A tragic approach to same-sex marriage

Oliver Kamm

The Times supports same-sex marriage. It’s an editorial stance that I’ve had a role in formulating and a position that I strongly favour. One particular feature of our case ought to appeal to a rational conservative. As argued in our initial leader last year in support of reform, formally acknowledging the validity of homosexual unions “has encouraged gay couples to commit to enduring partnerships, in which many show a devotion, care and disinterested love that do far more to create ordered domesticity than government programmes could ever achieve”.

Not all opposition to gay marriage is prejudiced, but the irrationalism of its supposedly heavyweight critics is hard to miss. I have just noted comments by John Milbank, a prominent British theologian and founder of something called “Radical Orthodoxy”. His argument is summarised in the American religious journal First Things and set out fully here.

Milbank’s prose style is not the crispest, but once you’ve excavated his argument you have to wonder at its paucity. He begins by referring to “the telling squeamishness in much contemporary conversation on homosexuality, which invariably steers away from its physical aspects”.

I don’t think it’s doing violence to his argument to summarise it this way: “Homosexuality? Ugh!” It’s an aesthetic judgment (at least, that’s the politest thing I can say about it) of no relevance to public debate.

Milbank’s principal point appears to be, however, that: “Heterosexual exchange and reproduction has always been the very ‘grammar’ of social relating as such. The abandonment of this grammar would thus imply a society no longer primarily constituted by extended kinship, but rather by state control and merely monetary exchange and reproduction.”

Milbank is obscure but I can recognise something here that is no better reasoned than his claim about “squeamishness”. He thinks sex is about having children, and this is essential to marriage. He maintains that “a gay relationship cannot qualify as a marriage in terms of its orientation to having children, because the link between an interpersonal and a natural act is entirely crucial to the definition and character of marriage”.

Children and a loving domestic environment in which they can grow up are a benefit of marriage. But they are not the only one. No one disputes the richness of married life for heterosexual couples who are unable to have children. Nor does the State have any business in judging that such a marriage is meaningless. Milbank’s standpoint would be risible if it were not tragic. He defines marriage in such a way that it will exclude homosexuals. That’s not an argument but a manoeuvre.

I once debated with Milbank, on BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves. It was an odd experience. He argued for a religion-based common culture. In opposing him, I mentioned the scarcity rather of public rationalism, as evinced by Milbank himself: he’s a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. Milbank erupted at this, claiming it was a lie, so note his public support for a group called Religious Leaders for 9/11 Truth. Milbank claims to have withdrawn his signature, but it remains in the public domain and he has stated (in an essay entitled Geopolitical Theology: Economy, Religion and Empire after 9/11): “As to the precise causes of 9/11 I remain entirely agnostic.”

Private Eye later reported, completely accurately, that when this live broadcast had ended, Milbank started screaming at me: “You’re going to be dealt with!” He kept this up in the studio, down the corridor, through the lobby and on to the street to our respective waiting cars. But I sleep well.

Britain should welcome, not oppose, immigration

Oliver Kamm

The Conservative Party has an important and historically sometimes dominant strand within it that is internationalist (including pro-Europeanism), pragmatic and in, the broadest sense, liberal. It’s dismaying that, on the evidence of the Queen’s Speech, that current appears to be in abeyance. 

I’m not so worried about the absence from the Speech of legislation for same-sex marriage. I’ve supported that cause for around 20 years (not longer, I’m sorry to say, as I had previously failed to grasp how central the issue was to civil rights and citizenship), and am proud to have helped construct The Times’s recent arguments on it. There are no good arguments for delay and strong conservative reasons for pressing ahead. But I’m confident that this will happen; and when it does, the reform will not only be irreversible but accepted very quickly as a natural and just state of affairs. 

It’s disturbing, however, that the Queen’s Speech dwelt to such an extent on proposals to deter people from coming to the UK. Immigration has economic and social benefits. Immigrants fill gaps in the labour market and, generally being of working age, contribute more to the Exchequer in taxes than they take out in benefits (including education spending). There is some evidence that immigration affects the wages of unskilled workers but that effect is small and there are better remedies than curbing rights of entry. 

