Press Ganged

by Prof Ryan Spox

Things that annoyed me today:

Mostly it has been the Leveson Inquiry. Or, more accurately, the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry. Or, more accurately still, the vague and uninformative reporting of the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry. (Leveson At A Glance…) We know that the press are upset by them and that Nice Mr Cameron is refusing to introduce new laws to make being a newspaper journalist a hanging offence and people who’ve been comprehensively worked over by innocent journos out to make an honest buck feel that they have, somehow, been shafted, but we’re still surprisingly vague about what Lord Justice Levson’s recommendations actually are.

Let us consider the background to all this: Leveson was an inquiry into press ethics, forced upon BritGov because so much of the UK’s press business (especially the newspaper end) had been very, very naughty over the past few decades and the electorate had finally Expressed Serious Misgivings, which always makes politicians sit up and pay lip-service. It was not a criminal investigation, although it did uncover – or at least more overtly publicise – criminal activities undertaken by members of the press, nor was it specifically an inquiry into the assorted recent phone-hacking scandals which have led to around 90 people – including senior figures in the UK press pack –  now facing serious criminal charges.

So, here is what we have learned about the press business in the course of our short, but useful, existence. Firstly, any story that you read in a newspaper is probably wrong. The degree of falsehood will depend enormously on the importance of the story, the integrity of the reporter, the agenda of the editorial board and, of course, the likelihood of anyone suing the publishers. On every single occasion on which we have seen a newspaper report that covers an event, incident or story of which we have either personal or professional knowledge or experience, that report has been wrong in at least some important detail. Some reporters are just too lazy or incompetent to get things right and even the most scrupulously ethical reporters will make “honest” mistakes on occasion but the real reason newspaper stories are always wrong is that those who write, and publish, them are less interested in the facts than they are in telling a good story. And a good story is one the public wants to buy. Truth is irrelevant; it is the quality of the story that matters.

And this single-minded desire to tell a good story leads us inexorably to the other thing we have learned about the press. Newspapers exist for one purpose and one purpose alone. And that is not to report the news, with the justification that a functional democracy needs an informed electorate. Nor is it just to sell newspapers, with the justification that it’s a business and news is its product. Put simply, newspapers exist to sell advertising. That is their primary function. Advertising is what makes them profitable. That’s why crap newspapers can be sold for 20p and some can even be given away for free. As a source of income for the publishers, the cover price is just icing on the cake. Rupert Murdoch did not shut down the News of the World because he was shocked and horrified by the extent to which it broke the law in pursuit of a story, nor did he do it because the Great British Public were so disgusted by the paper’s criminal activities that they refused to buy it. He shut it down because the NotW brand had become so toxic that advertisers no longer wanted to be associated with it and that meant there was no longer any justifiable business case for keeping it going.

And, of course, he could then pretend he was doing it for all sorts of warm and fuzzy ethical reasons whilst telling the world how humble he felt. Meanwhile, if you want to read the same old made-up stories, buy the Sun instead. Or the Times. There’s little real difference these days.

So what did Leveson actually recommend in order to bring the Monster to heel? Well, like most of the UK’s population we haven’t actually read it, or looked at it, or, until today, even seen it. It is awfully big and contains a lot of words and even the Executive Summary is ridiculously long and, since most of us still have to walk the dog before it gets dark and then find something for the kids’ tea, we’ll just have to rely on others to tell us what it says. Those others being, inevitably, the press and politicians. Hmm… How’s that going to work out?

Anyway, according to the Press, implementing any of Leveson’s recommendations would involve the complete overthrow of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and, possibly, our right to bear children. We may be only days away from seeing newspapers forcibly shut down and their editors tossed into jail as BritGov brings in sweeping new powers for statutory regulation of, well, everything we hold dear. According to the Tory wing of BritGov, however, that’s not what he said at all and there is, therefore, no need to do anything except thank Leveson for a Job Well Done and the press have certainly learned their lesson this time, yer Worship. Nothing to see, move along now. Here, Mr Cameron, is, of course, defending press freedom because there’s nothing the Tories hate more than any attempt by government to control, direct or silence the media. (Well, except the BBC, because it doesn’t make a profit, so is not a proper business, and it certainly doesn’t contribute to their campaign funds.) On the other side of the great political divide, the LibDem wing of BritGov are saying that, clearly, some sort of new legislation IS required in order to tame the beast, although no-one seems entirely sure what form that legislation should take. From slightly further left of that comfortable centre wing of British politics, little Teddy Milliband and his team are also demanding some sort of legislation because, well, that’s what Parliament is for, dammit. The more laws you pass, the harder you must be working, right?

So the press say it means one thing, half BritGov say something else, the other half disagree and the rest of the political masses all say something else. Hmm… This is a bit worrying. If you can’t trust your press or your politicians to tell you the truth, straight up, no chaser, then who can you trust?

