Updated: May 10, 2020
It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that the trade I’ve worked in since 1989 is the subject of quite a lot of attention and debate at the moment. The trouble with much of the debate is that it’s been conducted through the use of suffocating amounts of hyperbole, and that the positions taken are often code for other objectives and ambitions. This in turn is leading to a swirl of careless generalisation and accusation, amidst which some of the key issues are being lost. The lack of humility and apparent inability to acknowledge wrongdoing from parts of the media is, understandably in many cases, prompting the demand for punitive action from the public. But that opens up worrying possibilities. And there’s little acknowledgement that the vast majority of journalists have never and would never do the things that prompted the Leveson report, but who may yet be punished and restricted by blanket regulation.
It’s probably best to establish where I’m coming from at this point. I’m a working journalist. I’ve spent most of my working life in business to business magazines and consumer magazines as a sub-editor. I’ve also worked as a freelance, and currently work in customer publishing. Like most journalists in the UK, I’ve never hacked a phone, paid a policeman or cuddled up to a politician. I came closer to the side of the business most people most readily recognise when I worked on real-life weekly Take a Break for three years and when I worked on the first year of heat magazine. I also worked at News International, where I have to admit I was never encouraged to hack or bribe anyone in my role as deputy chief-sub on the Sun TV magazine. I spent a year writing business news for an online channel but, again, was never encouraged or tempted to do anything unethical in order to get my job done.
All of which means I find much to agree on in my long-time friend and sometime colleague Chris Wheal’s blog post, in which he argues that the “vast majority” of journalists “have no dealing with press regulation or with the PCC – not because they ignore it but because nothing they do causes any issues”. I also agree with him when he says “Leveson did not ask for examples of good journalism, only bad, so that’s all he got.” The basis of Leveson was that ‘the press’, some single entity that doesn’t actually exist, was bad and that something had to be done about it.
I also find myself in agreement with Rafael Behr from the New Statesman (a magazine I should, in the interests of transparency, point out is published by another part of the company I currently work for) when he addresses specifically the issue of statutory control or regulation which is at the heart of the current debate. He says of Leveson’s plan, “To the non-journalist’s eye it is pretty reasonable. There are important arguments as to why any statute that covers newspaper behaviour is morally odious, intrinsically undemocratic, unworkable or all three. As a journalist, I instinctively gravitate towards that view.”
Me too. I think John Kampfner also makes a very valid case, arguing that the press is too weak, not too strong and asking “Did we learn too much about nonexistent weapons of mass destruction? Did we expose greed and dodgy practice at the banks before or after they were bailed out? I think Nick Cohen also has a very cogent take, making an important point when he says “England should uphold the principle of equality before the law by having cheap and accessible means of challenging and defending contested speech”. Finally, I think Ian Hislop’s argument that the misdemeanors that prompted Leveson are already punishable by law needs to be remembered.
I think Behr’s point is an important one, and it’s one that too few in those parts of the press that prompted Leveson recognise. Most national newspapers have done themselves few favours for showing no humility, and no recognition that too many in their ranks have on too many occasions been vicious and nasty and intrusive and spiteful and inaccurate. That’s why many outside journalism find the proposals “pretty reasonable”. And as for the nonsense about armies of Marxist commissars ready to be unleashed by a government looking to establish a North Korean/Stalinist/insert political hate regime of your choice here apparatus, well, it’s no way to get yourself taken seriously.
There is an issue of public trust in journalism and that has to be addressed, because otherwise it won’t matter whether or not the press is regulated – the product will be worthless because no one will want it. But it’s possible to argue for changes in the practice of journalism while being at the very least seriously concerned about statutory regulation. And it’s possible to be concerned about statutory regulation without therefore supporting the proprietors, betraying the “victims” of previous media misbehaviour or any of the other nonsense being hurled around. These arguments are as intellectually stunted and ridiculous as the rubbish about Stalinist states.
I absolutely understand the argument that says self-regulation has failed and that some form of statutory regulation is the only answer. I understand it but I don’t agree with it. At least, I can’t agree with it until someone shows me who or what totally independent body is going to regulate. It’s said that regulation doesn’t do TV any harm – yet Thames losing its licence after Death on the Rock does raise suspicions about the subtle exercise of establishment power, and a look at the BBC’s coverage of the current struggle over the NHS – superbly dismantled on the Open Democracy website – raises further questions about how influence is brought to bear and about how fear of future action can affect current decisions.