It is a dangerous myth that Britain (even under the previous Labour Government, whose record on this issue is creditable) has open borders. Immigration restrictions on people from outside the EU are too onerous. Increased checks, higher age limits for foreign marriage partners and a more bureaucratic visa and work permits scheme do little more than cause inconvenience and in some cases misery. 

Note from our Comment page today an article by Sir Andrew Green, founder of Migration Watch (an innumerate pressure group that continually confuses correlation and causality). Having till recently been co-chairman of the British Syria Society with the father-in-law of President Assad, Sir Andrew does not appear to have a pronounced sense of shame. That deficiency may be the reason for his advancing an argument that others might prefer to keep implicit: “[A]t present immigration levels, the white British might become a minority in as little as 50 years.”

The problem, you see, is the number of black people in Britain. How little has the quality of debate advanced in this country over decades. 

Why Nigel Lawson is wrong about the EU


Oliver Kamm

Asked about Lord Lawson’s argument in The Times today that Britain should leave the EU, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary replied that Lawson was “a terribly clever guy but he’s often wrong on the big issues, like climate change, and this”.

That’s well put. I admire Lord Lawson’s huge memoirs on his time as Chancellor (it’s an outstanding book on applied economics). I’ve debated with him on Europe. He is an intellectually formidable proponent of arguments that are often an unreliable guide to policy.

The best point Lawson makes against EU membership is that the costs of exit are less now than the costs of remaining outside the EEC were 40 years ago. The reason is that international tariff barriers are lower, owing to a general and extremely welcome liberalisation of global trade. But that doesn’t get the argument far.

There would be some immediate financial gains from leaving the EU of about £8 billion, if we no longer made a budgetary contribution. But note that Norway, whom UKIP cite as a possible model, does contribute to the EU budget and accepts almost all EU regulations. It does so because it wants access to the Single Market. And being outside the EU, it has no say in forming its regulations. The nations within the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) have to negotiate their own bilateral trade arrangements rather than be represented by the EU. And they have suffered countervailing duties on important exports (Norwegian salmon, Swiss cheese).

If Britain left the EU, it would moreover suffer a loss of business investment. This would be true even in financial services. The City is highly unlikely to retain its importance as a global financial centre without being part of the EU’s Single Market rules and when sterling is not a reserve currency. Its international competitiveness would also be damaged by the removal of the right of entry to the UK for skilled young workers in finance and IT.

But the main damage to British interests from leaving the EU would be a long-run decline in diplomatic importance. The most important bilateral component of the transatlantic alliance for much of the postwar era has been between the US and Germany, not the US and Britain. Britain outside the EU would be of far less significance in Western foreign policy. We’d be a medium-sized power with a narrower, less liberal ethos. No, thanks.

What’s your view? You can vote in the Times IN/OUT poll here.

Noam Chomsky’s admirers should consider these statements

Oliver Kamm

Noam Chomsky the theoretical linguist, visited the UK last week to lecture on politics. Some of the admiring commentary has crossed the line to credulousness (see, for example, Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian).

It’s an open question how far Chomsky’s writings on politics and linguistics are linked. The principal commonality seems to be that, in both fields, Chomsky makes grand assertions beyond what the evidence will support. Paul Postal, one of Chomsky’s earliest colleagues, says this of Chomsky’s linguistics: “On the one hand, there is, enormous social success over decades, on the other, a quality of proposal and degree of actual descriptive and theoretical adequacy and success which is hard to underestimate.”

With regard to politics, I invite Chomsky’s admirers to consider these points:

1.       Chomsky defended a Holocaust denier, Robert Faurisson, in 1979 after Faurisson was given a suspended sentence and fined for defamation and incitement to racial hatred. Chomsky is not a Holocaust denier and he purported to be defending the right to free expression. But his argument, set out here, was far from an unexceptionable libertarian case. (If it had been, I’d agree with it.) Instead Chomsky said that Faurisson appeared to be a “relatively apolitical liberal of some sort”.

2.       In 1977, Chomsky and his collaborator Edward Herman wrote an article for The Nation in which they pointedly referred to  “alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities” in Cambodia, disputed that the rule of Pol Pot was analogous to Nazi Germany, and suggested that it was instead “more nearly correct” to compare Cambodia to “France after liberation, where many thousands of people were massacred within a few months under far less rigorous conditions than those left by the American war [in Indochina]”.

