The abuse of Parliamentary Privilege and the Death of Civil Liberties

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The emergence and subsequent passing of the Bill of Right of 1689 into legislation date back to the English Civil War when parliament was fighting for the right to govern and protect itself against external interference from the monarchy. Article 9 of the Bill of Rights states that "the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament". The purpose of this article is to ensure that members of parliament are able to express themselves freely in parliament with impunity from the courts and the crown. However, despite such liberty, parliament has always observed a convention which encourages its members from making statements in parliament which are not in the public interest.
One may also argue that the good intention of the founding fathers for enacting such a novel legislation was to ensure that parliamentarians are able to perform their duties effectively and responsibly. Therefore it is fairly reasonable to suggest that the founding fathers would be very saddened if they had thought a member of parliament will one day use the privilege they had fought hard for to satisfy his gossip appetite by making silly statements in parliament which promotes the interest of tabloid newspapers . I am in fact referring to the latest incident in which an attention -seeking Liberal democrat MP (John Hemming) exposed a Premier League footballer as the celebrity who obtained a super-injunction from the court to protect his extra marital affair. This kind of behaviour by Mr Hemming seems to go beyond the realms of the purpose of parliamentary privilege. It is not in my opinion for MPs to make statements about the private life of individuals which are not in the interest of the public. ‘’ I think we have to start differentiating between the public interest, and a proper definition of what that means, and stories that the media decide the public people might be interested in... It’s not the same thing." (Alistair Campbell BBC interview)

Shame fully enough, instead of accepting the fact that his attitude was out of order, he and his supporters continued to peddle the false argument that the public have every right to know about the marital life of the celebrity in question. If that’s the case, then what gave the public that right?
Well, assuming an hypothetical celebrity had spent most of his celebrity career promoting himself as a good role model for unmarried men; and as a result he had managed to procure brand sponsorships for himself, then in this case, if he had then gone to do something that contradicts the image he had conveyed to the public, it will be justifiable for the public to express deep interest in his fidelities. Conversely, if all that the hypothetical celebrity does is to do the job he was paid for as opposed to projecting such image, then in this second situation, the public has no right whatsoever to know about his private life. The same logic also applies to the footballer’s case; his private life should not be subjected to public debate and scrutiny since he hasn’t done anything to suggest to he’s a good husband.

Even prior to this particular incident, there had been series of attempt by some members of parliament to evade justice by claiming that their criminal behaviours fell within the parameters of Article 9 of the Bill of Right. This was certainly true in the case of the three MPs who were charged for abusing their parliamentary expenses. They argued “proceedings in parliament cannot be impeached or questioned in any court or place outside of parliament. These principles mean that it is for the House of Commons alone to decide whether the conduct of Mr Morley, Mr Chaytor and Mr Devine has been such as to call for sanction."(Mr Knowles; the MPs legal representative)
But despite making such a despicable attempt to avoid facing the music of the law, the courts rejected the premises of their argument by reiterating that “Scrutiny of claims by the courts will have no adverse impact on the core or essential business of Parliament, it will not inhibit debate or freedom of speech…the only thing that it will inhibit is the making of dishonest claims." (Lord Philips) On the contrary if the courts had allowed such an appeal, democracy as we all know it will never be the same again. It would have triggered cracks within the democratic society which our great grandparents fought hard to build for us. But luckily enough, the Supreme Court applied common sense which saw subsequently resulted in the incarceration of some MPs.
In addition, although Article 9 of the Bill of rights states clearly that members of parliament are unanswerable to the courts for things said in parliament, the British constitution has always impose a responsibility on the shoulders of MPs to respect the judgements and independence of the judiciary. It will be disingenuous and wrong for the British government and its allies to go around the world (as they are doing now) preaching about the importance of democracy, the rule of law, civil liberties and the right for individuals to have free and fair hearing in their respective countries when members of their own country refuse to adhere to judgements made by their domestic courts.
Moreover, one may also trace the root cause of the intrusion of civil liberties from the way the press has been allowed to operate. For so many years the British press has enjoyed an unprecedented right of self-regulation. This self-regulation, although good for freedom of speech, gave the press an unfettered playing field which encourages them to report stories which are damaging to civil liberties even when they know that such stories may have a detrimental effect on the individual and his family. In some cases, some newspapers go the extra mile to hack into the phones of ordinary citizens; a further attempt to infringe upon individual’s right to privacy. I am not in any way in favour of a privacy law which may or may not restrict the freedom of speech journalist. However I certainly think it is not morally defendable for a news organisation to plough through the phone records of ordinary people without any compelling reason for doing so.
It is this relentless intrusion of civil liberties by the press that encourages the courts to issue super- injunction to ordinary citizens so as to protect their right to privacy. As judge Eady explained ‘’the court's duty remains to try and protect the claimant, and particularly his family, from intrusion and harassment so long as it can."
In this regard, it is therefore right for judges to be encouraged by both parliament and the government to continue to devise new ways of protecting civil liberties whiles at the same time making sure freedom of speech is properly upheld. It is also time for MPs to stop hiding behind the veil of parliamentary privilege and take responsibility for their action. Failing to do so will push the UK down a slippery slope.

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