When it come to the UK’s regulatory bodies, “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” This Latin phrase, “who will guard the guards themselves?”, can be found in The Satires, a work by the 1st–2nd century Roman poet Juvenal. But it was Plato, in The Republic, who posited the response that the “guards should guard themselves against themselves”. To quote classicist Eric Brown:
“The rulers control mass culture in [Plato’s] ideal city, and they advance a ‘noble lie’ to convince citizens of their unequal standing […]. This propagandistic control plainly represents a totalitarian concern, and it should make us sceptical about the value of the consent given to the rulers.”
Plato‘s conclusion then, is that the noble lie is a myth of social harmony propagated by an elite to maintain power.
In this, the first of two articles, I look at how four of Britain’s regulatory bodies are themselves regulated.
A large part of my work with the Extinction Rebellion media team has been rebutting ‘ignoble lies’ in the press and broadcast media. It has been a Sisyphean task, not least because the capture of and cowing by the supposedly independent press regulators by the government, on behalf of their sponsors, is now cast in the very stone of that Sisyphean ‘boulder’.
The conundrum of who should hold the press to account is what sociologists would call a ‘wicked problem’: one that’s difficult to solve because of its complex and interconnected nature, and one seemingly intractable in a sphere so invested in propaganda and under the influence of powerful lobbyists.
The ‘who’ can not be the government or the courts because that would threaten the ability of the press to hold either to account. But equally any independent body charged with holding the press to account will, like the rest of us, have been groomed through a drip-drip of disinformation in defence of vested interests (under the banner of an immutable ‘freedom of the press‘) or it will be drawn into a culture war, both of which militate against a clear-headed appraisal of the press as one of our democratic pillars. This can be seen in the unchallenged repetition of spurious right-wing press claims in supposedly reliable news outlets, for example the BBC’s reliance on the Daily Mail for its news agenda.
After the Leveson Inquiry, two press regulators were founded to take the place of the discredited Press Complaints Committee (PCC): the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) in 2014 and the Independent Monitor for the Press (Impress) in 2013. Both instituted protocols which purport to outlaw the publishing of inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. However, only the protocols of Impress proscribe incitement to “hatred or abuse” so naturally the publications to whom this government turns to promote their culture wars chose IPSO over Impress as their regulator.
Brian Cathcart of the Byline Times said of IPSO:
“It is a fig leaf, a trick perpetrated on the public by the leading UK papers, with the active support of the Conservative Party. In reality it is designed, not to curb unethical journalistic conduct, but to enable it.”
So not so ‘independent’ after all.
In contravention of the juridical norm, “Nemo iudex in causa sua” (“no one should be a judge in their own cause”), IPSO’s complaints panel includes representatives of the very publications so often under investigation: the publications that keep this government in power.
Chris Evans, Editor of the Telegraph, sits on the ‘code committee’ with his appointees Ted Verity, editor of the Daily Mail, Ben Taylor, editor of the Sunday Times, and Gary Jones, editor of the Daily Express: an exclusively right-wing cabal joined at the hip with our corporatocratic government.
The Office of Communications (Ofcom) is the government-approved regulatory and competition authority for the broadcasting, telecoms and postal industries of the United Kingdom.
The attempts of this government to helicopter in, firstly the rabidly anti-BBC Paul Dacre and subsequently the [then] Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) trustee Charles Moore into the chairmanship of Ofcom in 2020 was brazen. Both attempts fell at the starting post. However, the government enforcer embedded at the BBC, non-executive director and former government spin doctor Sir Robbie Gibb, tried to force Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries to appoint Lord Gilbert of Panteg. In the end Dorries appointed Lord Grade who immediately sullied his impartiality credentials with a seemingly contractual obligation to declare war against “woke warrior apparatchiks”. No doubt he was party to the ruling that GB News was not a news channel and thus freed from adhering to protocols of accuracy.
