Leveson and media: Long live the free press
It is possible that the new press regulations will be dead on arrival - and just as well, writes Paul Demarty
While various bureaucrats and politicians met in Cyprus to secure the future of the euro zone and avert economic calamity, a rather more modest - but no less frantic - series of negotiations was taking place in Westminster, concerning the future of press regulation in Britain.
Having seemed likely to make a martyr of himself in parliament in order to appease the press barons whose support he so needs, David Cameron came back to the negotiating table. In the early hours of Monday March 18, a deal was finally reached, after substantial concessions from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats and Labour. The bad news is that what results is - as expected - a reactionary attack on press freedom. The good news is that it is such a mess - such a bureaucratic hodge-podge, so ill-defined on key points, so obviously written by a committee and so unsatisfactory to the press - that it may well die a quick and merciful death before making it to statute.
And make no mistake - this is a plan which gives ‘statutory underpinning’ to press regulation. Cameron and co have dressed the statutory element up as a ‘royal charter’, but they have done so in a way which makes the whole thing even less democratic. At least a straightforward statute can be overturned by the parliament of the day; a ‘double-locked’ charter such as this one will require a two-thirds majority of MPs to change.
So what is it that they are so keen to lock in so very permanently? What is on offer is a notionally voluntary new regulatory body, which press outlets will be free to sign up to or not as they wish. One member of this body will be nominated by the press; the rest will be various notable worthies and establishment figures. So far, this is pretty much the ‘Irish model’.
The regulator will provide a cheap arbitration services for claimants to settle disputes with the papers. It will decide - in the event of a deadlock - as to the prominence and nature of apologies, should these be necessary. Most controversially, courts will be able to levy ‘exemplary damages’ on those papers which refuse to sign up, and whose disputes must therefore be settled as ordinary civil claims.
This, of course, gives the lie to the absurd notion that this is a ‘voluntary’ system. It is like saying that obeying the speed limit is voluntary, except that you will be fined if you do not. On that basis, it is hardly surprising that - so far as I can tell - no major press outlet has so far declared an intention to sign up to the new body. Private Eye and The Spectator were the first to reject any such notion. Various other organs, including The Economist and New Statesman, have followed suit.
Even The Guardian, which dropped the phone-hacking bombshell in the first place and became the first paper to support a seriously hardened up regulatory regime, is unenthusiastic. Editor Alan Rusbridger reckons that the exemplary damages clause “is a seriously bad idea that will create martyrs and is probably incompatible with the free speech clauses of the human rights act and European convention”.1 This is an opinion which appears to be shared by media lawyers.2 The Independent, whose shady Russian oligarch proprietors support press regulation, has pointed out - among many others - that local papers, already suffering from historic decline, will suffer further under the new regime.3
Further complications are introduced by the problem of the new law’s scope. In short, while it is clear that major press operations like the national (and local) newspapers are covered, the fate of smaller, non-profit media outlets, websites and blogs is worryingly unclear. Will the Weekly Worker be subject to the same ‘exemplary damages’ as the Daily Mail? Will Guido Fawkes - the Tory blogger and unashamed gossip-hound, who has opposed all moves towards more stringent press regulation throughout - be liable?
Politicians, and the thoroughly dubious lobby group, Hacked Off, deny that this is the intention of the law; but lawyers, like contemporary literary critics, do not deal in intentions: they deal in precise formulations and legal precedents. There are no precedents in the application of a law that has yet to come into force, naturally, but blogs with more than one writer - let alone small-run papers such as this one or the rest of the left press - are certainly not excluded at present. Fortunately, this at least may be quashed in the House of Lords, thanks to an amendment from Lord Lucas, one of the remaining hereditary peers in the upper house, which proposes to exempt non-profit and small and medium-sized enterprises. It would be a fittingly anti-democratic end to a profoundly anti-democratic notion.
Still, the new press law has the potential to crush dissent at the base level. We may legitimately ask: will it succeed in its nominal aims, to stop the depredations of the gutter press, to provide redress for the likes of Christopher Jefferies, hounded by the Daily Mail for murder on the basis that he looked a bit weird, or Kate and Gerry McCann, accused of abducting and murdering their own child by the likes of the Daily Express?
