Why the Anti-lobbying Clause Is a Threat to Free Speech

19/04/2016 11:27

Imagine a society in which scientific findings - for example about the best way to treat a newly discovered disease - were not allowed to be discussed in the media. In which social scientists could not publish work recommending how we might deal with poverty and homelessness. In which theatres could not mount political plays or museums display issue-driven work. In other words, that there was little or no national debate around any of the pressing concerns of the day. Fanciful? Wrong. Because the first significant steps towards such a society - if it can then be called such - will be taken in Britain in less than two weeks' time if the government goes ahead with the anti-lobbying clause restricting the use of public funds. The seemingly narrow term 'anti-lobbying clause' - the government's own - disguises the enormity of a regulation which will prevent public money being used to "influence or attempt to influence Parliament".

The government's official concern is that taxpayer funds are being used inappropriately and that, in Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock's explanation, should be "spent on improving people's lives and good causes, rather than lobbying for new regulation..."

Yet what is 'lobbying for new regulation' other than part of the essential national debate? It is a healthy open society which not just allows but actively encourages public monies given out as grants to challenge the status quo, to question government policy - and indeed make necessary recommendations to government for changes in policy, thereby also engaging the wider public in what is - because it operates in the public sphere - an inherently transparent process.

If we are to take the clause and its accompanying guidelines at face value - as we should - what would be the result?

Every area of public life including publicly funded universities, research councils, national academies, charities, arts organisations and more would be affected. Most immediately would be bodies which are wholly publicly funded. Yet many organisations only partly in receipt of public monies are likely to be drawn into a culture of self-censorship, fearful of losing this support even when private funds are used to 'lobby'.

The clause would work at two levels. Firstly, organisations and individuals would be discouraged - in many cases, effectively banned - from publishing, whether in specialist periodicals, through the letters pages of newspapers or in any other media, including appearances on television - anything which takes issue with current government policy. Such organisations would not be able to inform parliamentarians either, inevitably leading to a decrease in the quality of parliamentary debate.
Secondly, the primary work organisations undertake would - as a result of a lessening of debate - become increasingly more reactionary as it would be less able to challenge accepted norms.
It has been argued that the cuts - accompanied by an increasing association of organisations with corporate interests - have already led to a less questioning culture. Yet public money is still hugely important, not just to provide necessary services, but as an essential platform of our democracy, facilitating debate in every area of public interest. What is really behind this clause (brainchild of the markedly non-transparent and - crucially - public funding-averse Institute of Economic Affairs) is the wider privatisation agenda. One of the ways that the government can achieve this is to debilitate the uses to which public money is put. Which is why this clause is dangerous for the sciences and arts alike.

With such altered assumptions about how public money is spent, would we have had plays like David Hare's The Permanent Way - which might reasonably be described as a 'lobbying from the stage' against the privatisation of the railways? Or more recently Jack Thorne's Hope concerned with local authority cuts? Or artist Peter Kennard's politically engaged work currently - and appropriately - on display at the Imperial War Museum? Or Bob and Roberta Smith's direct criticism of the present government's educational policy? Because of the still generally accepted mixed ecology of the arts, much work - at some stage in the process - makes necessary use of public money. No media are excluded from the guidelines, and so this work - alongside much else - could be interpreted as being in breach of them.

Of course playwrights are not going to stop writing political plays overnight - and scientists will not immediately discontinue challenging research. Yet it is likely that all this work will become increasingly stifled by the new rules governing the public space in which it is to operate.

It is disturbing how quietly the clause is being introduced, with little public outcry and not enough opposition - at least in England - from the major institutions, even though worried charities have written to the government voicing concern and the science community has begun to speak out. One problem is the extent to which in recent times - particularly since the Blair years - organisations from the top down have been encouraged to 'negotiate' directly with government. The result of this is that some are decrying the regulation while in the same breath arguing for an exemption from it. To its credit the Scottish government has rejected it, and the most robust public rebuttal so far has come from the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

This clause is not the action of a government seeking to further public debate but of one wishing to build its very own safe space. It will be damaging for democracy and should be scrapped.

One last thought. A concerted public protest needs to be mounted soon. Because after May 1st the clause itself will disallow publicly funded bodies from campaigning for its withdrawal.