There was a huge amount of media attention this week on Thursday’s publication of the Leveson Inquiry report on the role of the UK newspapers and whether Parliament should step in to help the Press Barons regulate themselves.
Subsequent debate in and out of the House of Commons focused on the best mechanism for doing this without curbing the age-old freedom of papers to critique government policy and expose misbehaviour amongst politicians. The Irish model of a Press Council underpinned by legislation was quoted by both sides, for which attention the Irish are apparently grateful.
The underlying political issue was in fact about how the UK Coalition Government operates. A certain amount of horse trading goes on between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties with one or other side gaining ground depending on a range of complex factors. Both know there is no guarantee they will be able to form another Coalition in 2015 when the next General Election is due to take place, let alone gain a majority of seats in Parliament. However, the Conservatives, as the governing party with by far the greater number of seats, also know that they will always have the upper hand on their Coalition partners, and that the real opposition in 2015 is the Labour party.
Where does that leave UK democracy?
The problem is that the big prize of the Coalition Agreement for the Liberal Democrats and other smaller parties was electoral reform of the ‘first past the post’ model, which would better reflect the actual of vote in a multi-party system. This did not happen arguably because the Conservative and Labour parties did not want it to, having benefited from a 2-party system, as with the Democrats and Republicans in the US.
So while the current topic is about who regulates the press, with a sub-text of free speech, the underlying argument is about who regulates a political system dominated by 2 large parties.
I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, but it is not clear to me what progress there is to make on this either side of the Atlantic.