Sunday, July 10, 2011

Press constraints/contrition

"Self-regulation is dead," declares Greg Dyke, as the ongoing development of the News of the World, its closure, and hackgate, reverberates through the Establishment this week as hard as it did months ago. If David Cameron looks nervous, it's genuine; the close relationship between his predecessors and certain elements of the media's largest empires has reached the explosive conclusion everybody knew would detonate eventually. From here - the death of an iconic newspaper with over 7 million readers, arrests and enquiries, questions at the heart of Government as much as the corridors of 'Fleet Street; - where exactly is traversed next?




At the sight of its iconic 1992 front-page - that of Kinnock as a lightbulb to be extinguished were Labour ever victorious at that year's general election - the architects of New Labour realised their immediate future steps would be to the doors of News International, Rupert Murdoch, and every influential newspaper editor connected thereto. The creation of New Labour had right at the beginning the finger-click of Murdoch or his acolytes by way of permission. As the photograph shows, above, current Labour leader Ed Miliband trod up the path to the newsrooms of Britain's soar-a-way NI titles. Press officers and communications directors crossed from one side of the Establishment to the other, making what has always been a difficult relationship (there has always been press barons, there has always been press officers willing to bend the rules) into something far dirtier, complex, malignant.

Cameron's "we were all in this together" speech was the sound of a man having to excuse all his predecessor's behaviour. From the very start of the NI invasion ("I always found it funny how easy it was to buy into British newspapers", as the man Murdoch said himself over a generation ago), Prime Ministers and those behind them stood bewitched by the colour, language, attitude, and ultimately the power, of the new breed of newspaper industry growing in front of them. The consequence was a pact, unwritten, signed only by handshakes. Labour's run of Home Secretaries, each more hardline than the last, effectively allowed their policy papers to be written by Sun journalists the night before. Sway became push, suggest became demand.

Above all the newspapers in this country (well, almost all), sits the ombudsman without much clout, the Press Complaints Commission. As anyone could tell you (including me in an earlier post around the Jan Moir débâcle), the PCC was the wrong body doing a terrible job, ineffectual and irresponsible. The 'freedom of the press' was always guaranteed when the overseeing group was self-appointed, self-serving. Richard Desmond withdrew his Express titles from the ''control'' of the PCC system as easily as a teenager walking out of the house to avoid his parents.

In his speech, and in others by politicians and commentators since, David Cameron has spoken of the vital need of a 'new' PCC, one which is enabled to cope with events like hackgate and the behaviour of all British newspapers. The sound you could hear at the time was the loud tutting with newsrooms - whispers of 'censorship' and one side of the Establishment letting down the other. "You screwed us over with expenses stories," crowed the MPs, "now we're getting our revenge."

It's not necessarily so. Press freedom in the UK is amongst the best in the developed world, and is certainly amongst the most distinctive in the English-speaking press anywhere on earth. There is, largely because of the hands-off regulation approach, almost nowhere the press won't go in search of a story. From dodgy vicars and unscrupulous business men, to the bedroom antics of pop-stars and royalty, the press provided the goods and the public bought it in its millions. Where we are today is the result - so much freedom, so much public interest, so what if mobile phones are hacked in the hunt of another headline, another scandal? The Telegraph's exposé of MPs expenses came from the illicit sale of documents, and from there has been the jailing of former MPs and wholesale changes in the expenses system.

Cameron is right, as are all critics of the PCC, that self-regulation has to change. The PCC is not able to regulate the print media. However, "Ofprint" must not be the filter through which copy must go before the presses, nor should it be populated by the very media folk who ensure the extent to which each back is scratched. Rightly, such actions as the hacking of Milly Downer's phone have been condemned by public and politicians alike - but what can the PCC do, and how does "Son of PCC" better them? To what extent do we demand a tighter press regulator?

The freedom of the press is central to any functioning democracy. We have all enjoyed, as consumers, the freedom of the British press; its foibles, the success stories and shocking line-crossing. We have all bought shares in the scandals and controversies. Rightly, we complain at any perceived bias - the BBC is too lefty, the BBC isn't left enough, the Guardian is too liberal, the Guardian has forgotten its liberal routes, the Mail is an anti-everything rag. What should we demand from the watchdog for the printed press? How much bias? I wonder what we mean by our demands for a stronger PCC. When I complain about prejudice, I do so from a largely left-wing perspective; what do I want from "son of PCC"? I want fairness, the right to expression, the right to shine light on the dark corners of all the Establishment. Do I want it from a left-wing perspective? How strong should the fine be for a commentary piece dripping in right-wing bile? Or for that matter, oozing socialism with which I disagree as strongly?

We demand that the Internet is saved from censorship, control, governance. Towards the press, our attitudes are very different. With reason, given what has been happening. And from this will come, in a new form, possible censorship, control and governance of the print media we celebrate as free and fair and brilliant. My ideal world hands "son of PCC" enough power to counter the excesses of journalistic misbehaviour whilst allowing the right to expression which we expect from a democratic state. The phone-hacking scandal displayed in lurid colour the extreme behaviour of journalism's hunt for the next big headlines. The consequences for the freedom of the printed press are only now being written; the "exclusive to all newspapers" story of that is a splash nobody thought would ever get to the presses.