Stafford scandal: Let’s face the truth about our uncaring, selfish and cruel NHS
We don’t want any Mid Staffs ‘scapegoats’ – just the people who are actually to blame
It is officially calculated that, between 2005 and 2009, up to 1,200 patients at Stafford Hospital died needlessly. Let us imagine that a comparable disaster occurred in any other institution or enterprise in this country. Suppose that hundreds of customers of the cold food counter at Sainsbury’s or Tesco died of food poisoning. Suppose that, at an army barracks, large comprehensive, steelworks, bank, hotel, university campus or holiday theme park, people died, and went on dying for years, at rates that hugely exceeded anything that could be attributed to the normal course of nature.
What would happen? In all cases – though more quickly in the private sector than in the public – the relevant management would be sacked. Indeed, the very idea of unnecessary deaths taking years to notice is almost inconceivable. Criminal charges would be brought. In many cases, the offending institution would close down.
But this is the National Health Service, and so we approach it with superstitious reverence, as if the fact that Stafford Hospital performed so many human sacrifices is so awe-inspiring that little can be done about it. For all its rhetoric of condemnation, this week’s report of the Mid Staffs inquiry by Robert Francis QC argues, in effect, that those in charge should stay in charge.
Within hours of the report’s publication, Sir David Nicholson, the chief executive of the NHS, appeared on the BBC. Sir David was head of the West Midlands Strategic Health Authority between 2005 and 2006, and was therefore the senior leader responsible for Stafford Hospital. He sounded quite chirpy. He pointed out – in case we might have doubted it – that he was “a human being”. In that capacity, he said he was “shocked” by what had happened at Stafford Hospital, and “sorry” too. But he fastened quickly on Mr Francis’s comforting words that the problem was the “culture” rather than any specific bad leadership. Sir David felt “pretty sure that I know broadly what we need to do”: he was staying.
In retaining his power, Sir David, who is a former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, had already been endorsed by our political leaders. Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, publicly backed him. David Cameron, in the House of Commons, expressed every confidence in the great man. The political calculation, reinforced by the close relationship between Sir David and the omnipresent Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, is that only Sir David can exercise the financial control and manipulation of waiting times required to prevent the NHS exploding politically at the next election. All the deaths at Stafford Hospital occurred under a Labour government, but the Conservatives are being curiously prim about pointing this out. It is in the interests of both parties to play down the lessons of Mid Staffs.
Great is the rejoicing among the managerialists this week. Now they can get on with producing charts and implementation plans and meetings about Mr Francis’s five tasks, which recommend “transparency, candour… compassionate nursing… patient-centred health care leadership… accurate, regularly available information” and all the other things to which the NHS is always formally committed but never actually achieves.
How happily they have taken up Mr Francis’s insistence that there should be no “scapegoats”. But a scapegoat, remember, is a person made to bear the blame for others. It is clear from Mr Francis’s findings that the blame rested on many people, unnamed, at every level. How great does a crime or cruelty in the NHS have to be before the public can be allowed to know who committed it?
In his radio interview, Sir David Nicholson used a formula which, I have noticed, is popular with people wishing to acknowledge criticism without accepting blame. Speaking of what went wrong at Stafford Hospital, he said: “It is hard for me to imagine those patients’ experiences.” When you think about it, why? He was there for part of the time when these horrible things were happening. Did he not look in on A&E one dismal night, or visit Ward 11, where old people, seemingly every day, were being subjected to indignities which Mr Francis called “barely credible”?
The Francis Report this week is a great disappointment. It is woolly and over-long, full of jargon and euphemisms and forgettable recommendations. It is a waste of two years. But if you go back to Mr Francis’s first report, in 2010, you are sharply reminded of exactly what all this is about. It has 13 pages on “continence and bladder and bowel care” alone. These include stories about an old man forced to stay on a commode for 55 minutes wearing only a pyjama top, about a woman whose legs were “red raw” because of the effect of her uncleaned faeces, about piles of soiled sheets left at the end of beds, and of bowls full of vomit ditto. A woman arrived at 10am to find her 96-year-old mother-in-law “completely naked… and covered with faeces… It was in her hair, her nails, her hands and on all the cot sides… it was literally everywhere and it was dried.” One nice bureaucratic touch: another woman who found her mother with faeces under her nails asked for them to be cut, but was told that it was “not in the nurses’ remit to cut patients’ nails”.
So Sir David does not need to “imagine” any of this. He could have witnessed it, if he had understood what leadership involves. In many cases, I am afraid, he could have smelt it.
In his oral statement launching his report, Mr Francis began by saying: “Many will find it difficult to believe that all this could occur in an NHS hospital.” I am sure he is right. We have been taught with pseudo-religious fervour that the NHS is collective virtue personified.