The answer is most likely ‘no’. The actions that sparked this whole business off - News of the World journalists hacking into the voicemails of various figures in the public eye - were already criminal. It did not stop them from doing so. The press was regulated during that time, albeit self-regulated, and thus transparently subject to ‘regulatory capture’.
Much hand-wringing has gone on concerning the need to make sure the new body is ‘genuinely independent’ of the press barons. It is, I suppose, possible that it will be - in much the same way that it is possible that the sun will not rise tomorrow, or that Michael Gove’s next policy announcement will be sane. But let us remember what this scandal was all about. It was not about Milly Dowler’s answerphone messages, but the thoroughly cosy imbrication of the press barons, the political class and the police and state apparatus.
The revelations were so explosive because so many others were taken down by them. And this was because Murdoch and his cronies could make things happen, if the price was right. They could swing an election for you - as long as you remembered your friends when you were safely in Number 10. The ‘special relationships’ with many in the upper reaches of the Metropolitan Police are simply too legion to outline here, and quite infamous.
The idea that the press barons will not capture this regulator is obviously fatuous. This is a country where regulators are all nobbled or toothless - Ofgem can barely be said to regulate the energy business, and HM Revenue and Customs employs several senior officials whose careers were built at giant financial services companies, designing tax avoidance schemes for wealthy individuals and large corporations. Cameron, Miliband and the rest can spout pieties about ‘independence’ until they are blue in the face. It will not happen.
So then we will return to a degraded version of the status quo ante. The likes of Hacked Off will feel vindicated, having convinced themselves that the real issue here was misbehaving tabloid journalists, rather than striking and obvious corruption at the heart of the very state machine from which they have demanded redress. The issue will fade from the public mind; and return only when the next criminal wheeze for mass-producing sensationalist drivel takes hold of Fleet Street and Wapping.
For Marxists, the issue is a very different one. The great moment of opportunity in this scandal - precisely the light shone, for a brief moment, on the networks of corruption that are constitutive of the ruling establishment - has gone. Now the stakes are even higher. We demand absolute freedom of the press; indeed, we need it, for our project will not succeed unless we can convince the masses of people of some pretty radical notions about how society needs to change, for which we cannot rely on any old boy’s network or complex of pseudo-Masonic exchanges of favours, as the establishment does.
Now is the time for the workers’ movement to mount a militant defence of freedom of expression. Yet, unfortunately, the workers’ movement is nowhere. The National Union of Journalists, most obviously implicated in this affair, offered a “guarded welcome” to the proposals, but failed even to mention any of the key areas of controversy (on exemplary damages and so on).4 Perhaps this is because it is deeply split on the issue. Leaders such as Michelle Stanistreet and Donnacha Delong - the latter supposedly an anarchist! - have been most enthusiastic about the whole Leveson inquiry circus, and advocated the Irish model for all it is worth. Many rank-and-file hacks - alert, like all workers, to the dictum, ‘shit rolls downhill’ - are far less happy with this outcome.
As for the left press, its interest in this issue has long faded. It took the opportunity to have another prod at old enemies - Murdoch, Cameron, the cops - and moved on. The most serious policy on the press advanced by our competitors was the thoroughly economistic offering from the Socialist Party in England and Wales, which suggested that the means of production of the media should be nationalised under democratic control, and allocated to organisations on the basis of ‘social weight’ - except, of course, for fascists. (Somehow, this was supposed to be compatible with a disavowal of state control of the media. So who is supposed to control this process of resource allocation, or decide who is fascist? The tooth fairy?)
More seriously, the bulk of the left press is simply unreadably monotonous. It may be more politically sound than the Mail’s daily diet of psychotic scaremongering, but it is less colourful, and frankly no less disconnected from reality. On the basis of an average edition of The Socialist or Socialist Worker, one would expect that the entire country is teetering on the brink of mass strikes and open rebellion. It is not true - and everybody knows it.
We could do better - much better. Agitational papers could be punchier than The Sun, smarter than The Guardian and rake more muck than Private Eye. Journals could be put out that make the likes of The Economist look like the self-deluding lightweights they are. The cheap demagogues in parliament and Hacked Off propose to discipline the bourgeois press by way of another unaccountable bureaucracy. We want to expose them for the timid bunch of apologists they are - by competing with and replacing them as centres of influence.
1. The Guardian March 25.
3. The Independent March 25.