Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Anyone fancy having a 'free press'?

Paul McMullan – a living, walking advert for regulation
Well, it didn’t take long. The weekend after the Leveson Inquiry reported, we had the fun and games of seeing Liberty director and Leveson advisor Shami Chakrabarti having to pen a rapid response to the confusion‚ in some of the press, over her stance on the report.

Now, setting aside the questions about who exactly elected Chakrabarti – and the organisation she heads – to the position that it appears to hold, one can’t help but wonder if the likes of the Mail on Sunday and the Independent (which lovely couple share a home these days) really couldn’t understand the nuances of her original response or were motivated by something else to actively misunderstand it.

But then again, lots of other people seem similarly incapable of understanding the issues surrounding Leveson.

For instance, there is lots of talk about threats to a ‘free press’. But what exactly does that mean?

Well, at it’s most simple, what people usually mean is something that can act in the general public interest by explaining things properly and uncovering corruption and lies etc, and holding politicians and so forth to account.

And it cannot be difficult for many to agree is a good idea.

But that is not, in general, what we have in the UK today.

Instead, what we have is a press that is, generally, owned by individuals for the sake of profit and their own agendas.

Now, for the sake of clarity: I have nothing whatsoever against profit – indeed, as a freelancer, I like it. Goodness – couldn’t I make a bit more myself?!

In terms of the press, though, there is the potential for conflict between the drive for profit and the general public interest ˆ not least where news isn’t considered sexy‚ enough to get readers and advertising.

Over the years, it’s meant, for instance, that some missing children are considered more worthy of space than others – usually because pictures of pretty, white girls make better front pages.

In other words, profit has been one of the drivers of the general dumbing-down of the UK press over the last 20-30 years, whereby we’ve arrived at a point where news‚ is dominated by who tweeted what, who slept with whom, and which celebrity fell out of what nightclub at 3am.

Now it may well be that that is what the great British public wants from its press – but let’s not pretend that, if that is the case, it’s what the concept of a ‘free press’ is really about.

Then there’s that agendas bit. Now again, let’s not be naïve.

All newspaper proprietors will have their own political views, and will want to disseminate them. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But in the last decades, we’ve seen a serious crumbling of the once sacred wall that divided reporting and editorialisation as the British press has slumped toward a sort of Fox News approach, the kind of thing that Rupert Murdoch espouses as his answer to supposed elitism.

Even a once fine newspaper such as the Telegraph does it these days. In the past, you’d buy it for its quality of news coverage, even if you didn’t always agree with the editorial line, but the two were clearly defined.

And if conflating reporting and editorial isn’t bad enough, papers further dumb down matters by employing the likes of Jeremy Clarkson or Julie Bindel as columnists.

Okay – Clarkson can at least be funny, but he’s no more a philosopher, say, than Richard Littlejohn. Oh.

And Bindel’s continued contributions to the Guardian simply serve to allow hand-wringing liberals a bit of ‘acceptable’ bigotry.

Look across the Channel and it’s a different world. When the French were having their burqa debate, for instance, the public discussion was not drawn along strictly tribal political lines.

For instance, one of the commentators was a left-wing female philosopher who was in favour of a ban, but articulated her reasons in a nuanced way. Philosophically, in other words.

Similarly, if there is a strike in France, papers might not agree with that action, but there will be a pattern of all press – from across the political spectrum – actually analysing the reasons for industrial action, and discussing it in a way that at least examines the issues.

And French newspapers are refreshingly free of those 3am nightclub stories.

They are not, however, run by the state or as organs of the state – they are private companies. Which rather suggests that you don’t need to print a diet of salacious gossip or infantilised opinion in order to make money.

But fair enough: if you’re going to turn news into knee-jerkery and titilating entertainment because it sells, that’s your decision. Just don’t try to pretend that it’s about ‘free press’. It’s not.

Indeed, it was the late Sir Robin Day who once noted: “Only two newspapers tell the truth. The Financial Times, which tells the truth for the business community, and the Morning Star, which tells the truth for the workers”.

There is, of course, plenty of other hypocrisy in all this. Imagine if you will, editor Paul Dacre at the Mail suggesting that it would be a good idea for trade unions to regulate themselves. No?