But it should not be so hard to believe. The creation of the NHS in 1948 was not a scheme for making medicine better for patients. It was a way of taking charge of its delivery by centralised bureaucratic diktat, something which happens in no other country today except Cuba, North Korea and (oddly) Canada. It was therefore designed for the people who produced the service rather than for those who received it. Each extra patient was, from the producer’s point of view, a nuisance rather than a benefit. The NHS’s proud boast is that it is free at the point of use, but this is delivered in a variety of much more responsive ways in, for example, Australia, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain. Only in this country is the punishment of those whose actions or neglect have killed hundreds of people seen as “scapegoating”.
Many reading this will respond angrily, relating what wonderful care they have had at the hands of the NHS. Of course, they will be right (although they may be unaware of how much better the same treatment often is in comparably wealthy countries). It would be truly incredible if an organisation employing 1.4 million people did not contain many who did their best. But my point is that the goodness exists despite the NHS, not because of it. It often derives from the Christian inspiration to care for the sick which has existed for 2,000 years and is now under attack. In Stafford Hospital, Mr Francis records, one patient was mocked by nurses because he had a palm cross and a Bible.
The truth is the exact opposite of what we keep telling ourselves. The NHS is the least caring and most selfishly run important institution in this country. Until we recognise this, there will be plenty more Staffords.
Nurse at disgraced Staffordshire Hospital pulled dementia patient around by pyjamas with his genitals exposed and called him an ‘animal’
A healthcare assistant at the disgraced Stafford Hospital pulled a dementia patient around by his pyjamas with his genitals exposed and then called him an ‘animal’, a nursing tribunal heard today.
Bonka Kostova first pushed the 73-year-old man into the bathroom and on to the toilet before pulling him out by his pyjama collar and shouting at him, the Nursing and Midwifery Council was told.
Bulgarian-born Ms Kostova, a trained midwife covering as a healthcare assistant, was caring for the pensioner, referred to as patient A, in July 2010.
Her colleague, staff nurse Jane Wilkinson, broke down in tears today as she described Ms Kostova shouting: ‘I hate him, I really hate him. He is like an animal. I can’t bear working with him.’
Mrs Wilkinson, who has been a nurse at the hospital since 1985, said Ms Kostova was hard-working but could sometimes be abrupt with other members of staff, but that it was to do with her Bulgarian accent and demeanour.
However, on this occasion Ms Kostova, who had qualified as a midwife in her home country, was ‘losing it’, Mrs Wilkinson said. ‘She just seemed to be out of control with what she was saying. ‘I have been a nurse for a long time and I have never witnessed anybody saying anything like that at all and she did appear to be almost losing it, really.’
Ms Kostova, who was employed by the hospital between April 2009 and September 2010, was not present at the hearing in central London. It is understood she has not formally admitted or denied any of the charges she faces.
The NMC says 41 current or previous nurses and midwives at the hospital are were reported, but 31 of these cases have now been closed.
The tribunal heard that the patient had been in the hospital just over a month receiving treatment for kidney stones when the incident took place just after 3am on July 22, 2010.
He was said to be aggressive in his speech or manner around 80 per cent of the time and usually had a one-to-one carer looking after him who would sometimes need the assistance of another if the patient became particularly difficult. On this occasion, that carer went for a break, leaving Ms Kostova in charge.
At today’s tribunal, Mrs Wilkinson said Ms Kostova, known by colleagues as ‘Bonnie’, would often ‘huff and puff when talking with patients with dementia’. ‘I believe this was due to her nationality,’ she said.
But Mrs Wilkinson added that she never saw her being rude to patients, and would only be ‘abrupt’ with other members of staff, and would always carry out her duties.
While Ms Kostova had received general training in looking after vulnerable adults, she had not received specific training for dementia patients, ward manager Sharon Matthews told the tribunal.
It was also possible that Ms Kostova, who would often work extra shifts, had worked more than 40 hours in the week leading up to the incident, which happened in the early hours of a Thursday morning.
But Mrs Matthews would have been unaware of how many extra hours she had done if they had not been on her ward, where the incident happened.
The tribunal heard that after taking over care of the Alzheimer’s sufferer, Ms Kostova would have then been responsible for her regular 15 patients as well as the one-to-one care of the 73-year-old man. But she would not have to look after him for more than an hour, the tribunal heard.
Alison Jepson, the hospital’s matron of medicine, interviewed Ms Kostova after the incident and said the carer denied pushing and dragging the patient around, saying she was guiding him.
Ms Kostova said she noticed the patient was straining for the loo as he was walking around the ward and so guided him into the toilet. ‘He walked outside (the toilet) without any pants or trousers at all so I needed to sort him out to protect his dignity’, Ms Kostova said to Ms Jepson. ‘I didn’t pull him.’
