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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hissy Fits and Harlots

The last thing the world needs now is another blog about Leveson and the Royal Charter that was voted in by Parliament this Monday. But what the hell.

For someone who passionately believes the press have abused their power for many years (and for a flavour of why then read this first), the past few days have been infuriating. The likes of Nick Cohen, a man who exists these days, in the words of Mark Thomas, to 'tell the left why the right are right from a left-wing perspective' (link) have seen all kinds of demons in the Charter. Presumably with the same glasses he saw lots of WMDs in Iraq. Nick and his liberal hating-chums have been very exercised by the Charter, its effect on a free press and free speech, and the activities of Hacked Off (a group of people who have been abused by the press, and whose lobbying has led them to be...abused by the press again.) There have been so many hissy fits and childish tantrums and so many hysterical lies and distortions spread since the weekend that it's difficult to know where to start, but let's try and address four of the sillier myths.

1. The events that led to the Leveson Inquiry were a failure of law-enforcement not regulation.

First of all this ignores the fact that there have been several public inquiries into press behaviour, each of which has given the press one last chance to reform itself. The Calcutt Report of 1990 was the latest last chance and led to the creation of the PCC. The culture of the press has been rotten for decades, long before journalists actually started breaking the law. The stench of decay and corruption grew worse during the 1990s because sections of the press knew the PCC was a joke and realised they could get away with anything. They had dodged a bullet with Calcutt, and it was back to business as usual. It was that culture of arrogance which led to endemic phone hacking and the wholesale use of private detectives to acces illegal information, not to mention the more old-fashioned techniques of monstering, bullying, lying and smearing. The PCC did nothing to prevent phone hacking. Worse, they accepted the NOTW's word when it lied and said it was confined to Goodman and Mulcaire. Does anyone honestly believe that a body which was manifestly independent of the press would have looked away so quickly? Or that newsrooms which truly feared censure for breaking a code of conduct, which they created for God's sake, would have allowed their reporters to act so cravenly, outsourced news-gathering to private detectives and signed off on vast payments to those private detectives?

And just how was the law to be enforced when so much was done to cover up the criminal behaviour at the NOTW and elsewhere? The, um, rather macho environment of most tabloid newsrooms meant that whistleblowing was non-existent. When the shit hit the fan, everyone, from the boardroom to the newsroom, ran around trying to cover their own arses rather than phoning the cops. The only way the cops might be able to enforce the law is if they stuck a policeman in the corner of every newsroom, which is plainly ludicrous. Even that wouldn't prevent half of the stuff that goes on, unless he's listening in on every phone call and following reporters when they meet sources. Otherwise, the best option is to create a code of conduct, enforce it and hope that over time the culture changes so that illegal behaviour is isolated rather than widespread, while ensuring that the code contains a conscience clause and protects whistleblowers who come forward with evidence of illegal newsgathering.

It's also a fact that this 'law-enforcement' argument is put forward by the same people, like Cohen and Susie Boniface aka Fleet Street Fox, who have been bleating about the police arresting journalists. You can't have it both ways. Saying it's a matter of law-enforcement and not regulation is just a weaselly, dishonest way of saying 'It was the cop's fault and not ours.'

2. The Charter is statutory regulation of the press.

No it isn't. As Mike Jempson of MediaWise says, The Recognition Body, which the Charter sets up,  'cannot tell the editors and proprietors what do do. It merely checks that the regulatory bodies they set up follow their own rules. What is unfair about that, when the public has had to put up with a series of failed efforts at self-regulation since 1953?' (link) The press sets up the regulatory body. They draw up the code to which it must comply (the code they already have is a good start. It's just that no one paid a blind bit of notice to it, because the cost of breaking it did not outweigh the juicer benefits of running a story obtained by breaking it.) What they can't do is choose everyone who sits on it, like they did last time (and which saw the likes of Paul Dacre and Neil Wallis sitting in judgement of issues that might affect their own newspapers). The Charter makes sure the process of choosing the panel is open and transparent. Terrible eh?