3.       In 1967, in a panel discussion in New York about political violence, Chomsky noted: “There are many things to object to in any society. But take China, modern China; one also finds many things that are really quite admirable.” This was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution.

4.       In an interview with a Serbian television station in 2006, Chomsky repeated hoary claims that television pictures of Fikret Alic at the Trnopolje camp, in Northern Bosnia, in 1992 had been faked. (The interviewer declares the picture fraudulent; Chomsky says “you remember”.) See what Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian, who exposed the inhuman conditions at Trnopolje, had to say about that claim when it was judged libellous at the High Court in 2000.

Why Ed Miliband is wrong on immigration


Oliver Kamm

Though I believed Gordon Brown was unsuited to high office, I voted Labour at the 2010 election. I usually do, depending on the merits of the candidate (there are various Labour candidates I wouldn’t vote for and some, such as Ken Livingstone, whom I’ve voted to defeat). Among the limited number of positive reasons for my preference is that, in government, Labour has presided over important social reforms on issues including abortion, gay rights, and racial and sexual equality.

It’s depressing, therefore, to read Ed Miliband’s declaration in The Sun that “the Labour Party I lead will listen to people’s worries and we will talk about immigration”. It’s a disingenuous as well as illiberal argument.

If there’s one thing that British politics has not lacked in the 45 years since a Labour government passed the discreditable and discriminatory Commonwealth Immigration Act, it’s talk about immigration. (When I was growing up in Leicester in the 1970s, race and immigration made up almost the entire local political debate.)

Miliband says: “We know low-skill immigration has been too high and it should come down.”

No, we don’t. There is some evidence that immigration has pressured the wages of low-wage workers, but it’s not obvious that tighter controls on immigration would help. A more direct and equitable policy would be a subsidy for low-wage employment, as argued by Edmund Phelps, the Nobel laureate.

The debate about immigration’s effects on employment and wage levels is bedevilled by the “lump of labour” fallacy – the notion that a complex economy has a fixed amount of work and that a net inflow of people increases unemployment and reduces wage levels. In fact, inward labour migration often stimulates the creation of more jobs. Immigrants are a source of demand and can be an opportunity for particular sectors to expand.

Miliband’s insistence that public-sector workers speak English is a populist non sequitur. The economy has structural weaknesses but there is scant evidence that this is one of them. As Tim Harford pointed out in the Financial Times on Saturday, if there is any such problem in the public sector, it “will not be fixed by the sticking plaster of Mr Miliband’s ‘simple rule’”.

Immigration controls are not too loose but too tight. In discouraging asylum seekers and imposing higher age limits for foreign marriage partners, legislative changes have had had no good effect while increasing the sum of human unhappiness. 

What Venezuela should have learnt from Brazil

Oliver Kamm

A Times leading article this week contrasted the experience of Venezuela under the late Hugo Chávez with that of Brazil in the past decade. It’s an instructive comparison, in my opinion, because it considers alternative models of Latin American development. It’s clear which is the more effective.

When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected President of Brazil in 2002, many observers expected him to follow populist policies. But he didn’t. He pursued social reforms, to narrow Brazil’s extreme inequalities, within the framework of the market economy. That was a progressive course, because Lula understood that the country’s endemic problem with inflation was itself a regressive tax on the poorest.

As well as controlling inflation, Brazil under Lula pursued a responsible fiscal policy that generated significant surpluses and reduced the country’s foreign debt. That helped economic stability: it ensured that Brazil now can borrow at lower cost and with longer maturities.

Against this economic background, Brazil’s social policies have been effective – not least because of their simplicity, which ensures that they’re not susceptible to corruption. A programme called the Bolsa Escola, which was implemented in Brasilia in the 1990s, provided a model for cash transfers to the poorest families to give them enough to eat. Cash rather than food aid provides dignity as well as buying power.

Brazil has its problems. Growth hasn’t been fast enough, and there is too much trade protectionism (which harms consumers). But it’s a stable, well-governed democracy in which a left-wing government has improved public welfare. Venezuela is different: the main beneficiaries of Chávez’s regime have been the President’s own family.

