Wednesday, 20 July 2011

A Humble Day for Rupert Murdoch

And if there’s a lesson in all of this it has to be about humility. In the madness surrounding Rupert and James’s appearances before the Culture, Media and Sport Select committee session on Tuesday a number of people reported what was frequently called a lynch mob mentality. I cannot speak to the generality of this sentiment, but it does call to mind the millions of readers who have stuck by the tabloids at their murkiest-- as well as their worthiest-- moments. Now here we are, as readers again, hungry for the salacious, even salivating at the pavlovian prospect of fresh blood from a fallen giant. And what a story.

That is after all Murdoch’s crime. Whatever his knowledge of this specific scandal, whatever his failures of corporate governance, few people would assert that he definitely knew or encouraged the illegal acts alleged to have taken place. It is the atmosphere he fomented in his control over the papers that is certain and repugnant; a combination of the nexus of personal connections between the media, politicians and the police and the vampiric manner in which the press under his dominion basked in the dimly lit spaces of UK politics, breathing silently down the neck of politicians and police officers, campaigning vociferously for victims or against paedophiles, all the while embracing casual page 3 sexual marketeering and garnering circulation from the schadenfreude of the masses.

His papers wield enormous political influence through mechanisms both legal and allegedly illegal, right and proper as well as sinister and menacing. They campaign for the rights of a free press but ruthlessly attack their own critics. They support the dignity of victims but profit from spying on actresses in bikinis. And whatever they do, good or bad, they reflect something of all of us. Judging by numerous independent examinations of stories published by the major tabloids they clearly care more for sales than for truth, and what they sell is what they think we want.

We all know the story of tabloid sponsored schadenfreude. The value of fame and money and high class lifestyles are fed by IV, drip by tantalising drip to a public whose imagination far outstrips their bank accounts. Then when things go wrong, such as in Charles and Diana’s relationship, or a descent into drugs by a popular celebrity, instead of cautious and sympathetic coverage there’s a feeding frenzy in the press-- one that the public willingly buys into. And most people see this as innocent. After all they didn’t tell the papers what to print, but if it’s there, if it’s available anyway then they do want to read it and they will buy it.

The culture of simultaneous reverence for fame and envy of the famous reflects not necessarily a dumbing down, nor a coarsening of our society. It may reflect these things, and we certainly each need to consider our own position in this, but more than either of those it reflects our impotence. We are powerless. Be it the war in Iraq, the bankers and their bonuses, or the political culture, many people in this country find their only voice in the pages of the redtops. When we see the smugness and self-satisfaction of some of those who worked there, we are really seeing what we have been reduced to. These people are not on our side, they are feeding off our worst impulses like bacteria in the gut; symbiotic, useful, but ultimately self-interested and occasionally malign. The tabloids give vent to our passive-aggressive outrage, spilling forth our vengeance onto the powerful, but they never do anything to change the balance of power, except in their own favour.

But this entry is not a screed about socioeconomic imbalances or social mobility. My point is far simpler. We should sympathise with Murdoch, and assume that he is as “out of touch”, to use his own words, as he seemed on Tuesday. The doddering old man trying desperately to reach out and protect his inner circle- his family, but helpless against an onslaught he knows is justified. Whatever he did is in the past and we need to judge him and his organisation fairly in accordance with the results of the enquiry and police investigation. The only cure for Rupert Murdoch is to pity him, and forget him. Leave him in the past which he helped to create, and through these enquiries and the changes in the law which must follow move on to a better future of our making.

What led up to this was shameful and ugly, but this is a chance for us to foster a real change in our society; to create a more responsible media, and a more honest political class. And to do this we can’t just be passive consumers of what other people write, we have to pay more attention, get involved, campaign, fight and vote for a better system at every chance we get. We can’t keep blaming everyone else for the way this country is run, and for our place in it, not if the people we allow to hold them to account are Rupert and James Murdoch.

Monday, 11 July 2011

On the PCC and What Press Regulation Means for Britain

On Friday as Andy Coulson was being interviewed by the police, the Prime Minister let slip his personal assurance that the embattled Press Complaints Commission was at last on its way to the scrapyard, to be replaced with a stronger form of regulation, self- or otherwise. This was promptly followed by an indignant reply from the PCC, which retorted that as an independent body the PM could not so easily dispose of them.

The PCC has been attacked virtually since its inception as toothless and ineffectual, the main disagreement is about whether you think this is intentional-- engineered by the bosses of print media to achieve a veneer of accountability while in practice allowing them to do as they wish-- or merely incidental. Whatever your feeling on the matter, one thing it isn’t is independent. Regulation can be handled by politicians, by an independent organisation or by self-regulation, although there may be some overlap and these categories are not mutually exclusive.

The PCC itself isn’t government run, that much is true. It is perhaps best described as a private body exercising a public function. This is not at all unusual for self-regulation, but the print media cannot be compared to other businesses-- they are intrinsically connected to how the public gather and process information about our society, and virtually impossible to depoliticise.

A truly independent body would be one which was set up by the government, but governed by legislation and accountable via judicial review. Such a body would need to be independent both from those it regulates and from politicians, and as such should have strictly legal boundaries which delineate its operations and responsibilities, and be accountable to those its decisions impact.

Although many people have expressed concerns that the government might over-react and stifle freedom of the press, there is no evident reason this should be so. Regulation should seek to: A) Maintain the existing law as to phone hacking, defamation (assuming effective reform) etc; B) address concerns about intentional or malicious misrepresentation of facts; C) address the question of privacy.

These must necessarily be achieved by different channels. The PCC did deal with errors and mis-statements made by papers, though it was extremely ineffective in garnering retractions of equal prominence to the original statements. Still, this could be handled by an independent body able to impose penalties and demand appropriate retractions, or by a body able to act on behalf of the public in taking such complaints to court-- a narrow, well refined legal framework might forbid intentional or malicious mis-statements, and require retractions of equal prominence, not dissimilarly to defamation. This would provide a clear legal standard and provide a deterrant effect, and lead papers to be more cautious in printing false information.

The law regarding phone hacking and suborning police officers must clearly be dealt with through criminal law channels, via the police and crown prosecution service. However, given the nature of the alleged bribery and intimidation of the police in the recent scandal, there may need to be reforms aimed at procedural transparency. There are clearly many options for taking this forward but few which are either palatable or workable, and the most reasonable and likely is to simply tighten up the law regarding the responsibility of editors for what goes on under their watch. If they know they can and will be held personally liable and that the police will take such investigations seriously, editors will take more stringent preventative measures themselves.

Finally, regarding issues of privacy there is no sound alternative to a public debate and proper consultation. Ultimately this is the area which most threatens to change how the tabloids operate, and we have to make a decision as a society as to where the lines should be drawn. For example, if we ignore the phone hacking, and assume papers could gather the same information via other channels, would we feel comfortable with them printing information about Gordon Brown’s severely ill children? Or about the lives of the families of murder victims?

Far more than the question of phone hacking, it is these questions that have finally been forced upon us this past week, and it is these questions that we will have to finally address. It isn’t about taking away freedom of the press. The press has never had absolute freedom to do whatever it likes. There have always been lines it was not meant to cross. We don’t want the press to be free to outright deceive us, or to profit from the misery of victims, it was never meant to be free to do those things.

This is simply a time to redress the balance, and to reconsider our own values as a nation.