Ms Kostova also said it would have been difficult for her to manhandle him because he was much taller and bigger than her, but she did admit shouting at him.
Ms Jepson told the tribunal she thought Ms Kostova did not treat dementia sufferers as human. ‘It came across that Bonnie felt the patient was not human because he had Alzheimer’s disease,’ she told the tribunal. ‘I’m unsure whether she understood the extent of her actions and the severity of the consequences.’
When questioned about this description by the panel, Ms Jepson said Ms Kostova would acknowledge the feelings of the patient’s wife and family but not him.
‘She wasn’t acknowledging that he would have feelings. She didn’t understand that by raising her voice and shouting – she didn’t acknowledge that he could be upset as a result of her actions,’ Ms Jepson said.
Ms Kostova was suspended after the incident and has not worked at the hospital since.
Robert Courteney-Harris, medical director at Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust said: ‘This incident was dealt with very swiftly when it happened in 2010. The member of staff was suspended pending our investigation and never returned to work at our Trust.’
An overall verdict is expected tomorrow or Thursday, an NMC spokeswoman said.
‘Everyone needs to hear “No” at some point’: The British headteacher who dared tell parents to send their kids to bed
A primary school headteacher – fed up with sleepy pupils – has written an open letter to parents warning of the dangers of online gaming and allowing late night television in bedrooms after children in her school were ‘ready for bed’ by midday.
Suzanne Morgan, headteacher at Saltdean Primary School in Brighton, East Sussex, wrote a letter on the school website addressed to ‘parents, carers and children’.
In the letter she claims some pupils were ‘a little more than obsessed’ with computer games and admitted to playing them ‘late into the night’.
The letter goes on: ‘This lack of sleep becomes cumulative and it is very difficult for staff to inspire learning from children who by 12 o’clock are ready to go to sleep.’
She adds that the teachers are greeted with ‘tired looks’ in the morning.
Mrs Morgan also highlights the problem with allowing children having televisions in their rooms: ‘As more children have televisions in their rooms, we are finding that some are also watching TV until late.’
She also writes to parents directly: ‘Obviously, we can only talk to children about good habits and about the need for a definitive amount of sleep at their age.
‘We need cooperation of parents and carers to ensure that all our children arrive at school in the best possible frame of mind for learning.’
‘There are all sorts of things online especially if these children are accessing it in their bedrooms.
‘And in the virtual reality world they lose out on interacting with others. If there is no discipline in the home how will they get on in later life?
In her letter to parents she warned of the dangers of online gaming and allowing late night television in bedrooms after children in her school were ‘ready to go to sleep’ by midday
Mrs Morgan urged parents to ‘shut down computers and television at a reasonable time’ ‘Everyone needs to hear ‘no’ at some point.’
Primary school children range from age 4 to 11.
Teach engineering not cookery, Sir James Dyson says
Schools should teach cutting edge skills to help Britain compete in the world, as engineers will not be trained by grilling tomatoes, Sir James Dyson has claimed
By 2013 this country will have a deficit of 60,000 engineering graduates.
This is compared to Singapore where applied science is so valued 40 per cent of graduates are engineers – in turn bringing in investors in their droves.
The master of invention believes that the way to combat the deficit is to teach children practical science and maths in design and technology lessons, which he says is essential for training the next generation.
Writing in The Times Sir James said that while Michael Gove may not have started a revolution, he has made progress as “academic excellence is back in fashion”.
Last week the Education Secretary’s plan to scrap GCSEs in favour of new academic English Baccalaureate Certificates was dramatically shelved because of significant opposition from the Liberal Democrats.
But despite the u-turn he announced a tougher curriculum where schools must focus on knowledge and key skills, leading Sir James to believe “a whole new generation of mathematicians and theoretical physicists awaits”.
But despite the academic progress there is one area of the curriculum which still “ignores the importance of practical academic excellence”, he writes – D&T lessons.
“Design and technology should be the subject where mathematical brainboxes and science whizzkids turn their bright ideas into useful products.
“Britain needs these practical minds if it is to compete in the world…. But D&T teaching in our classrooms will now bring together cookery, construction and horticulture” Sir James said.
His recommendations to modernise the subject, made in conjunction with the Design and Technology Association, were ignored. Instead teenagers will still be taught skills like how to grill a tomato or replace a bike chain
Sir James said: “This new curriculum will not inspire the invention and engineers Britain so desperately needs. The academic rigour Mr Gove demanded in other core subjects is missing in D&T.”
In maths lessons have moved toward problem solving and tough algebra, and computing lessons have moved toward information technology and comuter-aided design (CAD).
But practical lessons in engineering are missing from the D&T, the lessons which are essential for those wishing to pursue a career in the field.
