Leveson report: The dog that didn’t bark
The recommendations of the Leveson report are worse than the status quo, argues Paul Demarty - but not by much
There are bad things afoot for everyone who values the hard-won right of freedom of expression in this country, it seems. The papers are awash with jeremiads about things to come - state-regulated media, stripped of the ability to speak truth to power, comparable to the likes of Kazakhstan.
Of course, this is not strictly true. The report of the Leveson inquiry into press ethics - hotly anticipated by the whole Westminster village and dreaded by the titans of Fleet Street - is a masterclass in judicial conservatism and moderation. Brian Leveson demands a more serious form of press regulation, through a body “independent” of the commercial interests directly involved, with an ill-defined “statutory backstop” to give press regulation some legal teeth.
Participation in the new regulator would be, strictly speaking, voluntary and its board (which would not include any newspaper editors) would decide on its own codes and procedures. The problem is then how it is to avoid ending up like the Press Complaints Commission of today. In effect, this means that the regulator itself will have to be regulated (Leveson suggests that Ofcom should take up this duty), in order to make sure it is doing its job properly.
The “backstop” then would be this second regulator, which would directly regulate media outlets which refused to submit to the new regime voluntarily. This would apparently exclude those outlets that did not meet certain readership and influence requirements (which, again, are left vague).
What all this amounts to is a variation on the status quo. Avoiding regulatory capture on this new body will hardly be a matter of simply shunting editors aside; the Murdochs of this world will worm their way in. Leveson has even come up with one or two ‘incentives’ to ensure the compliance of the media institutions - handling complaints through a regulatory body with some meaningful authority (and a grounding in statute) would cut down on the legal costs of dragging such things through the courts. There would also be a legal clause enshrining the freedom of the press.
You would not know it from the bourgeois press’s response. While The Guardian, which broke (and doggedly pursued) the phone-hacking scandal which led us to this pass, has been broadly sympathetic to Leveson’s proposals, the Murdoch press, the Daily Mail and so on are spitting blood.
They appear to have the ear of the prime minister in all this, who came out immediately against statutory regulation, in a move widely regarded as an act of obvious and craven opportunism. It is probably not too unfair a characterisation of his stance, at that. David Cameron is smart enough to know that, whatever regime of press regulation is in place come the next election, the institutional power of the press will be enough to make it a powerful ally - or dangerous enemy.
In the cold light of day, Cameron cannot afford to antagonise the attack dogs of the rightwing press too badly. They already - at best - tolerate him, rather than love him, and, if he is not exactly a creature of Mail editor Paul Dacre, many of his increasingly restive backbenchers certainly are. Cameron’s room for manoeuvre is limited.
Ed Miliband’s game is harder to puzzle out. He certainly loves to take a clear line on matters where he cannot possibly be accused of being a loony leftie; and the ever-expanding Murdoch scandal, pitching as it does a series of amoral press barons and editors against every extant standard of taste, decency and fair play, may seem to him to be an attractive option for easy public credibility.
Yet it does not fit very well into his overall political strategy, which seems rather to consist of not having a strategy at all, lest having one or two eye-catching ideas lead to Labour looking unelectable. The ultimate arbiters of what is and is not electable are the bourgeois papers. It is they who turned Neil Kinnock - despite his terrible politics a talented politician - into a soulless windbag; and they who sold Tony Blair, despite his painfully obvious vacuity, as a ‘fresh start’ (although, in all probability, he would have won in 1997 anyway, so decrepit was the Tory government).
Miliband does not seem scared at the moment. He suspects, correctly by the look of things, that the government is deeply split on the issue. Nick Clegg supports the implementation of Leveson’s findings as well; culture secretary Maria Miller now refuses to rule out statutory underpinning for press regulation. The latter, in particular, raises the attractive possibility of forcing the government into an embarrassing volte face. Whether the gambit will succeed is another matter.
Death by misadventure
Miliband has taken a risk by piling into the issue again - but it is quite exceptionally difficult for the press to hammer him for it with any authority just now. After everything that has happened, it is simply not feasible for the likes of Dacre and Murdoch to come out on the side of the angels in this affair.
Every time the pressure group Hacked Off, for example, is dismissed by The Sun as a bunch of griping celebrities, the latter can wheel out the likes of Christopher Jefferies, essentially hounded for a murder he did not commit on the basis that he was supposedly a bit weird; or the family of murdered teenager Milly Dowler; or Kate and Gerry McCann; or any of the other utterly innocent victims of rabid tabloid harassment.
The scandal, then, has come full circle. Having expanded rapidly from newsroom bad behaviour at the late and unlamented News of the World to cover the dubious practices of the press as a whole, and from there to the patently corrupt relationships between the press and other wings of the establishment, it has finally become contained again as an issue of press ethics. This was always, surely, what Cameron wanted Leveson to do - although the latter’s inquiry provided ample opportunities for all parties to the crisis to mortally embarrass each other.