3. Leveson has already had an impact on legitimate investigative journalism. The Charter will make that impact worse.

Giving evidence, Michael Gove told Leveson his inquiry was having a 'chilling effect' on press freedom. It was so chilling that when 11-year-old Sebastian Bowles was killed in a coach crash in Switzerland, the Daily Mail thought for at least five seconds before it used a photo of his nine-year-old sister in tears. Even when the PCC  sent the newspaper a letter (or, like the big tough guys they were, told the family's solicitor to send a letter) asking them to stop using the photo, the Mail still had it on its website for weeks afterwards. They also grabbed several pictures from Sebastian's father's Facebook page. Menawhile, there were so many reporters and photographers outside the grieving family's house that they chose to go and live in Belgium to avoid the scrum. All this while Leveson was taking place.  'Chilling effect', my arse.

No one ever gives an example of a serious piece of investigative journalism that has been scuppered by Leveson. The Times did try, but the best it could come up with was...the suicide of former footballer and Wales manager Gary Speed. Newspapers had been scared away from delving into Speed's death, they said. His suicide was a personal tragedy for his family and friends. Many people wanted to know what made an outwardly happy man take his own life. That's human nature. But that doesn't mean we had any right to know. There was no public interest in grubbing around to find what events led to   Speed taking his own life, and it would have caused untold harm to Speed's family, who were devastated enough. Of course, had Leveson never happened, the tabloids would have hacked Speed's phone, his wife's and the rest of his friends and family and probably found out a few reasons. Damn that 'chilling effect.'

4. The Charter is a danger to a free press.

Ignoring the fact about what's free about newspaper owned by a few wealthy millionaires championing their own political agendas and business interests, I don't want to restrict the press. I don't know anyone who does. And no one has yet specified how an independent body would restrict a 'free press' unless restrict means 'stopping it doing what the bloody hell it pleases.'

Neither do I think there is any contradiction in being a liberal and supporting the charter. Rather than being a danger to our freedom, I think the existence of a body that holds the press to account, offers true redress to all the people the old PCC fobbed off, and by upholding a code of conduct that changes a rotten newsroom culture, will help protect our civil liberties. The press used to -  and, in the future, as history shows, if allowed it will do again - use private detectives on a daily basis to access all kinds of information. If you had the misfortune to be in the news, they'd have had you and your family's mobile and landline numbers, addresses and previous addresses in minutes. As I said in my statement to Leveson, when I did some work for a tabloid in 1998 I met a PI who offered me a sliding scale of illegal information: credit card records, telephone records, criminal records and so on. All of it protected. He reeled off reams of names of journalists, broadsheet and tabloid, who used his services. The truth is journalists were constantly infringing people's civil liberties, and that's before we got to the  'bugging-phones-and-hacking-mobiles'.

As circulation declines and the newspapers grow more desperate for readers, you can be assured their behaviour would deteriorate - if that's possible - as they sought any means necessary to find bigger and more lurid stories to attract a dwindling stock of readers. If they were willing to break the law in good times, they would be willing to go even further in bad. Journalists are judged on the stories they bring in. No one likes a storykiller. With redundancies mounting, and fewer jobs available, the pressure to bring in good stories is growing, and the temptation to cut corners and steal a march on your rivals would become irresistible. The perilous state of the newspaper industry isn't an argument against a truly independent regulatory body with 'teeth'. It's one of the best arguments for it.

Finally, the impression given by the press and some of its apologists is that this issue arose out of nowhere, or it was the creation of Hacked Off, Hugh Grant, and a nuch of vindictive celebrities with an agenda. Bollocks. It arose because of the criminal and brutish behaviour of the press over countless years and they only have themselves to blame. A little humility wouldn't go amiss.

The Charter isn't perfect. Far from it. But it at least gives the framework for a regulatory body that might eventually change the rancid media culture in this country. Ignore the bleating and relentless whining of those in the industry. This is an opportunity for the press to win back some trust. Who knows, more people might start buying newspapers then. After the damage they have done, you'd think they might be eager to sieze that chance.

Don't hold your breath, though.

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