At the entrepreneur’s company, Dyson, CAD and algebra are both essential tools and engineering is moving toward virtual rapid prototyping. Therefore to stay ahead of the game youngsters “should learn to invent as well as fix”.
To inspire the next generations they need to be excited by developments in technology and allowed to explore it rather then being handed a hammer and a piece of wood, he said.
“All is not lost. Mr Gove has shown he is committed to making education more rigorous and the Government has shown a desire to make Britain a high technology exporter,” he added.
“But Mr Gove has forgotten about design and technology. We have until April to make him change his mind and re-engineer the D&T curriculum. Britain’s future scientists and engineers depend on it.”
Minister’s damning silence on migrants: He stonewalls four questions on how many Romanians and Bulgarians will come to Britain
Ministers threw a cloak of secrecy yesterday over how many Romanians and Bulgarians they expect to flood into the country.
To fury at Westminster, the Immigration Minister snubbed four MPs who asked him to reveal the figures – saying he did not want to scare people.
Mark Harper said it would not be ‘helpful’ to let the public know what to expect when border controls are lifted in less than 11 months. It is feared the wall of secrecy will leave town halls, schools and hospitals unable to prepare properly.
Tory MPs said it was ‘madness’ to throw open the UK’s borders without giving voters an idea of what to expect. The Government has carried out a study on how many of the 29million citizens of Romanian and Bulgaria might move to the UK when they get full EU rights in January.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles – who has seen the figures, and has warned of a potential shortage of housing – previously indicated they would be made available for public debate.
But, amid heated exchanges in the Commons yesterday, Mr Harper refused to share what the Government knows. He was asked repeatedly either to release the data or to explain what the Government was doing to deter a new wave of migration from Eastern Europe.
Mr Harper replied that he was chairing a Whitehall committee to look at how to stop migrants abusing the benefits system. Ideas include trying to make it harder for newcomers to access benefits or ask them to carry residence cards.
He told MPs: ‘Speculative projections about future inflows cannot be made with any degree of accuracy and are therefore not particularly helpful. That’s why the Government is focused on dealing with the abuse of free movement rights and also reducing the pull factors for migration. We want to make sure that when people look at the access to our benefits and our public services that no one thinks we are a soft touch in this country.’
An estimate by the MigrationWatch think-tank has suggested the number of arrivals will average 50,000 a year for the first five years – the equivalent of a city the size of Newcastle or Plymouth.
Tensions are rising among Tory MPs who want the Government to take firm action.
They fear David Cameron’s promise to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ will be fatally undermined if large numbers arrive from Romania and Bulgaria, two of the poorest countries in the EU.
Currently, they are subject to transitional controls which limit the number of work permits available to low-skilled workers to around 20,000 a year. But, from the start of 2014, these arrangements will be abandoned, giving workers free access to the UK jobs market.
Speaking at Home Office Questions, Tory Philip Hollobone said his constituents believed it was ‘madness to open our borders to 29million people’.
He called for ministers to force EU nationals who wanted to live in the UK for more than three months to apply for a residency card.
His colleague David Ruffley said action must be taken to curb ‘welfare tourism that can only add to British public spending’. Another Tory, James Clappison, asked Mr Harper specifically to comment on the MigrationWatch estimate of 50,000 a year. But Mr Harper repeatedly refused to provide any indication of numbers.
He said: ‘We want to make sure that we offer what we need to under the treaties, but no more.’
Ministers say they do not want to create ‘scare’ stories – which some MPs have taken to mean the figure is high. However, an alternative scenario is that the number produced by officials is low, and would make the Government a hostage to fortune. Labour has never recovered from saying a mere 13,000 people would come from Poland in 2004, only for hundreds of thousands of workers to arrive.
Last night there were new demands to publish the figures.
Sir Andrew Green, chairman of MigrationWatch, said: ‘There is surely a need for an intelligent estimate. The worst option, surely, is just to muddle on.’
Keith Vaz, Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, accused the Government of being ‘confused’ on the issue and urged ministers to commission research on how many immigrants were likely to arrive.
You can’t rely on a bureaucracy: Nobody cares and nobody takes responsibility
And no negligence will get anybody fired: A council left 81-year-old widow to starve to death in her own home after being warned by police that she needed urgent care. Elderly Britons without close family are at great risk
A council was warned by police that an 81-year-old woman needed urgent care but failed to act – leading to the woman starving to death in her own home, it has emerged.
Stroke victim Gloria Foster depended on agency nurses who visited her home four times a day for food, water and medication.
But after the agency was closed down last month – for allegedly employing illegal immigrants – her council did nothing to look after her.
It has now emerged that on the day the raids took place, Surrey County Council was given a list of all the agency’s clients and contact details by the Metropolitan Police. According to the Daily Telegraph, this included Mrs Foster.