But, as the late Frank Carson would have said: “There’s more”.

Many of those now shrilling the loudest about the idea of any form of meaningful (independent) regulation are, in effect, defending the intrusion into people’s private lives on the grounds of profit.

Because profit was the only motive for the stories about Max Mosely, for instance. The News of the World tried to confect a public interest argument – and failed.

The idea that, when someone is in the public eye, they are automatically demanding to be followed and photographed everywhere etc is a nonsense.

Some might – some do – but it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t be a better world by ignoring such attention-seekers and not pandering to their demand for attention, let alone then deciding that anyone else remotely in the public eye (well, in the entertainment world, at any rate) is fair game.

And let’s note what should be obvious: making a film or writing a book is not one and the same as demanding to be followed and reported everywhere, any more than writing a column or editing a paper is also a demand for an end to one’s privacy.

So when some in the media wail about ‘a free press’, what they’re actually meaning is a press that is free to invade people’s privacy for no reason other that profit by publishing salacious stories.

What is odd about this is that it seems unlikely that the same people would also ever applaud or have applauded countries where the state invaded people’s privacy to the extent of persecuting them for what they wrote or said or read, whether for reasons of religious or political ideology.

Few would support such totalitarianism, but if not, why fall for a line that a ‘free press’ needs to invade people’s privacy for salacious entertainment that does not have the support of a genuine public interest argument?

That is one of the things highlighted by Leveson, together with other similarly irresponsible behaviour, in the name of sensation that, as Leveson himself said, has caused “havoc” in people’s lives.

One of the most tragic cases raised again at Leveson was that of murdered Glasgow schoolgirl Diane Watson, about whom a series of lies were published in two Scottish newspapers, plus Marie Claire magazine. Her brother later killed himself and was found clutching the articles about his sister.

The murder happened in 1991. One of the two papers, the Herald, only managed an apology in 2011, after Diane’s parents had appeared at the Leveson Inquiry. It was itself under different ownership by then.

The journalist who concocted stories about their daughter, claiming she was a bully and had, in effect, contributed to her own murder, claimed to have been shocked to have been personally mentioned at Leveson.

Perhaps if he had not taken a decision to invent stories to support his own agenda, that surprise wouldn’t have occurred.

There was the case of Mosely’s son, who suffered from depression and died of a drug overdose within a year of the News of the World story, which might or might not have pushed him over the edge.

Mosely himself has described how, when going to his son’s flat to deal with his remaining belongings, the place was subject of a press scrum. One wonders what public interest was served by that?

And then there’s the story of how News of the World hack Paul McMullan drove the mentally ill and drug-addicted daughter of the late Denholm Elliot to suicide by luring her into prostituting herself so he could take nude photographs of her for the paper and, in his own words, impress his new boss, Piers Morgan.

This is the same McMullan who has also claimed that the only people who want privacy are paedophiles – which quite splendid piece of utter fuckwittedness has the ring of Orwell’s 1984 about it.

And all this is without mentioning the links between elements of the press and the police in the case of the murder of Daniel Morgan.

It is without mentioning the complicity of swathes of the British press in the 20-plus year cover up of what happened at Hillsborough.

And so on.

None of these were accidents. They illustrate a culture that exists – a culture that is being defended by an assortment of individuals and groups.

It takes some contortions to pretend that any of this is remotely justifiable – or that the state of the British press is, in general, something to be proud of and something to defend.

Independent regulation works fine in places such as Finland and Denmark – the former is consistently number 1 in the International Press Freedom Index, even with (gasp) statutory underpinnings.

In the UK, independent regulation doesn’t seem to upset anybody when applied to, say, advertising.

It seems that the real problems people have with the thought of independent regulation are nothing to do with any concept of a ‘free press’, and everything to do with either reducing the ability to profit from the private lives of others – and a sort of fundamentalist small statism that has to pretend that none of the above problems and contradictions exist or need dealing with, in order to continue with it’s view that even an independent regulator would be state intervention and the end of life as we know it.

A free press? Yes – that would be most welcome.


  1. I've just posted a link to this piece, hoping to reassure these two dopes on twitter: @MadamMiaow @hangbitch