Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Last orders in the last-chance saloon?

Lord Leveson.
With the Leveson Inquiry report set to be revealed tomorrow – Prime Minister David Cameron received a copy today – there has been a veritable torrent of coverage demanding no statutory regulation of the press.

In the last 24 hours, a cross-party group of more than 80 MPs and peers have written to the Guardian and Telegraph urging no statutory regulation, but calling for self-regulation to be strengthened.

The Daily Mail went into absolute overdrive in mid November, as apoplectic editor in chief Paul Dacre used a whopping 12 pages of a single edition in an attempt to smear Leveson and all those even remotely connected with it.

Yet for some strange reason, it doesn’t seem to be entirely convincing Joe and Joanna Public.

In the past week, a YouGov poll for the Media Standards Trust found that 79% of those polled were in favour of an independent press regulator underpinned by law.

The same poll found that 81% of Daily Mail readers want an independent press regulator established by law.

This, together with the cross-party nature of that open letter, might at least help to put paid to suggestions that views on the issue are governed by political allegiance.

But at the same time, there is a pattern of obfuscation from some sources about just what might happen.

Self regulation patently does not work. Indeed, at present, publications can simply withdraw altogether from the limited process that does exist.

Yet attempts to pretend that independent regulation, underpinned by law, is a synonym for state regulation/censorship are disingenuous – at best.

Plenty of countries have both independent regulation – and a perfectly free press. Denmark is but one example.

And nobody pretends that the bodies that regulate areas of life such as advertising, for instance, are somehow Stalinist extensions of the state, censoring everything.

One argument currently doing the rounds is that the law already exists to deal with cases of illegal practices such as phone hacking.

That is correct.

But Leveson was not set up to look at illegal practices alone. The problems, as I’ve illustrated before (here, for example), go beyond the question of legality.

And indeed, the full title of the inquiry itself rather gives the game away: Leveson Inquiry: culture, practice and ethics of the press.

Little wonder that Dacre has been so vehemently opposed to it all along.

The law as it exists does not cope with all the issues raised. Since we do not have a privacy law, for instance, the invasion of privacy can occur without any serious public interest justification.

And once someone’s privacy has been invaded, then like Pandora’s Box, no amount of legal recourse can restore that privacy. And that, of course, assumes the victim has the wherewithal to launch a legal challenge in the first place.

What is effectively happening here is that elements of the media publish gossip and kiss ‘n’ tells etc – the more salacious the better – because it is profitable. They worry about dealing with any fallout afterwards, when the damage is already done and when their own profits have been made. 

With no legitimate public interest element, what they’re effectively doing is peddling a form of voyeurism.

It would probably be difficult to find anyone who would say that that was ethically justified.

But it’s profitable – or at least, the publications that trade in such stories make money. Some of the press may be struggling to makes ends meet, but some are not. The likes of the Sun and the Daily Mail make tidy sums.

That means that such publications need to pretend that any challenge to their unethical behaviour is an assault on free speech – and we’ve seen that in recent months.

It reached its apotheosis when Rupert Murdoch’s Sun published the picture of a naked Prince Harry – with the Dirty Digger himself claiming that it was a blow for free speech.

It was nothing of the sort. It was simply Murdoch, worried by what Leveson may produce, putting two fingers up at the whole process and probably trying to intimidate the government.

Various senior editors/proprietors have squealed about how it’s ridiculous that they can’t publish what is doing the rounds on social media.

Well, it would make a nice change for some of them to think beyond Twitter as the prime source of news these days.

Here’s some news: Joey Barton’s latest tweeted comment is not news. And scouring social media to report it is not proper journalism either.

The original point, though, is ridiculous. Just because social media is full of people suggesting names of alleged paedophiles doesn’t mean you actually print it – as might have been rather clearly illustrated by recent events.

But the events referred to there illustrate perfectly the hypocrisy of some in this wider argument: they wanted the BBC crucified (possibly even by government) for a problem that a programme created – but reject even the hint of any independent regulation of their own frequently tawdry behaviour.

There has been an accusation that the idea of regulation is beloved of the ‘liberal elite’ that is Murdoch’s great bugbear.

This too is laden with hypocrisy, since the same people who come out with such an argument also like to consider themselves as having power – up to and including as ‘king makers’.

They take on themselves the right to pass judgment on others who are then unable to defend themselves. They make up the rules as they go along, on the prime basis that anything that makes them money either is acceptable or damned well should be.

The Mail, for instance, has taken it on itself to print details of non-criminals’ families, enabling them to be identified, just because it doesn’t approve of some entirely legal action that individuals took – the individuals are usually public service workers, who the Mail particularly loves to vilify, without anything approach balance.

Our press has been caught in a vortex of ratings chasing and has dumbed down in order to better keep up with the chase.

The wider result has been a coarsening of the public discourse as a whole, a celebration of stupidity and an increasingly dubious approach to stories based on chequebook journalism, churnalism, the conflation of editorial and reporting ... and so forth.

The British media has been drinking in the last chance saloon for too long already.

But it’s not simply a case that ‘Something Must Be Done’. In taking serious action, perhaps – just perhaps – proprietors will start to consider real, serious journalism as an option, and make the country’s fourth estate something that’s a genuine force for good.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. So, if 86 MPs & Peers are in favour of press self-regulation, surely that means that 1,364 are not in favour of self-regulation, so why did the press place the emphasis on the minority?

    David Blunkett was one of the signatories, the same David Blunkett who has recently signed a new contract with one of Murdoch's rags. It would be inyeresting if someone could compile a register of which of the members of our legislature are in the pocket of which newspapers or magazines. Any who are should be recused from voying on or even publically discussing Leveson's recommendations

  3. Bugger, should proofread before hitting the 'publish' button

  4. We all do it, Coddy. :-)

    The Telegraph is certainly editorially opposed to any regulation. I think the Guardian is less opposed.

    But yes, such a register would be interesting.