But the council failed to provide any alternative arrangements for the widow’s care and she spent nine days alone at home.
When someone eventually went to her home, in Banstead, Surrey, on January 24, they found that Mrs Foster had all but wasted away. She was severely dehydrated, suffering kidney failure, had serious bed sores and only a faint pulse. She was taken to Epsom Hospital but died on Monday.
Detectives from Surrey Police are now investigating Mrs Foster’s death and have seized her care register as evidence.
She had been receiving help in her own home from Carefirst24, but Surrey County Council became responsible for her care after a number of its workers were arrested last month following a UK Border Agency (UKBA) raid
The care register shows that Mrs Foster last received care on January 15. The nurse wrote that she gave Mrs Foster spaghetti bolognese and fruit juice.
She also wrote that she put on the washing machine and left Mrs Foster watching TV.
Mrs Foster was then found at home on January 24 with her walking frame out of reach in the lounge. The washing which the nurse placed inside the machine was still inside.
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Jo Wood, Mrs Foster’s god-daughter, said: ‘Can you imagine just lying there not being able to move for nine days? It must have been horrific. What happened to her is simply unforgivable.’
Her friends have previously said that what happened to her had been ‘appalling’ and demanded answers from Surrey County Council, the local authority responsible for her care.
Ann Penston, from Sutton, said: ‘How on Earth could this have been allowed to happen? ‘How can they just close this thing down and not identify the people they were supposed to be taking care of?
‘She did not deserve to go out like this – in agony with a total feeling of being lost.’
Mrs Foster’s MP, Conservative Crispin Blunt, described her ordeal as ‘horrific’. He said: ‘Clearly there are questions to answer and I would expect a comprehensive investigation between all of the agencies involved.’
Mrs Foster, a lover of classical music and the theatre who is believed to have worked as a stenographer, had no children. Her husband Bob, an accountant, died in a car crash in Saudi Arabia about 30 years ago. She had suffered a stroke and lived alone in the £200,000 house she had owned since 1984.
Private agency Carefirst24 had a lucrative contract from the council to look after her.
But the agency was suspected of employing illegal immigrants and six people were arrested by UK Border Agency officials when its Sutton headquarters was raided.
Alternative arrangements should have been made but Mrs Foster did not get any replacement care. She had no idea the agency had closed and was unable to call for help.
A district nurse visited her by chance and found her in a critical condition.
Miss Penston, who had known Mrs Foster since the 1980s, said she ‘couldn’t imagine’ how her friend would have felt after being left alone for nine days. ‘I don’t know how she survived. She had a glass of water by her bed. ‘I don’t know if she managed to get up and get it but my assumption is that for she was just lying there waiting for someone to come.’
Paul Burstow, Liberal Democrat MP for Sutton and Cheam, said the council needed to get to the bottom of why its procedures did not work properly.
The UK Border Agency said it had warned the council of plans to shut Carefirst24.
All those arrested in the raid on Carefirst24 have been bailed until dates in March.
Two British women aged 48 and 52, a 52-year-old British man and a 34-year-old Mauritian man were held on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and conspiracy to facilitate foreign nationals.
They are alleged to have employed illegal workers using former workers’ identities.
Carefirst24 is owned by Mahen Caussyram. The company’s website says: ‘Mahen is a family man who takes his responsibilities quite seriously. He enjoys spending time at home with family and friends.’
Mr Caussyram is a registered nurse who ‘developed an interest in human resource management’ and worked as an ‘activities coordinator’, the website adds.
A spokesman for the council said: ‘This is now the subject of a police investigation and it would not be appropriate to comment further other than to say we will cooperate fully.’
An unfree press — by appointment to the Crown?
The Tories’ ‘alternative’ to statutory press regulation is to get the monarch and Privy Council policing freedom of expression once again
Some might be wondering if they imagined the whole year-long Leveson Inquiry into the ‘culture and ethics’ of the UK press, and the brouhaha that met the publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report in November, so little has been heard of it lately. And even if it did happen, they could be forgiven for thinking that Leveson’s proposals for a powerful ‘independent’ statute-backed press regulator had already been forgotten, given the apparent lack of political progress towards agreeing the new system.
But they would be wrong. In fact, there have been intense negotiations and arguments over what exact form the new regulatory system should take. We have not heard much about these machinations, because the authorities do not believe that the public has any real part to play in deciding what sort of media we should be allowed to read, see and hear.
Instead, from the start the Leveson Inquiry operated as a closed shop for the political, legal and media elites, with the rest of us reduced to largely bored spectators. In the same oligarchic spirit, the post-Leveson political debate has been an invitation-only affair confined to the leaders of the main political parties, lords, lawyers – and the pro-regulation lobby group, Hacked Off.