There are many reasons for the divergent experiences of these two states under different types of government. But one may be particularly significant. Lula is a Marxist who understands politics. His primary concern is with emancipating people from want. He was able to identify and pursue effective means to that end. Chávez wasn’t a politician: he was a military strongman who inflamed the politics of Venezuela when he launched an attempted coup in 1992.

The Left in Latin America, as a continent with great inequality, is an essential force. Left-wing governments in Brazil and (for most of the period since General Pinochet’s defeat in a referendum in 1989) Chile have shown effective governance. Chávez represented a more atavistic and destructive tradition. 

Srebrenica denial just will not die


Oliver Kamm

The Srebrenica massacre in July 1995 was the worst single atrocity in Europe since 1945. Bosnian Serb forces murdered around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in a crime judged by the International Court of Justice at The Hague to be an act of genocide.

That was a sound judgment. The intention in killing every male was to ensure that the Muslim captives could not remain a sustainable population. Many of the victims were blindfolded and then shot in the back. Whatever you call the Srebrenica massacre, there is no legitimate debate about the nature of that abominable crime or the number of its victims.

There are, however, a few extremists who maintain otherwise. Their motivations are obscure but appear to include the belief that the racist, imperialist regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade was somehow progressive, and unabashed conspiracy theories about Muslims.

I first noticed this phenomenon of “Srebrenica denial” when the Government of Republika Srpska (the Serb entity in Bosnia) issued a report in 2002 claiming that the victims amounted to some 2,000, most of them combatants. Lord Ashdown, then international High Representative for Bosnia, rightly dismissed it as “preposterous” and “an insult”. As I argued in this column, the techniques of Srebrenica denial derive from Holocaust denial. Its proponents use bogus demographics, non sequiturs, calumnies and outright fakery.

You won’t find Srebrenica denial in any reputable scholarly forum but, like other conspiracy theories, it spreads on the internet. Its most prominent advocate is Edward Herman, a sometime co-author of Noam Chomsky.

I believe (though am open to correction) that Herman has never visited Bosnia, but he has indefatigably denied the established facts of the Srebrenica massacre. Here is a new piece in which he rubbishes the notion of 8,000 victims (“they had never proved that there were 7,000 or 8,000, even men and boys killed. The bodies in the graves added up to something like 2,500”).

Be aware, if you encounter such material, that it’s baloney. Herman has been using bogus statistics for years. Scientists working with the International Commission on Missing Persons have excavated the remains of more than 7,000 Srebrenica victims from mass graves that were never intended to be discovered. Using DNA analysis, they have managed to identify and name these victims. That is harrowing, vital work. Yet the pernicious lies of the deniers never go away.

That’s why I fight these people. 


Ditch the compassion, Republicans

Oliver Kamm

With the inauguration of President Obama for a second term, Republicans seek an idea that can win back voters. Conservatism in other advanced industrial economies is in a similar quandary. One answer is provided by Gertrude Himmelfarb, the historian, in The Weekly Standard. She argues that conservatives need “to recapture compassion from the liberals, de-sentimentalizing while reaffirming it”.

I don’t think this argument will work to the electoral advantage of conservatives on either side of the Atlantic. Nor is it one that I find appealing.

Conservative modernisers such as David Frum in North America and Daniel Finkelstein in this country argue that a successful centre-right party needs to acclimatise itself to a diverse nation. This is true. And the obligation to deal with society as it is rather than wishing that it conformed to some Arcadian alternative requires acknowledging that people have diverse aims in life. Compassion doesn’t get them there. It’s a recipe for authoritarianism.

In personal relations, compassion is a virtue. In politics, it’s an affectation. Citizens of a complex society, in a market economy, will exercise innumerable choices. Some people will suffer and a fair society will protect the vulnerable. It should also provide citizens with the ability to make autonomous choices. That requires a degree of redistribution to reduce inequalities.

But that’s a principle of equity, not compassion. If the State sets out to be compassionate, there is no inherent limit to its powers. If devout religious believers are offended by the publication of satires on what they hold sacred, I may feel for their hurt on a personal level while insisting that no government has the right to suppress speech in order to make them feel better.

