There has been an avalanche on Bullshit Mountain. Set off by a timid stamp of Lord Justice Leveson’s foot, the landslide of press outrage has buried the real scandal at the heart of Britain’s newspapers.
Politicians and senior journalists have queued up to attack Leveson’s report as a coup by the liberal establishment (the Daily Mail), opening the door to Stalinist state regulation (the Sun), threatening North Korean-style control (the Mirror), and giving succour to dictatorships such as Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan, China and Russia (more or less everybody).
“For 300 years the British people have fought – and died – to keep a free press,” declared the Mail on Sunday in a full-page editorial, begging Cameron not to “betray” us and to kick out Leveson’s recommendations.
Boris Johnson, Tory mayor of London, said Leveson “endorses just about every politically correct criticism of the mainstream press”. Kelvin Mackenzie, scumbag former editor of the Sun, opined: “Leveson proved himself to be on the side of the establishment and not of the public.” Pass the sick bag.
Despite all this frothing at the mouth, the mountain gave birth to a mouse. Leveson’s report is hardly a gun to the newspapers’ heads. In the words of the Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, who is currently trying to sack 70 of his journalists, the report was “actually quite mild”.
“lots of love”
What did Leveson have to say about the intimate closeness between successive governments and Rupert Murdoch’s News International, which was revealed at the inquiry, the “lots of love” text messages between Cameron and Rebekah Brooks? The report’s conclusion was: “Like everyone else, politicians are entitled to be friendly with whomsoever they wish and there must remain some space for a private life.”
What about the collusion between the police and the press, the disgusting travesty of the Sun’s coverage of the Hillsborough disaster, the routine planting by the police of fictitious anti-Muslim terror scares in the papers, the way in which the Met dropped its investigation against phone hacking at the earliest opportunity, the huge question marks over the 1987 murder of Daniel Morgan just as he was about to expose police corruption? Leveson said there was no evidence to suggest any police officers were influenced “either directly or indirectly” by their relationship with News International, and certainly there was “no basis for challenging the integrity of the police”.
What about the government’s eagerness to hand over full control of BSkyB to Murdoch?
Leveson said he found “no credible evidence” that Jeremy Hunt, the government minister overseeing the takeover bid, showed any bias.
Despite the weakness of Leveson’s conclusions, the newspapers themselves showed indecent haste in arranging their response to satisfy David Cameron’s government – so the turmoil will blow over as quickly as possible. Within days of the report, they met in a posh London restaurant to plot and breakfast on bacon rolls at £5.75 each.
The signs are that they will stitch something up that satisfies the Tories and then everyone can move on. The question for the rest of us is: has the fallout from the News of the World’s hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone been so much hot air, or can genuine improvements to the media be rescued from the confusion?
To answer this question we need understand the nature of the beast. One of the weakest parts of the Leveson report is its remarks on ownership of the press and how to prevent too much influence being concentrated in any one pair of hands.
Almost the only thing he has to say about this is that it “should be kept under review”. And yet the question of who owns the press is absolutely fundamental to any understanding of how newspapers work and how they can be changed.
Amid all the sanctimonious guff about press freedom, only one person – Michael White, a senior journalist at the Guardian – has asked “freedom for whom?” In terms of the national papers, the answer to this question is: a handful of super-rich white men.
Rupert Murdoch (Times, Sun, BSkyB), the Barclay brothers (Telegraph, Spectator), Viscount Rothermere (Daily Mail, Metro, many regional and local newspapers, a large chunk of ITN), Yevgeny Lebedev (Independent, Evening Standard), and Richard Desmond (Express, Star, OK!, Channel 5) together control the lion’s share of Britain’s daily papers, and a good chunk of its television too. The Mirror and its stable of local papers are owned by big investment funds.
Although patently obvious, it is still rarely said: these people are not philanthropists. They don’t spring out of bed in the morning thinking, “What can I do today to strike a blow for fairness and justice?”
They are first and foremost private businessmen whose aim is to make money and wield influence. To say they are concerned with “serving the public interest” is like saying Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson is concerned with raising the nation’s physical fitness.
These multi-millionaires carefully select the people they appoint to run their newspapers. Every editor knows that his or her “freedom” is tightly circumscribed by the owner’s wishes, and that displeasing the boss means they will soon be out of a very well-paid job.
Further down the rigid hierarchy of any newspaper there is even less freedom for journalists to write what they think or to pursue stories they believe are interesting or important. If newspapers serve the public interest, this is a by-product of the pursuit of power and profit by their owners, not their main purpose. White points out that the newspaper owners and editors who have been shouting loudest about defending press freedom would be the first to ditch their papers if they ceased to serve their commercial or political interests.
Competition between the newspapers, the desire to present something new and fresh, and the need to stay in touch with their readers occasionally allows papers to break the mould. As campaigning journalist Paul Foot wrote nearly 20 years ago: “For all their reaction and corruption, the newspapers do publish a good deal of information which is hostile and embarrassing to ruling class interests.”