There are, of course, differences of emphasis between these parties – notably over Leveson’s proposal that the new regulator be underpinned by law, which was rejected by Tory prime minister David Cameron but backed by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the House of Lords and Hacked Off. However, what is much more important is that they all accept the central myth that has informed the debate since the phone-hacking scandal: the myth that the British press has been too free to run wild, and that the naughty newspapers need the firm hand of a new regulator to smack them into line.
The pro-liberty argument, that in fact the press is already neither free nor open enough, has unsurprisingly not featured in their deliberations. That pro-regulation consensus makes it also unsurprising that the main players have apparently begun to move closer to a deal on how the press should be restrained, behind the closed doors of their smoke-free rooms.
The lack of visible political progress on press reform has this week led the frustrated denizens of the House of Lords to put more pressure on the government by passing their own version of a ‘Leveson law’ – a bill to create a low-cost arbitration system, as proposed in the Leveson report. Before anybody starts cheering this latest act of ‘rebellion’ by their lordships, we might recall that Leveson’s proposed ‘voluntary’ arbitration body is in fact an indirect form of coercion on the press: the flipside of his financial ‘incentives’ for newspapers to sign up to the system is the threat of ‘exemplary’ damages being awarded against publications that refuse to bend the knee to the new regulator-arbitrators. This is just one way in which the ‘Leveson principles’ for a statute-backed regulator threaten further infringements on press freedom (see Leveson: a licence to police press freedom).
But while the lords were right to complain about a virtual ‘news blackout’ on the political negotiations over Leveson, they were wrong to suggest that nothing has been happening. In their desperation to escape from the corner they have painted themselves into – wanting to implement Leveson, but having rejected his key proposal for statute – the Tories have come up with an extraordinary ‘alternative’. They now want to see the new regulator established, not by parliamentary law, but by Royal Charter. And what is more, their opponents have lately shown signs of coming round to this dangerous idea.
Acting as the prime minister’s voice on earth, Tory Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin reportedly sprang the idea of a regulator backed by Royal Charter on to the other political leaders during cross-party talks. The details of this extraordinary proposal remain unclear, though the government has promised to announce them soon and has already begun lining up the great and the good – a top judge, a former Labour cabinet minister, etc – to play a part in judging the press.
What is clear, however, is that the Tories want to avoid going through parliament and instead set up the regulatory system using the Royal Prerogative. This is the historical constitutional device which gives Her Majesty’s Government, acting in the name of the Crown, the power to do anything from signing treaties and launching wars to appointing lords and judges, without consulting parliament, never mind the public. The Royal Prerogative is a permanent menace to democracy which ought to be abolished – indeed, it is the main argument against the monarchy. Instead, the Tories now plan to introduce this authoritarian instrument into the affairs of our supposedly free press.
A Royal Charter has to be agreed and overseen via the Privy Council. This is the ancient secretive body of advisers to the monarch, officially known as Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council. Largely made up of senior politicians, the Privy Council formally advises the sovereign on the exercise of the Royal Prerogative and the issuing of Royal Charters. In practice, this means that such executive decisions are taken by government ministers. And as the Privy Council Office’s own website makes clear, there is a strict limit to the ‘independence’ of any body set up by Royal Charter:
‘[O]nce incorporated by Royal Charter, a body surrenders significant aspects of the control of its internal affairs to the Privy Council. Amendments to charters can be made only with the agreement of the Queen in Council, and amendments to the body’s by-laws require the approval of the Council (though not normally of Her Majesty). This effectively means a significant degree of government regulation of the affairs of the body.’
So much for no political interference in the press.
Anybody with a passing knowledge of the history of the struggle for press freedom in Britain should recoil from the merest suggestion of the Crown and the Privy Council becoming once more involved in press regulation, however formal their role. It evokes grim shadows of the old system of Crown licensing of the press, started by Henry VIII in 1529 and expanded under successive monarchs, under which nothing could be published without official permission. The central body of censors enforcing that system was the Star Chamber, a secret court made up of judges and Privy Councillors. Those who dared to defy these crude early attempts to ‘regulate’ the press faced more than a slap on the wrist; an insolent author had his writing hand cut off at the wrist under Queen Elizabeth I, while a Puritan pamphleteer whose writing was less than complimentary about the wife of King Charles I had his ears removed. Even after that king has his head removed by the Puritan revolutionaries in 1649 and the Star Chamber was abolished, licensing of the press returned. As late as 1663 a printer was hanged, drawn and quartered for defying King Charles II’s monopoly of the press. Crown licensing and censorship of everything that was published did not end until 1694.