Himmelfarb’s views have had some currency in British politics, notably with her book The Roads to Modernity (which, in its UK edition, carries a foreword by Gordon Brown). She sharply distinguishes the Anglo-Scots and American Enlightenment, which she characterises as being concerned with liberty and small government, and  the French Enlightenment.

This is a misreading of history. The French philosophes admired English liberty. The reforms enacted by the French Constituent Assembly from 1789 to 1791 were an historic advance for secularism and the abolition of the hereditary principle. That’s why they gained support from Thomas Jefferson, among many others. There is no sharp break between Enlightenment traditions; conservatives need at last to accept the values of the Enlightenment. 

Can 1,000 Catholic priests be wrong?


Oliver Kamm

The question answers itself, but here’s the context.

More than 1,000 priests have signed a letter to the Telegraph protesting against same-sex marriage. They maintain that the Government’s forthcoming Equal Marriage Bill heralds a return to religious persecution. The Bishop of Portsmouth maintains that “it is quite Orwellian to try to redefine marriage”, and terms the proposed reform “totalitarian”.

It’s tempting to dismiss this as inflammatory nonsense, because that’s what it is. Even so, two points are worth drawing out.  

First, the clerical opponents of gay marriage continually commit the logical fallacy of begging the question (ie, assuming in their premises the truth of what they’re arguing for). They complain that the Government’s proposals “redefine marriage” – a redefinition that they are conscientiously and by Church teaching bound to oppose.

Yet the argument of the proponents of reform, including The Times, is explicitly that we are not redefining marriage. We merely seek to extend marriage rights to couples who are now barred from them on no better ground than that they are of the same sex. Reforming marriage to enable a woman to own property independently of her husband was a change of far greater scope than same-sex marriage will be. It was opposed on similar grounds of its supposedly being contrary to natural law. And it was obviously right and just. Same-sex marriage is a modest reform of similar type.

Second, because of that point, the Church will damage itself by the vitriol and hyperbole of its campaign. That’s a prediction, not a complaint – indeed it’s a scenario that I welcome and look forward to.

Damian Thompson, the prominent Catholic journalist, comments on his Telegraph blog that “David Cameron is at war not just with fundamentalists, but also with middle-of-the-road clergy and lay people from Britain’s largest and, arguably, best-integrated religious minority”.

I see no reason to doubt this, but draw the opposite inference. The war has been declared by the Church. Religious liberty is an axiom of a free society; but on public policy, the Church is a lobby like any other. It is not a repository of wisdom about the right and the true. Numerous Catholics implicitly acknowledge this by ignoring Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, proscribing artificial contraception.  

The history of civilisation is to a large extent bound up with separating religious from civic authority. By its obduracy, the Catholic Church is hastening the process.

Is there anyone in charge?

Philip Collins

After the significant nothing of the mid-term coalition review, two
points have survived two days of coverage. The first is that Nick
Clegg committed his party again to coalition. For anyone who doubted
that this coalition will last until the next general election,
this week’s press conference surely dealt with the doubt.

But another aspect of the choreography of the day left me astounded.
Why on earth, in a day of activity that has been devised precisely to
dramatize continued co-operation between Conservatives and Liberal
Democrats would you allow a Cabinet Minister (Lord Strathclyde) to
resign, citing his irritation at his coalition partners as his reason?

Surely whoever was in charge (is there anyone?) would have taken a
look at the diary and suggested gently to Tom Strathclyde that Monday
wasn’t an ideal day and could he possibly hang on a week? Don’t come
in for a week, stay in the garden. But don’t undermine the relaunch by
resigning in the middle of it.

The loss of the leader of the Lords is not the end of the world and
not many voters will have noticed. But I cannot help but wonder at the
comical ineptitude at the people running this mess and thank the Lord
Strathclyde that they are not planning a major overhaul of the benefit
system involving an administrative overhaul that has scared off every
government since the Second World War.  Ooops, they are.

An unreliable source in Syria

Oliver Kamm

The Daily Mail disturbingly reported this week: “Syrian rebels beheaded a Christian man and fed his body to dogs, according to a nun who says the West is ignoring atrocities committed by Islamic extremists.”

Its source for this claim was Sister Agnès-Mariam de la Croix, a Carmelite nun in Syria. She maintains that Islamist militants are inflicting atrocities of scarcely conceivable horror on the country’s Christians.