This is what has to be remembered, now that the crisis has reached the point where all sides are concerned to come up with a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of press regulation - because this was never about the venality of the tabloids (we hardly needed the spurious authority of a ‘judge-led inquiry’ to uncover that), but rather about how we reached a point where the dodgy ethics of the press should become a catastrophic weak point in the legitimacy of the establishment as a whole.
The central problem for the bourgeoisie is that it is small by its very nature, and, terror aside, has the same means as any minority class at hand to maintain its dominance - bribery and blackmail. To put it very crudely, the press is bribed, so that it may blackmail the rest of us. The press reached the point it did, because that crude statement has become increasingly true over the decades, at least since Rupert Murdoch’s entry into the British newspaper market.
If sensationalism had always been a part of the press’s DNA, Murdoch refined it into a kind of art. The transformation of The Sun - a former paper of the labour movement, of all things - into the ultimate ‘red top’ under his proprietorship is emblematic. The paper has, through this entire period, been politically conservative in all meaningful respects; yet its provocative, populist style - the implicit equals sign it places between ‘real’ news and celebrity tittle-tattle, the spiky headlines, bare breasts on page 3 - allowed it to appear anti-establishment, especially as the staid post-war settlement decayed.
This is not a superficial matter. It is extraordinary, for any leftwinger, to read that we all supposedly live under the cosh of an unaccountable lefty elite - which is more or less the line, day in and day out, of the Mail and Sun. Yet pushing such an obvious falsehood achieves some purpose, inasmuch as Mail readers identify the frothing gibberish in the paper’s pages as in some way the voice of British ‘common sense’; or Sun readers identify that paper’s contents with the views of the ‘man in the street’.
A completely inverted view of the balance of power in society is sold to the mass readerships of these papers, in the hope or expectation that they will come to identify their interests with the ruling bloc. This is what Marxists of the Second International, and more famously Antonio Gramsci, called hegemony. The problem is that it is based on a lie - which breeds, inevitably, other lies, to feed the bizarre world view that is being put forward.
There are more directly economic factors involved too. Also spearheaded by Murdoch was the practice of aggressively discounting the face value of a newspaper - profits would instead come from advertising revenue, which could be increased, along with circulation figures. While the rumours of the looming death of the print media are probably overstated, circulation figures have been hit hard, and therefore so have advertising revenues. (It was not public outcry that forced Murdoch to shut down the News of the World, but the threat of an advertising boycott.) So papers are driven to more sensationalism, and ever grubbier tactics, to keep figures riding high.
When the phone-hacking scandal broke, the true cost of the business strategy at work in the tabloids became abundantly clear, but so did the deep complicity of the police and bourgeois politics in the affair - which was hardly surprising, as their legitimacy rests in part on precisely that distorted world view presented by the press. The police benefit from the country appearing to be full of predatory weirdoes, with terrorists hiding under every bed - and thus from the repugnant press campaigns against the likes of Christopher Jefferies. The politicians benefit from the appearance of a divergence of political opinion in parliament - although not all of them benefit equally, or simultaneously.
If statutory regulation does come into force, and does indeed destroy press freedom, it will not be Leveson, but Paul Dacre, Richard Desmond, Rebekah Brooks et al, who bear the lion’s share of responsibility. Which media, pray, have done the most to put a ‘hanging’s too good for them’/‘throw away the key’ spin on issues of criminal justice in this country? Which have made the witch-hunt the basic means of dealing with a scandal? Now that they find themselves tied to the stake, it is difficult to feel much sympathy.
In a sense, it is a shame. Papers from The Independent to the Daily Mail are correct: statutory regulation of the media should be vigorously opposed. We do not favour state interference in the media at all; it can only have reactionary and authoritarian outcomes (the relatively timid proposals of Leveson will not be catastrophic, but still represent movement in the wrong direction). All those who peddle the idiotic illusion of an ‘independent’ regulatory body, somehow relying neither on the state nor the media moguls, ought to have another look at the revelations of the last year and a half. The notion will only ever be a lie in this society.
The only way to fight the cabal of cynical moguls behind the filth on the news stands is to beat them at their own game. There is no iron law that says their papers will always be bigger sellers - still less punchier, more provocative or more readable - than those of the workers’ movement. Unfortunately, the latter lacks any kind of serious media strategy, putting out endless dire periodicals that nobody sensible would read more than once a year.
Getting a shout-out in The Guardian, or a well-trodden hashtag on Twitter, is the height of our collective aspirations at the moment. We can do much, much better - and it should go without saying that the fight for the most complete freedom of expression (necessarily extending to our enemies) is a pivotal part of that.