But the dominance of business interests has had a huge impact on the kind of journalism that is produced.
To keep his profits up, in 1986 Murdoch opened a newspaper factory in Wapping using scab labour, provoking a bitter, long-running dispute with the media unions. He got away with it – and most of the industry followed suit, kicking out the unions and launching a race to the bottom in journalists’ terms and conditions.
Twenty years later the result, brilliantly exposed by the Guardian’s Nick Davies, is a culture of “churnalism”, where understaffed newsrooms see overworked journalists chained to their desks and churning out newspapers on the cheap, based often on dubious press releases, rather than original and thorough investigation. The priority is to sell newspapers for a profit, not seek the truth, and the facts must not be allowed to get in the way of stories that pander to the public’s perceived appetite for prejudice.
One consequence is that the content of different papers often looks remarkably similar, and there is a prevalence of “flat earth” news – stories that are patently wrong, but everyone keeps publishing them as if they were true because it is easier and cheaper to play safe, rather than challenging the prevailing orthodoxy.
The most powerful example of flat earth news is the story that Saddam Hussein could launch Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) against Britain within 45 minutes – an accusation that bolstered the government’s case for launching the disastrous war in Iraq in 2003, where no WMD were ever found. But today you cannot open a newspaper without being confronted with flat earth stories, such as immigration is a burden, or that all our troops abroad are fighting for democracy.
In response to Leveson, the newspapers have trumpeted their big “exposés” that they say justify maintaining their non-regulated status. These include the MPs’ expenses scandal, the phone hacking scandal itself, but also more mundane stories such as former deputy prime minister John Prescott’s affair or the release of SAS sniper Danny Nightingale who was jailed for keeping a souvenir pistol from Iraq.
But the commercial interests of the papers’ owners, resulting in the dominance of churnalism and flat earth news, means that far bigger stories go untold because nobody pays them any attention.
Acres of space were rightly devoted to the tragic shooting of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut – but how much attention has been given to the inestimably greater tragedy of 1.5 million children’s lives ended each year by a treatable disease such as diarrhoea? Or to the scores of children killed by drone attacks in Pakistan?
And here we come to the most pressing threat to press freedom at the moment – not regulation, but the economic crisis facing the industry.
In the past five years, newspapers have been hit by a perfect storm of cyclical and structural changes that in some cases have left their business model in tatters. The financial crisis and subsequent recession tore the guts out of the property, jobs and classified advertising on which papers have relied for decades. At the same time, more and more people were opting to read the news for free on the internet, where advertising is far less effective, and so less lucrative for publishers.
Newspapers have also suffered falling circulation as a result of a growing disconnect between the population and established political parties, which reflects their sense of distance from the main institutions of society as these are increasingly captured by private business. Why bother to follow the news if you feel you have no active stake in the society around you?
A number of things follow from this brief overview.
Bets on the future
Newspapers are an industry that suffers booms and slumps like any other sector of capitalism, so it responds to changing markets and technology by making wild bets on the future with no guarantee that demand will make those investments pay. So the Guardian, which has published some very important scoops in the past few years, has found that its bet on a free website is not paying off. If you want to see a free website that makes money, look at the Daily Mail – it’s all celebs, pets, and the bizarre.
Because the papers are owned by moguls deeply embedded in capitalist society, they inevitably reflect – and defend – the views, values and interests of the elite. So “press freedom” is defined as freedom to run newspapers for profit.
When that “freedom” leads to outrageous behaviour, it is tempting to believe that imposing regulatory controls on newspapers is the way to curb their excess. “Self regulation” has been a scandalous failure, and if the newspaper barons and their minions hate outside controls, surely they are a good idea?
The question is: who appoints the regulators? Leveson repeats the word “independent” over and over and over again whenever he touches on this matter, but he leaves the answer entirely vague. If politicians are explicitly involved at any point, we can expect the regulator to be in the government’s pocket.
Leveson is also very dangerous at some points. He says the police should stop briefing journalists off the record, and that journalists who breach data protection laws in the public interest should none the less be jailed. These would be huge gifts to the powerful and privileged.
The National Union of Journalists has come up with a neat contribution to the debate, backed by Leveson: namely a “conscience clause” designed to protect journalists who object to being told to write lies or harass people to get a story. But the bottom line is strong union organisation in the workplace – without it, invoking a conscience clause would be a quick route out of the building.
Indeed, the biggest condemnation of Leveson is his offhand dismissal of the role of media trade unions in maintaining journalistic standards. He remarked: “I am not in a position to express a concluded view about this on the limited evidence I have heard.”
There’s one part of Leveson I do like – and the editors don’t. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the report is where he attacks the “discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers”. In clause 38, he recommends for the first time that third parties and groups should have the right to make official complains to the regulator, which should be able to intervene in disputes to “reflect the spirit of equalities legislation”.
That legislation was fought for by campaigns from below, and if we could win the right to impose it on newspapers, that would be a real step forward.
Dave Crouch is a member of the national executive committee of the National Union of Journalists. He writes in a personal capacity.
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