By Thomas Hornall
ONE glaring absurdity throughout the Leveson Inquiry ran something like, ‘even if newspapers can be controlled, how can information be stopped from going online?’
The internet, after all, cannot be marshalled in this way, but that hasn’t stopped bungling bureaucrats from trying.
With the General Election looming, the Electoral Commission wrote to online political blogs in January reminding them they had better get in line with a new lobbying bill as there are, “new rules you must follow on campaign spending, donations and reporting.”
It says charities, groups and individuals spending more than £20,000 in England or £10,000 in the rest of the UK on certain “regulated activities” that might, “reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters[…] must register with us as a non-party campaigner.”
The editor of the LabourList blog, Mark Ferguson, says it is a, “dreadful law -more worthy of a banana-republic than a democracy- that clamps down on free speech at a time when it’s needed most, election time.” The Guido Fawkes blog called the measures “Putinesque.”
These rules do not apply to newspapers and periodicals, or their online content, but do apply to activists, thinktanks, bloggers, charities and other 3rd party campaigners.
This unwieldy piece of legislation is titled the ‘Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act of 2014.’
Now, your activities will only be monitored and regulated, we are assured, if they are in line with both, what the Commission calls, the “purpose test” and the “public test.”
Perhaps these tests will avoid saddling stultifying rules on small websites and activists who want to speak, argue and report freely online?
The Purpose Test
“The rules cover spending on certain activities that can reasonably be seen as intended to influence voters to vote for or against political parties.”
These activities range from publishing content and leafleting to press conferences and transport – as well as staff costs. Now, in writing about politics, who is to arbitrate what can “reasonably” be regarded as influencing people to vote one way or another?
If we take politics in its “widest possible sense” as Orwell remarked, “to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after,” then the political is the unavoidable.
Designed this way, it becomes de facto impossible to not fall into these categories if you run a small-medium sized group. The wording throughout the bill is so nebulous and elastic and could be applied to almost any piece of writing on any issue.
The Public Test
You are only regulated if, “the activities are also aimed at, seen or heard by, or involve the public, or a section of the public.”
Almost by definition writers and campaigners aim at the public, or reach a public, or involve the public, or a section of it.
This isn’t even the ghost of a test, and could be applied to anything said outside a private home or on the street, or in a pub. But even then, sections of the public frequent pubs and are often found on streets.
In case you were in doubt, “website content, including blogs, will meet the public test.”
So we reach the inescapable conclusion: blogs with a couple of staff will obviously run over these small costs, pretty much everything people write is intended to influence or persuade – especially at election time- and if they’re worth reading, they’ll have readers from the public, or at least a section of it.
These layers of regulation are absurd and boring and thus far only around 37 organisations have signed up to the Commission, of which six are charities.
The political bloggers GuidoFawkes, LabourList, ConservativeHome and LibDemVoice all received a letter urging them to comply on January 8. Interestingly, other blogs like politicalbetting.com and politics.co.uk have not been told to get in line, for whatever reason.
Boris Johnson once quipped that Guido was, “the dung that sustains the rosebush of democracy.” It is the scourge of Westminster politicians of every hue.
Guido’s editor replied with acerbic grace,
But what if 3rd parties reject this wonderful new offer, and continue to report and analyse things freely and as they see fit?
The Commission, almost in the language of Just War Theory, says, “Although we will seek to achieve compliance and resolve issues without enforcement action when it is possible and reasonable to do so, we will take enforcement action where it is necessary and proportionate to do so.”
It remains to be seen whether crippling fines, censorship or criminal action lawsuits will be deemed reasonably necessary and proportionate by the right-thinking Electoral Commission.