In his exploration of events, Alan Rusbridger lays bare the facts:
“The panel which had interviewed the final candidates […] included Michael Simmonds, husband of MP Nick Gibb and thus Sir Robbie’s brother in law. Another was a lobbyist, Michael Prescott, an old friend of Gibb. The panel had been agreed by Dorries’s predecessor, Oliver Dowden, described by Dorries as ‘a close friend of Smith and Gibb.’”
With an impressive display of projection, in his search for a new CEO for the Charity Commission of England and Wales in 2020, Oliver Dowden burnished his ‘anti woke’ credentials, disingenuously warning that some charities are now “hunting for divisions”, while engineering a shortlist of culture warriors. And indeed his wish was granted in the form of Johnson acolyte Martin Thomas, until revelations, including that by the Good Law Project of him having gifted the PM a vintage watch while he was mayor of London, prompted him to withdraw.
Eventually, the job went to Orlando Fraser whose insistence that he is no longer a member of the Conservative Party is belied by his chairmanship within Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, just one of the many examples of the revolving door between regulators and right leaning think tanks. Andrew Purkis, a former Charity Commission board member, sensing the ethical shift, said of the appointment:
“For my part, I cannot see that a person associated unambiguously with a particular political party, and above all with such a very poor track record in the actual practice of charity regulation under political pressure, can be seen as a worthy candidate.”
Sarah Vibert of The National Council for Voluntary Organisations amplified the point saying she was, “disappointed that the government has not taken this opportunity to appoint a person with full political independence”.
This may be why, twenty months after Extinction Rebellion’s complaint to the Charity Commission regarding the cynical classification of the GWPF as an educational charity, there had been no response until I submitted a freedom of information request as to the state of play.
Their response, that disclosure would have, “the potential to damage the reputation and distress trustees” appears to me to be an admission of political subservience, and their conclusion that “the greater public interest lies in withholding information” seems a prime example of a democratic deficit.
The dismissive condescension and opacity of their response also leads me to believe they are inclined to kick this can down the road ad infinitum so as not to upset their political masters.
The Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat) is the body responsible for economic regulation of the privatised water and sewerage industry in England and Wales. It has the duty to ensure that water companies protect and improve the environment for future generations. Yet, the much-publicised favouring of the financial interests of shareholders at the expense of our rivers and beaches (as West England Bylines now documents) shows who truly sits in the regulatory driving seat.
Regulations passed earlier this year by Conservative MPs allow water companies to continue dumping sewage into our rivers and seas for the next fifteen years. Laissez faire or ideological in intent? The answer might be found in Rory Stewart’s conversation (related in his book, Politics on the Edge – recently reviewed in West England Bylines) with George Osborne when he was Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). When asked why we were not leading on the environment, Osborne’s answer was: “Because we are the Conservative Party”.
Ash Smith, of the group Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP), said:
“The failure of the regulators is now obvious, so the reasons why supposedly highly regulated water companies have done so well by exploiting captive bill-payers should, we think, be an important subject for the secretary of state ultimately responsible for the sewage scandal. ‘Regulatory capture’ or worse are obvious features that surely require investigation.”
The Environment Agency (EA) is the government executive body responsible for protecting and enhancing the environment in England and Wales. However, the new Environment Secretary has set new objectives for the EA which has, in turn, been found to have issued guidance that weakens its inspection regime. For example, as The Times reported last year, instructing staff that when people report pollution incidents, they should, “not to attend the least serious pollution incidents, leaving water firms to effectively ‘mark their own homework’ by classifying cases themselves”.
Literally muddying the waters.
It would also shine a light on those who benefit from such decisions, like former Environment Secretary George Eustice who is joining Augean, a waste management firm that was fined £36,000 after being found guilty of groundwater contamination. Questions have long hung around whether external jobs were compatible with the Nolan principles of probity in public life. Nonetheless, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (another parliamentary mask of integrity with no statutory power) rubber stamped Eustice’s employment as a consultant, responsible for providing: “strategic counsel […] on how to navigate existing permitting and regulatory regimes’ processes”.
An investigation by Sky News and Tortoise revealed that, in this parliament, MPs received £17.1mn from second jobs.
End of part one – part two out now …
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