Leveson: the messy truth about regulating the press

The big story in Britian’s media this week has been the publication of the Leveson Report into the press.  This comes from Lord Justice Leveson’s extensive inquiries into abuses perpetrated by Britain’s newspapers.  The newspapers, of course, have been anxious to get their answer in, starting days before the report was actually published.  But bloggers have been diving in as well.  I have neither read the report, nor all this commentary in detail.  But stepping back, I find something rather striking.  Mostly the arguments are made on grounds of high principle.  If only life were that easy.

Critics focus on the report’s recommendation that a new regulatory regime for the press should have “statutory underpinning”.  This is taken to mean state regulation, and even state licensing of news publications.  And this in turn runs against the sacred principle of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  So supporters of the report’s recommendations are attacking a free press.  This argument is pushed by the usual suspects in the press itself.  But not just them.  There is Lib Dem blogger Stephen Tall, for example, supported by the Facebook site Vote Clegg Get Clegg.

Most Lib Dems, though, support their leader Nick Clegg’s backing of the report.  For them the sacred liberal principle is the protection of the weak against the unaccountable power of the press.  Pres self-regulation has been tried so many times and found wanting that something stronger is required, they say.  “Do it for Milly Dowler,” they say referring to one of the most egregious episodes of press abuse.  They think the promise by newspapers that this time it will different is just a cynical ploy, so that they drift back to their old ways when the dust settles.  They have form after all.

I was planning to take sides in this debate – and in support of the report’s full recommendations.  Most of the arguments against are pretty specious.  I don’t think freedom of the press is being attacked in any meaningful way.  The accountability of the press to its readers, who may always refuse to buy newspapers, doesn’t work either.  Unfortunately the readers are part of the problem.  And the idea that we shouldn’t attempt to regulate the press because the scheme ignores the internet is a classic red herring.  Behind this lies my intense dislike of the baleful influence of many newspaper publishers on political debate, to say nothing of the cynical disregard they have members for the public.

The fact is that running a liberal society is a balancing act, much though we like to think of it as being the upholding of high principle.  Freedom leads to abuse: people will always try to use it for the purposes of harming others.  There have to be laws and regulations to limit the damage – but it is rarely clear exactly where the line should be drawn.  But it is clear that we all have to put up with a certain amount of abuse if the regulatory framework is to do more good than harm.

This is painful.  I find this especially so in the case of politics.  The British press consistently puts about lies and half-truths in order to further their sponsors’ own political agendas – or simply because it encourages people to buy papers.  This overwhelmingly favours political conservatives.  But there really isn’t much that can be done about this.  Regulation of broadcast media is quite successful – but the press is quite a different matter.  Regulation, if we have it, must focus on the rights and privacy of ordinary members of the public – and not politics.

It follows that any regulatory solution has to be a messy compromise, whose effectiveness turns on tiresome details.  Trying to derive your views by basing them on high principles doesn’t work.  The Prime Minister, David Cameron, opposes the “statutory underpinning”.  This is no doubt a political calculation, as the Conservative Party depends heavily on the press to do a lot of its dirty work – the sort of negative campaigning that would be done by paid advertising in the US.  But one point he made did strike a chord.  He said that any law to implement the recommendations would be highly complicated, and probably not worth the trouble.

He may be right.  The power of the press is fading.  Newspaper circulations are falling.  Old fashioned press barons are slowly being replaced by faceless, calculating corporate types.  People rely on newspapers less and less.  They are being replaced by a combination of broadcast media and internet outlets.  That brings its own problems.  No doubt the press’s behaviour has helped to hasten its demise.  What is good for short term sales can damage long term results, like sliced bread or lager.

That’s probably for the best.  But please, liberals, don’t pretend that this debate is all about sacred principles.

Hacking scandal – enjoy it while it lasts

We haven’t seen anything like this since the MPs expenses scandal in 2009.  Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire is the centre of a media and political feeding frenzy provoked initially by outrage over mobile phone hacking, and now taking in dodgy relationships with the Police and management cover-up and dissembling.  Murdoch has had to close one highly successful paper, and now he’s  withdrawn his bid for 100% of BSkyB.  Commentators are using metaphors such as earthquakes and the shifting of tectonic plates.

Frankly I find it impossible not to enjoy this spectacle.  Murdoch and his acolytes are hard-nosed businessmen who would not have thought twice about meting out the sort of stuff they are now victims of.  We can only imaging what The Sun would be saying about the photogenic Rebecca Brooks, the senior manager at the centre of the scandal, where it not part of the Murdoch empire.  What’s more Mr Murdoch clearly had undue political influence, and liked hold politicians in fear – and now it is wonderful to see how politicians behave once that fear is lost.  And his influence was in no way benign, in favour of biased news, extreme Euroscepticism, and stoking up prejudice generally.

But will any lasting good come of it?  It doesn’t bother me that other, equally evil press barons have so far escaped unscathed.  Indeed widening the scope might diminish the punishment – it is surely more effective to totally dismantle one evil empire than damage several a bit.  The others will draw conclusions from Murdoch’s fate.

But the political earthquake of the MPs expenses scandal did not change very much, after its deserved and undeserved victims were buried.  The same prejudices and appetites that Murdoch fed on persist.  Others will move into any empty space that he vacates.  And it is almost impossible to regulate it properly.  It is difficult to believe that the public enquiry will change very much.  Indeed the political consensus around keeping its scope very broad might serve to weaken and dilute its effect.

But in amongst this battle there is one thing worth fighting to protect.  That is the regulation of news broadcasting in TV and radio, and the primacy of the BBC.  As this Bagehot column makes clear (see the end of the article), Murdoch clearly wants to establish a Fox News in the UK to do to TV what his print newspapers have done to that medium.  The BSkyB takeover was part of that strategy.  The baleful influence of this is all too clear from this poll which shows that TV and radio are the only medium that retains a high degree of trust in the UK, and that distrust of the press here is much higher than elsewhere in Europe.

The savages were circling.  They’ve been seen off for now.  But we must stay vigilant.