I am not given to underestimating the cruelty that religious absolutists, and specifically Islamist extremists, can inflict. But I’m wary of this source, in this conflict. Reliable information about the violence in Syria is scarce owing to the determination of President Assad to restrict what is known of his crimes. Only yesterday, the UN raised its estimate of the death toll in the uprising to 60,000.

Sister Agnès-Mariam has a notable record, however, of saying things that are convenient to the Assad regime and that do not accord with the conclusions of more reputable investigators. She claimed that the massacre of 100 civilians at Houla was the work of anti-Assad rebels.

It’s unsurprising that Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Jesuit expelled from Syria after 30 years, was caustic about Sister Agnès-Mariam’s testimony when she was on a trip to Ireland last summer. He told the Irish Times: “I have been there, I know the people, including the youth, who are working for the revolution, and I know that what she is saying is insane. It corresponds with the regime version of the facts.”

Syria’s is unquestionably a brutalising conflict. But there is also much nonsense being circulated by fringe elements on the Right and Left who wish to denigrate the Arab Spring and the case for solidarity. A peculiarly monstrous example, confected by a right-wing conspiracist and Birther website called World Net Daily, also made it to the Daily Mail a few months ago. It was seriously claimed (with literally no documentary evidence, such as a photograph) that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was conducting crucifixions in front of the presidential palace. In Syria’s conflict, a Carmelite nun is suspiciously serving the cause of a murderous despotism. 

Crippling austerity and a euro break-up won’t help Europe recover

Oliver Kamm

Political speculation and newspaper commentary this year have concerned the possibility and consequences of a Greek exit from the euro. I have long been sceptical that this would happen, owing to its immense costs. But I felt that the austerity programme required of Greece was so unyielding that it was counterproductive. While living standards have been collapsing, the debt burden threatens to become overwhelming without credible plans to restructure it. (See here an Intelligence Squared/Google debate on austerity – which I argue is not the answer for Europe – a few months ago where I discuss the problem with, among others, George Papaconstantinou, former Greek Minister of Finance.)

Recent Greek developments have thus been modestly encouraging: a successful debt buyback, an improvement in the country’s credit rating, and a decline in government bond yields after the European Central Bank said it would again accept Greek sovereign debt as collateral. If the eurozone is to get out of this mess, it will do so this way: not by fantasies of a purportedly orderly break-up of the euro, but by structural reforms in the debtor countries that are acknowledged, rewarded and made easier.

Greece is an extreme case, and the conjunction of variables in each of the problem countries is different. In Greece, the banks were relatively strong but were undermined by a catastrophic fiscal position (in 2009, the Greek Government admitted that its budget deficit of 12.7 per cent of GDP had been vastly understated in an earlier estimate of 3.7 per cent). In Ireland, the weakness ran the other way: a banking crisis born of excessive bank lending, rather than a crisis of public debt, that then became a fiscal crisis owing to the need to nationalise the stricken banks.

What the countries have in common, despite these differing histories, is extreme stresses that turn private debt into potential public debt. And the only route out of this is to build the fiscal dimensions of the euro that were lacking at its launch, make structural reforms and adopt a more rational approach to the economics of austerity.


Angry Oborne’s brush with pseudo-Cicero

Oliver Kamm

Peter Oborne, the Telegraph’s chief political commentator, is angry. He often is. The latest spark for his anger is The Times, which he thinks is not a properly run newspaper. Oborne’s criticism should be judged on its merits; so should Oborne’s qualities as a commentator.

I’ve never met Oborne but I did an ill-tempered radio debate with him once, on the tenth anniversary of the euro. Oborne would presumably claim that the eurozone crisis has vindicated his prediction of the currency’s eventual demise (it hasn’t), but his reasoning stays with me. He argued that the yield spread between German government bonds and the debt of other eurozone members showed that markets expected the currency to fail – not the size of the spread, but the fact that there was a spread at all between different eurozone countries’ bond yields.

That’s like saying that the difference in municipal bond yields between Massachusetts and California shows that the market expects the dollar to collapse. In other words, it’s nonsense. Different countries within Europe’s currency union have different borrowing histories and (obviously) different credit ratings. Within the eurozone, fiscal policy remained with national governments, some of which borrowed too much. That’s why we are where we are.