Now it seems the Conservatives want to give the Crown and the Privy Council a role in a system of regulating the press once more. There is no prospect of a return to the censorship and punishment of old (though some critics might like to cut a few journalists’ hands off). But it is still a dangerous form of state intervention in the press, the very thing that people have struggled against for more than 500 years, and presents no ‘alternative’ to Leveson’s proposed statutory regulation that is rightly seen as an historic danger. (Indeed, it is now suggested that the Royal Charter idea might need some sort of statute to entrench it.) Whether a new ‘independent’ regulator is supervised by the broadcasting regulator Ofcom (as Leveson wants), or by senior judges (as Labour have suggested), or by the Privy Council, it is state intervention by any other name, and bad news for press freedom.
Yet the Tories’ idea appears to be gaining what the political wonks call ‘traction’ in their talks. The Labour Party has made clear from the day Lord Justice Leveson published his report that it backs his call for a law to underpin the new regulator, and opposes Cameron’s position. Its culture spokesperson, Harriet Harman, says the argument against statutory intervention does not hold, because there are already laws limiting freedom of the press. Which sounds rather like saying things are already bad, so what’s wrong with making them worse? It never occurs to these state-dependent politicians that this might be an argument for getting rid of the legal restrictions that exist, rather than imposing more. However, Harman has only said of the Royal Charter idea that Labour is ‘unpersuaded’ – which, as lobbyists have pointed out, is not the same as unpersuadable. There is plenty of scope for some sort of deal backing some form of state intervention.
The Hacked Off campaign was initially more dismissive of the Tories’ Royal Charter idea – hardly surprising, as that celebrity-fronted lobby group has called for a law making it obligatory for all newspapers to submit to the new system. The Hacked Off complaint that Letwin’s proposal was ‘undemocratic’ might have been a bit rich, coming from the leading lobbyists for further restraining the democratic right to a free press. But it was also true – the notion of Privy Councillors and judges implementing a regulatory system is even less democratic and accountable than MPs doing it. However, this week Hugh Tomlinson QC, the lawyer who chairs Hacked Off, told a committee of MPs that the campaign was ‘prepared to consider’ a Royal Charter instead, if that was the best way to get a strict system of press regulation set up.
(The two-actors-a-hackademic-and-a-dog outfit that is Hacked Off continues to exercise a remarkable influence over the entire process. Having, as recently argued on spiked, set the terms and the tone for the entire Leveson Inquiry, and written most of the key proposals in the report, it is now apparently shaping the supposedly hostile Tories’ response. So, as Peter Preston points out in the Observer, ‘Hacked Off wanted a “present or former civil-service commissioner” and/or “a present high judicial officer” plonked on top of the appointments body who’ll choose the successor regulatory board to the Press Complaints Commission – and lo! their demands would seem to be met in full.
‘The government has asked Sir David Normington, current commissioner for the civil service – and public appointments as well – to move in and approve the appointments system that emerges. He’ll need Privy Council assent to extend his official brief. Expect this to follow in a few days. And meanwhile Lord Phillips, former president of our supreme court and thus just about the highest former judicial officer extant, has agreed to advise on the construction and running of that selfsame appointments apparatus.’)
One way or another, it appears that the main parties allowed into the elitist clique redefining press freedom are coming closer to agreeing a system described by the pro-regulation Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) as ‘underhand statutory underpinning’ for a new system of policing the press. No doubt there will be ructions, fallouts and U-turns ahead as they attempt the juggling act of appearing to support press freedom in principle while hobbling it in practice. But whatever arrangement they eventually agree to endorse, the writing is already on the wall, in big bold type, for the future of a more free and open press.
Already there are signs of politicians becoming bolder in chastising the press under the shadow of Leveson – whether it’s the culture ministry warning the Daily Telegraph that it should not expose the minister’s questionable expenses claims while she was considering the Leveson proposals, or another government minister demanding not only that an Observer columnist should be sacked for writing something she disagreed with, but that the editor should also go for daring to publish it (he quickly took it down). Expect more of the same.
This does not signal any return to historical forms of state censorship. But it should highlight the real threat that an ostensibly free UK press is facing today – not censorship, but conformism, the pressure to conform to an increasingly narrow you-can’t-say-that culture of what opinions and ideas and investigations are acceptable to publish. What the pro-regulation consensus wants is not a state-run press, but a more conformist, tamer, better sanitised press that has been ‘ethically cleansed’. And all done behind the banner of ‘Of course we believe in a free press, BUT….’
One question that, it seems, has been entirely removed from the agenda for debate is this: why should we need or accept any special rules or laws for regulating the press, anyway? Freedom of expression is the bedrock liberty of a civilised society, on which all other freedoms depend. A free press is the organised expression of that right. So why should we look to the Irish, Finnish or whatever other system of press regulation is fashionable with the controllers this month? Why not look to the American revolutionary tradition to which Britain gave birth, and match the spirit of the First Amendment to the American Constitution, which declares that Congress shall pass no law ‘abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’?
