Updated: May 10, 2020
I’ve not posted much about journalism recently, leaving this blog to become pretty dominated by Spurs-related stuff. But discussions about two important issues to do with my trade are coming to a head so, with apologies to those new followers who simply wanted a regular dose of Spurs blogging, I’m going to be writing about them. Readers who did read my stuff on journalism may be pleased for a break in the football. One issue is that of payment for content – whether it’s desirable or even possible to sustain. The other, made more immediate because of Monday’s vote in Parliament, is media regulation.
The vote on Monday boiled down to whether the press should be subject to regulation by statute or by Royal Charter. And it was the culmination of one of the most badly-informed, poorly-conducted debates I can remember. The fault for that lies largely with pro- and anti-regulation lobbies largely dedicated to throwing increasingly ridiculous claims around and indulging in yah-boo politics. In the process, many vital points have been missed or passed over by people who should know better, a significant proportion of whom have been dazzled by the glare given off by the prospect of scoring cheap points against people they don’t like. And I fear we are going to be left with a less free media.
Let me make it clear that I do not think the media we currently have is perfect. Too many have made too many ludicrous claims comparing what’s being proposed with the Mugabe regime, predicting the end of freedom as we know it and generally employing the kind of disproportionate and hyperbolic tactics which contributed to the situation we currently find ourselves in. Their lack of awareness, sense of entitlement and ridiculous squealing has done journalism a disservice. Not that most of them were ever really worried about the trade.
Profit, influence, power – all of those things, yes. But journalism – that was just a means to an end. It’s no coincidence that these voices are the ones that undermined any meaningful attempt at self-regulation for years – despite the efforts of the many good journalists in the trade. The fact that they can pose as the defenders of the press is one of the many ironies of the current situation. Although not as ironic as The Sun, Express and Telegraph suddenly discovering the attractions of the European Court of Human Rights.
They have contributed to a situation in which ‘something must be done’ – that basis for all bad law. It was put to me that that is the basis for good law too – but that is simply not true. For good law to be made, serious thought has to be given to the something that must be done, and the consequences of that something fully thought through. That has not happened in this case.
What’s surprised me is the number of people I have respect for at the progressive end of politics who seem to have lost their bearings over all this. I’ve been told that it is wrong for me to question the conclusions of a leading judge – as if judges have never made mistakes. And I’m expected to believe that an establishment that is expert in the subtle exercise of power and influence will not be looking to do exactly this once the door to greater establishment control of the media is opened after the vote. Make no mistake – payback for uncovering the expenses scandal is coming. And beyond that, powerful interests will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of a media more willing to self-censor.
There is no doubt that change was needed. But what is and what isn’t going to happen? Here’s what isn’t going to happen. There will be no attempt to challenge, reform or otherwise break up the concentration of media ownership. There will be no guaranteed voice for ordinary readers or rank and file journalists in any new industry regulator. There will be no magical end to the misreporting or demonisation of opposition (something much of the pro-Leveson lobby has proved pretty adept at itself) because big media still has the money and the resource to take on legal battles.
What is going to happen is harder to predict, but instead of dismissing any worries about what could happen – as much of the pro-Leveson lobby has done – it would be more productive to confront and engage with these worries. The overarching issue concerns the principle of media freedom – a notion much-abused but which nonetheless remains important. Only time will tell if the original statutory framework or the Royal Charter which now even the increasingly confused Hacked Off campaign says amounts to “putting press regulation under the control of politicians” end up being subject to the kind of covert pressure from establishment special interests that Nick Cohen talks about in this Spectator piece. (Of course, because it’s in the Spectator, it can be dismissed as rubbish by left-of-centre defenders of the right to the kind of free speech only they agree with). Nick Cohen also writes very well about the issues in this piece in The Observer, which will confuse those people who think left-leaning media is always to be listened to while right-leaning media isn’t. (Worth noting too the vitriol and eye-bulging rants in some of the comments).
There are also smaller details, still important but the kind of mere detail too many seem willing to overlook in their misguided attempts to kick Murdoch and Dacre. The small print of Leveson suggests police officers should no longer be able to give unattributable briefings to the press, and that a register of contacts could be established. There’s also an implication that journalists’ ability to keep their sources confidential should be restricted. No doubt recent evidence of one senior journalist’s willingness to sell out her source will be used as evidence that this is another worthless principle, yet another facile argument to join the many others.
