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Foreign Policy Garvan Walshe

Garvan Walshe: The press regulation Royal Charter is a boon to dictators everywhere

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“Please, five statues will be enough,” insisted the man with the aggressive moustache. “Two in the capital, the rest in the other big cities.” His left eye twitched, a hint his oldest comrades could recognise as the faintest sign of doubt, one he had worked hard to suppress, and which this time betrayed a vestigial anxiety that this wasn’t quite what he’d entered politics for.  He turned to his finance minister. “Solid gold?”

“Of course Mr President, a tenth of bank deposits should be sufficient. We'll issue Revolution bonds tomorrow to, uh, compensate the people.”

“Ok, good. Just make sure your folks get all their money out by 6 o'clock today. Now,” smiling, he stroked the shaving brush atop his lip, burrowing beneath the fibres in an attempt to dislodge a wayward flake of pastry. “What's next?” He jabbed at his iPad – each of the cabinet had been issued an iPad – “that's right, the new media law.”

The President liked to speak last. He enjoyed watching his ministers compete for his attention, his ear, his favour, and sure they could never quite know which way his decision would go.  He’d affect a bored look, or appear to study the life-size bust of Napoleon that was always placed opposite him. This time his mind drifted off... he found himself thinking that he should probably show a little less affection for the young education minister, maybe he’d gone a little too far; he shouldn't have given tongues the opportunity to wag.

“...EU trade agreement ... human rights...” the foreign minister droned on, though she had a point. That insufferable British commissioner with the oversized teeth wouldn’t let it drop, he would have to make the censorship look respectable.

The British, yes, there was something about the British, he wasn't sure exactly what, it would come back to him, but he had to concentrate because the discussion had moved on to the internet. He always thought it important to look focused when the discussion turned to technology.  His regime was progressive: those iPads, the @progressiverev Twitter feed, the Facebook page on which officials and those bidding for infrastructure contracts would check to see if he liked their Facebook posts, and the open discussion thread he held every Saturday morning, live shots of which were broadcast on all government TV stations.

But bloggers posed a problem. Since the Revolution, everyone had begun to think themselves a political commentator. Even though most of it was harmless sensationalist celebrity-watching, speculation about the costumes the contestants on the talent show he hosted would wear and the songs they would sing. He let the songs, which, he would tell those in the know, were invariably out of tune, and the costumes, which he usually considered vulgar, pass. It was best, his advisers insisted with rare unanimity to let the people have their fun, but these so-called citizen journalists had taken to investigating. The packing of the State Electoral Commission. His family’s financial dealings.  Those pictures of his brother that found their way onto the internet after he fled a brothel without paying (pictures that escaped even after the madam had been paid off).

The foreign minister, as usual, was right. It wouldn’t do to re-establish the old regime's censorship. Brussels would probably let the trade deal through, but he couldn't quite be certain. The Parliament has got assertive of late and he couldn’t afford the risk that they’d call it off.

He’d once begun a speech to the National Assembly quoting Queen Elizabeth: “I will not make a window into men’s souls.” And it clicked. She didn't demand that people were Anglican, it was enough that they went to church and used the Cook of Common Prayer every week. If they didn’t, they were hit with enormous fines. That was it: he’d get some sympathetic editors to set up a system of “self regulation” and they could hand out large fines – exemplary damages he thought was the technical term – to bloggers and papers that didn't sign up. This couldn't be called censorship, even that British ex-minister who used to run a civil liberties pressure group considered it an incentive!

But, tempering his enthusiasm, his more cautious side began to reassert itself, and he began to worry. It wouldn't look right if the government sued journalists itself. Too crude. What to do? He'd been reading about Egypt under Mubarak (he was starting to think that Hosni had a few things going for him). There had been a man called Abu Zayd and a court made him divorce his wife when a religious fanatic decided that he wasn’t a proper Muslim any more so his marriage wasn't valid. The court took the case even though the fanatic wasn’t personally affected at all. “Perfect!” thought the Leader: allow “third party complaints” – the Party machine would make sure the right ones were made.

The President smoothed his moustache again and stared at Napoleon. The Ministers knew this meant he’d made up his mind. Their fingers hovered above their iPads (the first to record the Presidential Instruction got the glory of carrying it out). “Extend an official invitation...” he paused. Fingers tapped. The cabinet looked up in suspense. Clocks ticked and tocked. Eyes turned to the Napoleon bust, as if to divine their leader’s mind “...to Lord Justice Leveson.”

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