The fight for real press freedom, against all the alternative systems of control being proposed, should be a major issue for 2013. The first step is to break the political oligarchy’s monopoly on this issue and start a proper open debate. The future of a free press is far too important to be left to those who think the ‘public interest’ should ultimately be policed, not by the public, but by the Privy Council.
No future for Jews in England
by Caroline Glick
In an interview with Haaretz in November 2010, British novelist Martin Amis said the following about discussions of Israel in his motherland:
“I live in a mildly anti-Semitic country, and Europe is mildly anti-Semitic, and they hold Israel to a higher moral standard than its neighbors. If you bring up Israel in a public meeting in England, the whole atmosphere changes. The standard left-wing person never feels more comfortable than when attacking Israel. Because they are the only foreigners you can attack. Everyone else is protected by having dark skin, or colonial history, or something. But you can attack Israel. And the atmosphere becomes very unpleasant. It is traditional, snobbish, British anti-Semitism combined with present-day circumstances.”
After participating last week in a debate in London about Israeli communities beyond the 1949 armistice lines organized by the self-consciously pretentious Intelligence Squared debating society, I can now say from personal experience that Amis is correct. The public atmosphere in England regarding Israel is ugly and violent.
The resolution we debated read: “Israel is destroying itself with its settlement policy. If settlement expansion continues Israel will have no future.”
My debating partner was Danny Dayan, the outgoing head of the Yesha Council.
We debated Daniel Levy, one of the founders of J-Street and the drafter of the Geneva Initiative, and the son of Lord Michael Levy, one of Tony Blair’s biggest fundraisers; and William Sieghart, a British philanthropist who runs a non-profit that among other things, champions Hamas. Levy has publicly stated that Israel’s creation was immoral. And Sieghart has a past record of saying that Israel’s delegitimization would be a salutary proces and calling for a complete cultural boycott of Israel while laudingHamas.
We lost overwhelmingly. I think the final vote tally was something like 500 for the resolution and 100 against it.
A couple of impressions I took away from the experience: First, I can say without hesitation that I hope never to return to Britain. I actually don’t see any point. Jews are targeted by massive anti-Semitism of both the social and physical varieties. Why would anyone Jewish want to live there?
As to visiting as an Israeli, again, I just don’t see the point. The discourse is owned by anti-Israel voices. They don’t make arguments to spur thought, but to end it, by appealing to people’s passions.
For instance, in one particularly ugly segment, Levy made the scurrilous accusation that Israel systematically steals land from the Palestinians. Both Dayan and I demanded that he provide just one example of his charge. And the audience raged against us for our temerity at insisting that he provide substantiation for his baseless allegation. In the event, he failed to substantiate his allegation.
At another point, I was asked how I defend the Nazi state of Israel. When I responded by among other things giving the Nazi pedigree of the Palestinian nationalist movement founded by Nazi agent Haj Amin el Husseini and currently led by Holocaust denier Mahmoud Abbas, the crowd angrily shouted me down.
I want to note that the audience was made up of upper crust, wealthy British people, not unwashed rabble rousers. And yet they behaved in many respects like a mob when presented with pro-Israel positions.
I honestly don’t know whether there are policy implications that arise from my experience in London last week. I have for a long time been of the opinion that Israel shouldn’t bother to try to win over Europe because the Europeans have multiple reasons for always being anti-Israel and none of them have anything to do with anything that Israel does. As I discuss in my book, these reasons include anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, addiction to Arab oil, and growing Muslim populations in Europe.
I was prepared to conduct a civilized debate based on facts and reasoned argumentation. I expected it to be a difficult experience. I was not expecting to be greeted by a well-dressed mob. My pessimism about Europeans’ capacity to avail themselves to reasoned, fact-based argumentation about Israel has only deepened from the experience.
One positive note, I had a breakfast discussion last Wednesday morning with activists from the Zionist Federation of Britain. The people I met are committed, warm, hardworking Zionists. I wish them all the best, and mainly that means, that I hope that these wonderful people and their families make aliyah.
While their work is worthwhile, there is no future for Jews in England.
Must not mention Auschwitz in a joke
A Tory-supporting peer has been forced to apologise after making a joke about Auschwitz at a glittering party function attended by David Cameron.
Lord Dalmeny, chairman of auctioneers Sotheby’s UK, has now admitted his comment about the concentration camp was ‘horrific’.
Guests at last week’s Black And White Party at the exclusive Hurlingham Club in London were said to be shocked by the ill-judged remark.
Lord Dalmeny last night apologised for his ‘horrific’ Auschwitz wisecrack. He said: ‘I’m sorry if anyone was offended. I meant to say “Colditz”. It was a horrific slip of the tongue.’