Well, perhaps an actor. Namely – and rather surprisingly – Hugh Grant.

As a victim of intrusive, and illegal, newspaper harassment Grant put aside his tiresomely befuddled screen persona and turned into a coherent, thoughtful individual in order to give evidence to the inquiry and become a leading figure-head of the Hacked Off campaign which wants some sort of legal underpinning of whatever it is that will Put A Stop To This Nonsense. Hugh is also, to our knowledge, the only person to have vociferously pointed out that, although Leveson has called for new legislation to encourage the press to behave, he has also made it abundantly clear that the first achievement of any such legislation should be to:

“enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press.”

So not quite a future of secret courts and List D Notices, then?

You can read it all for yourself by going to What Leveson Actually Said and clicking away to your heart’s content. Just don’t plan to do anything else this week…

So there we have it, a report into press ethics reveals that the press misbehaves and politicians collude with them and then both the press and the politicians work hard to “spin” their reports of what the report said should be done to improve their reporting. Confused? Excellent! We suspect that’s what both press and politicians were hoping for all along. We all agree that Something Must Be Done but it all seems rather complicated and now that X-Factor has finished we’re just looking forward to the Strictly Come Dancing Xmas Special. It’s bread and circuses, people, bread and circuses. Only, with Gideon Osborne in charge of the purse strings you ain’t getting the free bread any more.

So, at the moment Young Mr Cameron is saying there are no firm plans to draw up any new legislation even though he promised to implement whatever recommendations Leveson made, so long as they weren’t totally bonkers. Which, clearly, if you read them, they are not, although, equally clearly, they do not meet Dave’s exacting standards for classification as “non-bonkers”. But, terrifying though it is, we may actually agree with him on this one. We just have to ask ourselves: is new legislation really necessary?

The way we see it, when the press publish a story, there are three possible scenarios:

  1. Everything in the story is true and all the information was obtained in an entirely legal manner. In this case, no matter how awkward, embarrassing or career-destroying the story is, there’s really very little you can do about it. They’ve told the truth and they’ve done it legally.
  2. Everything in the story is true but some of the information was obtained in an illegal way. In this case, they’ve told the truth but they’ve broken the law to do so. Criminal investigations and possible prosecutions of the press are in order. At some point an appropriate legal authority (police, prosecutor or judge) may decide that, however illegal the newspaper’s actions, it acted in the public interest and should, therefore, be admonished. So it’s a smack on the wrist, and maybe even a fine, for breaking the law but an acknowledgement that society, as a whole, is better off because of their actions. However, if they didn’t act in the public interest, the prosecution should proceed, in accordance with the law, with the proviso that, following a conviction, any punishment is sufficient to act as a real deterrent against future law-breaking.
  3. Some of the information presented in the story is not true. Anyone with a personal involvement in the story who feels defamed or distressed by the reports should be able to bring legal action against everyone involved in publishing the story. Since most people can’t afford to risk suing a newspaper publisher, the cost of that action should be met by a public fund which is maintained by, say, a levy imposed on all newspapers. If the existing legal system finds the newspaper to have misled, misreported or simply lied about the story, they should be subject to both reasonable damages, paid to those they have distressed, and a substantial fine, payable back into the public fund used to sue them in the first place. The important thing is that the amount it costs the publisher should always be greater than the revenue they have earned by publishing the story in the first place. Naturally, if the story included factual information illegally obtained, the usual criminal investigations should be initiated.

You will, no doubt, protest that none of this addresses the thorny issue of privacy and press intrusion. To which our knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that, on any occasion when an individual feels their privacy has been compromised we should start by asking, firstly, if it really has and, secondly, if so, is there an existing law that adequately covers this? If there is, invoke it. But stop making up new and unnecessary laws to cover the more remote corners of public and private life. That’s what we have judges for, to interpret the law and apply it in a grown up and sensible matter. And if they’re not doing that, then we need to appoint better judges.

Now, we do not wish to suggest that the recommendations of the independent Spox Inquiry as presented above are absolutely bullet-proof but that could be, in part, because we have spent remarkably little time on them. However, if any member of BritGov’s inner Cabal Cabinet should chance to read this and is willing to punt, say, a hundred grand, tax-free, our way, we are fully prepared to come back within, oh, six months, with a more concrete and workable proposal which will help to ensure that the press behave in an ethical and justifiable manner, without resorting to a Stalinist system of state-regulated censorship. There, we’ve made the offer and it’s a lot cheaper than the Leveson guilt-fest. And we promise our Executive Summary will be no more than an easily digestible half-dozen bullet-points.

For two hundred grand we’ll even provide evidence of why it will work. Ooh! Evidence-based policies! Now there’s a scary thought for any politician…