One of the many galling things about this whole debate is the way in which the activities of a small group of people in a small part of the trade have been used to tar the entire trade. As my long-time friend and colleague Chris Wheal eloquently argued in a letter to his MP, “The vast majority of British journalists are upstanding members of our trade and of society. The action of a handful of journalists who are being prosecuted under existing laws gives no cause for statutory regulation of the whole of the British press.” Elsewhere on his blog he points out that the trade also comprises “4,756 business to business magazines” and “515 consumer magazines”.
Leveson wrote 456 words in his 2,000 page report about these and found they were most often viewed as “trusted friends” by readers. But they will be subject to the same regulation as everyone else. And as for the even greater volume of publishing on the internet, there’s only the merest hint of an acknowledgement that it exists. How any of the proposed new systems of regulation would work for independent internet publishers is not explained. But Leveson seems to have trouble with some of the most basic operations on the internet. And, apologies for referring you to Nick Cohen again but he’s been very good in asking the kind of questions more should be asking, there appears to be utter confusion at government level about exactly what constitutes a website that needs regulating.
The support of the National Union of Journalists has been cited by many as proof that the proposals can’t be all that bad. But the NUJ failed to consult its members properly. That saddens me for a number of reasons. I was an active member of the NUJ for 23 years, serving two terms on the national executive and chairing a number of branches. The NUJ had a strong but nuanced policy, recognising the need for reform but rightly wary of the dangers of statutory regulation. The current leadership claims its that support for “statutory underpinning” is not the same as support for statutory regulation. Its position allows the claim to be made that rank and file journalists support Leveson in full. On an issue this important, the NUJ should have asked its members clearly and unambiguously what their position was, not just made a vague request for contributions to the debate. It chose not to, lining up instead with those who wanted Leveson implemented “in full” but yet didn’t support everything Leveson proposed. No, I can’t work that one out either. Now, having got exactly what it pushed for, it has issued a “guarded welcome”. Jaw-dropping stuff.
I resigned from the NUJ earlier this year. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It wasn’t just because of the stance on Leveson, I’ve disagreed with things before and stayed to argue the point. What tipped the decision was the way that opposition to this and a number of other key issues was treated, with opponents harangued and smeared with tactics worthy of the worst of the tabloids in full cry. I don’t intend to become one of those ex-trade union members who makes a career out of attacking his former union – and I remain a member of a TUC-affiliated union – but the NUJ’s position has to be criticised not just for the reasons outlined above.
The fact is that only promoting and embedding best practice in what every journalist does every day can really ensure journalists do their job properly. I’ll accept my definition of “properly” is as subjective as the next person’s, but it includes an acknowledgement of journalism’s place in a wider society. A trade union, representing the people actually doing the job, is ideally placed to do that. But that union needs to acknowledge its role in training people how to do the job, not just in opposing those who own the means with which to do the job. The NUJ was making great strides towards doing that, its Professional Training Department one of the union’s success stories of the last decade. The geniuses currently running the NUJ closed that down – another story for another time perhaps – but we’ve lost an important asset.
I’ve been accused of being naïve in thinking that journalists will ever decide to do the right thing. But isn’t the basis of progressive politics the belief that enlightened self interest can produce a better society, that those who work can be trusted to control and direct what they do? It’s certainly not as naïve as believing that the British establishment is suddenly going to discover that it really shouldn’t be protecting elite power.
There’s much to be played out still. No doubt many lawyers will earn much money as the legal entanglements mount up over the next few years. At the moment, if I try to sum things up this is what I see. I don’t see the big media owners hurting much, despite the squealing, and I don’t see concentration of ownership being addressed for a very long time indeed. I see the powerful media organisations willing and able to use all their resources to confront the new framework, while smaller media organisations – local papers, small specialist websites, bloggers – worry about the costs of both signing up and not signing up. And I see Index on Censorship, English PEN and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe – a broad range of organisations no doubt soon to be denounced as Murdoch stooges by the forces of illiberal liberalism – expressing serious doubts about where we are going.
I hope I’ve shown that I’m not a zealot on either side of this debate. I can understand many of the arguments on both sides, but my gut feeling as a journalist is that we’ve conceded far too much to established power in return for what is at best a vague chance of some improvement in some areas. I think it’s an incredibly important issue worthy of a better quality of debate than has been seen so far. I’m happy to debate any of this via the comments page, but I won’t engage with people who simply want to hurl abuse. It would be quite good if we could avoid the kind of “motorways were invented by the Nazis so if you drive on a motorway you’re a Nazi” kind of erroneous nonsense that too often masquerades as serious debate these days too.
And if you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with this.