Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Leveson delusion

You could be forgiven for imagining that the end of the world as we know it is nigh.

One look at some of the UK’s newspapers could lead readers to believe that we are on the cusp of a dictatorship – heading into Stalinist/Hitlerian* terrain.

After all, in the wake of that dreadful Lord Leveson’s inquiry, the Prime Minister has said that the proposed new system of regulation would do some pretty hideous things.

It would mean:

• upfront apologies from the press to victims;

• fines of 1% of turnover for publishers, up to £1m;
• a self-regulatory body with independent appointments and funding;

• a robust standards code;

• a free arbitration service for victims;

• a speedy complaints system.

Oh me, oh my – who on Earth could find such things acceptable?

So it’s clear why the likes of the Telegraph, News International and the Daily Mail are all in a state of high dudgeon, and talking about seeking legal advice to see if they would really have to sign up to the proposals.

Personally, I like the idea of standards. Although that would obviously upset a publication that, in January this year, paid for paparazzi photos of an eight-year-old child leaving a gym class with her mother, model Heidi Klum, and suggested that Ms Klum was not the only “leggy beauty” in the family.

Readers may be interested to know that I have tweeted the latter link at the paper itself a few of times. There’s never any response. Can’t imagine why.

Anyway, setting aside the hysterics of the press itself, amongst the members of the Twitterati who are up in arms about all this nasty censorship, there exist a number of delusions.

So it seems that the time is right to examine these.

Delusion 1

We already have the laws to deal with press excesses.

No. We don’t. We have laws to deal with hacking and so forth, yes.

But we have no privacy law. We have no law to stop the Mail’s creepy peado-lite obsession with children.

We have no law to ensure that lies are corrected properly and on a scale that is the same as how the lie was originally printed.

Delusion 2

Regulation is the end of life as we know it!

Even a passing acquaintance with some recent stories, from horsemeat in ‘beef’ products to the banks causing the financial crisis, would suggest that regulation, properly enforced, might have helped to avoid these problems – in other words, be a force for good.

Similarly, with major pharmaceutical companies routinely withholding trial data on drugs (see Ben Goldacre), strong regulation, properly enforced, is required to stop this, for the sake of everyone concerned and, most of all, for patients.

The majority of people do not believe that regulation is a bad thing – or that any of the industries referenced above would not be better with meaningful regulation, properly enforced.

Indeed, according to various polls, the public at large seem, in general, to be in favour of meaningful regulation of the media.

Which of course explains why the press had to go way over the top in its hyperbolic ravings, invoking Churchill and God knows what else, in order to get past the rational stuff and whip up knee-jerking hysteria.

Delusion 3

Why does a private company like Hacked Off get to have “an audience” with politicians discussing this?

Actually, this is less a delusion and more either simple stupidity or deliberate disingenuousness. Take your pick.

The reality is that the vast majority of media organisations are private companies. How many ‘audiences’ has Rupert Murdoch had with prime ministers, from Margaret Thatcher on?

Delusion 4

We have a free press!

For most people, the notion of a ‘free press’ is bound up with ideas of that press working in favour and on behalf of the majority. They don’t tend to believe that the idea simply means being free to publish anything.

We have no such thing in the UK.

The majority of our media is owned by private individuals/companies, who use their publications and other media outlets to push their own agendas.

Thus it should come as no surprise that the Daily Mail loves to rabble rouse on matters to do with tax. After all, it’s owner, Viscount Rothermere, is himself a foreign domicile tax exile. As are the Telegraph-owning Barclay brothers.

But how much the bulk of the British mainstream media believes in the idea of working in favour of the majority can be found in its apparently easy readiness to promote the government’s demonisation of anyone who is on benefits – the majority of whom are in work.

It has shown itself happy not to stand up for ‘the people’, but to demonise the poor, the disabled and the vulnerable.

The majority has been happy to turn a blind eye to Iain Duncan Smith’s lies – and also to those of David ‘the NHS is safe with me’ Cameron.

The media can be a force for good.

But let’s not be a bunch of romantic fools about this: at present in the UK, it is, for the most part, simply the agendas of private individuals and companies that are being promoted by our ‘free’ press.

And just like many another industry, proper regulation, properly enforced, can make it better.

What will be interesting is to see how this same media reacts to Cameron’s u-turn on regulation.

But then again, it’s difficult to imagine that the Conservative Party (or at least the Parliamentary part of it) has many illusions about retaining joint power or gaining full power at the next general election.

There are reasons that it has been so cavalier about its lies and its taking of a bulldozer to the entire social contract in the UK.

* Select as desired.

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