newspapers. So why then am I in favour of Leveson’s recommendation for statutory regulation of the press?

I am concerned that when the media speak of the freedom of the press, they are confusing liberty with licence. The body tasked with holding the press to account, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), is both funded and run by the press. Newspaper editors have jurisdiction over complaints about the bahaviour of their fellow editors from members of the public. Leveson described this form of self-regulation as allowing the newspaper industry 'to mark its own homework’.

The PCC has given tabloid editors so much licence over the past 20 years that they have become a law unto themselves, wielding power that has, until now, been unaccountable to private citizens who have been subject to their glare. There are many examples of how the tabloids have bullied people into giving them stories against their will, but here’s one from today’s papers:

John Tulloch was a victim of the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London. He claims that in 2005, on the same day that the police returned the blasted remains of his clothes and shoes, he was bullied and harassed into giving an interview to a tabloid and posing for a photograph he later bitterly regretted.

To return to my Ofsong metaphor for a moment, the treatment that Mr Tulloch received at the hands of the media is not the same as me performing ‘Never Buy the Sun’. If I were to match the heinous behaviour of the tabloids, it would involve me standing outside the homes of those I mentioned in the song for days on end, shouting through their letterboxes, pestering their neighbours for gossip, taking photos of their children – keeping all this up until they gave me what I considered to be a satisfactory response to the accusations I made in the song.

It’s this kind of behaviour - the bullying of private individuals by newspapers - that Leveson aims to curb, not the free expression of opinions. That’s why I support him and why the media barons hate him. They fear that statutory regulation will inhibit their ability to get away with invading the privacy of people such as the Dowlers and the McCanns – families vulnerable at a time of great grief and loss.

Leveson seeks to address this problem by calling for a regulatory body that is independent from the press, able to sanction newspapers that fail to follow their own code of conduct, but balanced by legislation which enshrines in law for the first time a ministerial duty to uphold and protect the freedom of the press.

The media barons, realising that this means that they will be held accountable for their actions, are seeking to dress their narrow self-interest in an argument about freedom. In their expressions of outrage against any form of statutory regulation, they seem to have forgotten that freedom comes with a price and that is eternal vigilance, not just against those who would threaten it, but also against those who constantly abuse it.

Brian Leveson seeks to arm us against that abuse. He deserves our support.

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