Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Mouse that didn't Roar

As expected, Leveson has produced a timid judgement. The hyper-ventilating about press freedom and the dismay at Cameron's apparent disregard for the victims have both diverted attention from the fundamental issue of ownership, which was conspicuous by its near absence in the voluminous report. The combination of an apparent issue of principle on which the press can "campaign" and the human interest of disappointed celebrities (including those who have had unsolicited celebrity thrust upon them, such as the Dowlers) is a classic example of the brew that newspapers serve up most days: confected outrage and faux-sympathy.

To be fair to Leveson, the circumscribed nature of the inquiry meant that drawing any damning conclusions about the relationship of the press with the political class and the police was going to be difficult. The deals struck between press barons and politicians are never written down or even informally articulated. They are "understandings", after all. No one will ever find an IOU for Thatcher's decision not to block Murdoch's takeover of The Times. Similarly, Jeremy Hunt no doubt sincerely believes he was being impartial in respect of the BSkyB bid, just as he sincerely believes that what is good for News International is ultimately good for Britain. Seeking evidence of a formal conspiracy was pointless when it was clear from the evidence (all those chummy texts) that mutual self-interest had already been internalised. Likewise, the inquiry was never going to uncover evidence of a conspiracy between the Met and the press, because there isn't one. What there is instead is a long-standing ecosystem of mutual back-scratching and payments for information, which isn't going to disappear any time soon. There is a market for information because there is a market for newspapers.

The pronouncements of the Tories, as mouthpieces for the press barons, have been hysterical and often nonsensical, notably Cameron's claim that "The issue of principle is that for the first time we would have crossed the rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land". This comes immediately after the previous cobblers about a return to 1695, when press regulation was the law of the land. Crossing the Rubicon is meant to imply both defiance and irrevocability, though it is not clear who Cameron thinks would be defied (Murdoch, perhaps?), while 1695 showed that press regulation can easily be revoked. In reality, Leveson's proposal for the statutory basis of an independent press complaints body is little different to the arrangements that already exist for other media, notably television. It is not a radical prescription.

Another form of distraction has been the bleating about the impracticality of extending press regulation to the Internet. In other words, because some knobhead with 2 followers can tweet a libel, The Daily Mail should not be subject to ethical scrutiny by an independent body guaranteed by law. This ignores the obvious truth that what distinguishes the Internet from the printing press is less to do with technology and more to do with accessibility, i.e. low barriers to entry. But while this undermines the traditional cartel of print, it does not create a level playing field. An online version of a newspaper is an extension of that brand's power to reach a mass audience. The fact that they can't make any money out of it is irrelevant. In contrast, a blog or a tweet is just grafitti. What we need protection from is abuse of that corporate power to reach a mass audience, not the ranting of individuals.

The end result will be a fudge. The press know they must deliver a complaints and review body with sufficient independence and activism to satisfy public demand, regardless of whether it is underpinned by statute or not, while the politicians are not keen on challenging the press barons' liberty. What newspaper would give a fair hearing to a party that advocated limits on ownership or insisted on owners being UK-resident taxpayers? The best they can hope for is greater support for cross-media plurality - i.e. it will be a while before News International feels sufficiently emboldened to increase their slice of the cake again.

1 comment:

  1. Great bit of blogging - now we know what to think and in future can save the cost of a meal to get the benefit of your thoughts.