I share the general unease of many about the state licensing, regulating or otherwise underpinning journalism. And I have two further specific worries. One is that many of those now arguing for statutory regulation seem in fact to be arguing that stuff they don’t agree with should be punishable. As John Kampfner says, “Sadly, most of those determined to apply new constraints on the media hail from the centre-left. They are concerned less with the process of an open media and more with the outcome of a liberal society.”
As a man of the left, that concerns me. I may despise much of what papers such as the Daily Mail print as much as the next progressive-minded person, but unless it’s factually incorrect the only objection I can have to it is through reasoned debate, not somehow stopping it from being printed. No doubt the supporters of regulation will argue they are suggesting no such thing, but when I keep hearing people argue that the press should be stopped from “whipping up prejudice” I worry. Not because I support prejudice, but because it’s a very subjective judgement about what exactly does whip up prejudice, and because that line of argument fails to recognise that people don’t have to do what they are nudged towards by the press, they can and must make their own choices.
I think it’s quite disturbing that the NUJ is supporting statutory regulation, and that a number of senior people in the union seem to be arguing the above. Having recently experienced at first hand how the current leadership deals with debate and dissent, I’m even more worried. That experience, plus the stance on regulation, led me, with enormous regret after 23 years of active membership, to resign from the NUJ, so how it conducts itself internally is no longer any of my concern. But the NUJ is claiming it speaks for all journalists, and is being held up as evidence that the trade itself is in favour of regulation. That picture is a false one.
The NUJ has longstanding policy against state regulation. The current leadership is tying itself in knots trying to argue that its phrase “statutory underpinning” does not mean statutory regulation. But it hasn’t explained the difference, and apparently does not grasp the fact that it’s not the regulation bit that worries people, it’s the statutory bit. Even more dunderheaded was the assumption that a significant section of the membership would not be at least suspicious of the newfound move to support statutory intervention. A wise leadership would have confronted the issue head on and argued its case with the members. Instead, it chose to sneak the policy through and then hide behind procedure.
That leads to my second major concern, which is that with the focus on regulating individual journalists, the issue of media ownership is being obscured. Much of the current debate is rooted not in how the trade is carried out, but about the relationship between those who own the big news organisations and the various arms of the state. Leveson is very quiet on ownership. A cynic would say this is one member of the establishment working in the interests of the establishment. I merely posit it as a legitimate observation – although it remains to be seen whether an establishment-backed regulator would agree. A progressive union approach would seek to strengthen the trade through supporting and encouraging media workers to operate best practice. Instead of pushing for regulation of the practice of journalism, it would push for regulation of the business of journalism.
Doing so would put the focus on ownership and the commercial pressures on journalists, without raising the possibility of a restriction on freedom of speech or the questioning of power.
I detect an effort to take a short cut to nirvana in much of this. It’s a long, hard struggle to win hearts and minds and to create a working culture robust enough to be genuinely independent. But it’s the only option. In this instance, a trade can’t be made to carry out good practice, it’s got to want to. And by the trade I mean those who work in it, not those who own and manipulate it.
Leveson also comes up short on the internet. It has changed the media enormously, yet he devotes just one page of the 2,000 page report to it. His arguments are examined more closely by James Ball in The Guardian, but in essence he says that the internet is “an ethical vacuum” and that few people take much notice of it so it’s not really worth talking about. He, and all those arguing that something called ‘the press’ can be regulated – leaving aside the argument about whether it should – need to bone up on the internet and what it has done, because its very existence and operation drives a coach and horses through many of their arguments.
It’s very hard to argue that journalism is the only trade that should not be regulated, but because something is hard does not mean it should not be done. There’s a case for regulating the business of journalism, but I’m not convinced there can ever be a case for regulating the practice. There’s not a case for criminalising an entire trade, but there’s also a strong need for more of the trade to work harder to win public trust. And there are positives in Leveson, as Dominic Ponsford of Press Gazette (another magazine published by the group I work for) argues. He also makes an interesting point about internet news.
We need to strip away the vested interests and argue the brass tacks. Otherwise we’ll be treated to more stuff such as this astonishing article in which none other than Alistair Campbell actually says, “It really is quite hard to respect a prime minister who sets up an inquiry, allows a judge to state in the first paragraph of his report that he has the personal authority of the PM in the work he has done, and then sees that authority taken away before the ink had dried. It leaves people wondering why we had the inquiry in the first place.” As we say in the trade, you couldn’t make it up.