My favourite Oborne column was a screed, when he was at the Daily Mail, against a welfare system that “blatantly rewards the workshy and the idle”. He concluded:

Writing more than 2,000 years ago, a Roman politician made the following observation: “The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance.”

These words were uttered by Cicero in 55BC. Today they are every bit as apposite.

It will seem incredible, but Oborne copied this passage without checking it or apparently even noting the fantastic anachronism of a Roman statesman’s referring to “assistance to foreign lands”. The “apposite” quotation is entirely bogus.


'There's no way of prettifying it. Legislation would be the intrusion of the State into the press'

Oliver Kamm

Journalists committed gross intrusions of privacy. The press must be free. These two truths are at the heart of the debate over regulation of the press.

Lord Justice Leveson has gone to great lengths to balance them and stresses that any new regulatory body would be independent. It would, however, be supported by law. The required legislation would not itself establish the new organisation, and Lord Justice Leveson emphasised that no new powers would be granted to Parliament. Instead, the legislation would establish the ideals that regulation should embody.

This is a skilful and accommodative set of proposals, aimed at securing political consensus and press participation. But the balance between statute and self-regulation is the crucial issue. There is no way of prettifying it: legislation would be the intrusion of the State into the workings of the press. David Cameron is right to baulk at it.

Nor is it credible to suppose that a new mechanism would be without coercion. Lord Leveson made clear that if a newspaper or magazine failed to sign up to the new system, it would be subject to exemplary damages in cases of libel or invasion of privacy. There are already laws applicable to the journalistic malpractices that Lord Leveson heard evidence of. The proposals he has made to counter them abridge press freedom.


Follow our live coverage on thetimes.co.uk

Leveson: pick of the comment from the web

The report on Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into press ethics was published earlier today, calling for a stronger press regulator underpinned by new legislation. Soon afterwards, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, rejected the notion of enacting legislation that might impinge upon the freedom of the press - a position that is opposed by his coalition partner, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, and also the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband.

Here’s the pick of the Leveson comment from the web, updated as it comes in. For The Times’s live Leveson blog, head here.

Philip Webster, The Times:

Already tonight, the numbers game is being played at Westminster. MPs are calculating whether an alliance of Labour, Liberals and around 40 Tories can outvote the majority of David Cameron’s Conservative supporters and Labour MPs who are opposed to statute.
The only certainty is that there will be a vote in the House of Commons very soon. Labour will set out to embarrass David Cameron as soon as they can. As Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman has just said, Mr Cameron will be accused of protecting the press barons if he does not think again.
Mr Cameron will get a good press tomorrow for rejecting state regulation, but his Parliamentary problems are just beginning.

Andrew Gilligan, Telegraph blogs:

Regulation is either independent of the industry, or it’s self-regulation. It can’t be both. You’d expect a High Court judge to know that, wouldn’t you?

Fraser Nelson, Spectator Coffee House:

This is a defining moment for the Prime Minister, invoking ancient liberties to give a calm, eloquent and robust defence of freedom of speech. I hope those 42 pro-regulation Tory MPs were in the chamber listening to him: this is politics at its boldest and best.

Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who broke the phone-hacking scandal (Video):

He [Leveson] has damned a whole bunch of behaviour that deserves to be damned. And he’s damned the editors responsible for it.

Gary Gibbon, Channel 4 blogs:

The Lib Dems and Labour are now coralled together [in favour of statutory underpinning of Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals], but keeping them together beyond one ambush vote and through a whole process of legislation could be very different. David Cameron’s team still thinks it can hold out against legislation.

Dan Hodges, Telegraph blogs:

Cameron has, not for the first time, secured clever triangulation. He has rung the bell for last orders in the last-chance saloon, but is giving journalists the chance to drink up and leave, rather than send in the bouncers. Miliband, trapped by his own bullish rhetoric on this issue, has to set himself against the media, and continue with his demands for full implementation of Leveson, including a statutory regulatory body. Meanwhile the press, who recognise which way the wind is blowing, will make those demands appear gratuitous by agreeing to a new voluntary framework.

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