You can arrest Andy Coulson, you can sack two hundred journalists and take the News of the World off the face of the earth – but the problem won’t go away.
News is in crisis, but believing that it is a crisis stemming from the lies, deceitfulness and illegality of hacking is misplaced. Understanding the roots of the crisis requires a critical interrogation of the terms on which newspapers in the UK operate.
In the last decade news media have seen many changes. There has been a tremendous growth in the number of news outlets available including the advent of, and rapid increase in, free papers, the emergence of 24 hour television news and the popularisation of online and mobile platforms. Newspaper circulation and readership levels are at an all-time low.
News is produced and distributed at a faster rate than ever before and often takes place on several platforms at once. This has provided the newspaper industry with some real challenges. In a corporate news world it is now difficult to maintain profit margins and shareholder returns unless you employ fewer journalists. But fewer journalists with more space to fill means doing more work in less time often leading to a greater use of unattributed rewrites of press agency or public relations material: the cut and paste practice that Nick Davies famously called ‘churnalism’.
If you combine the faster and shallower corporate journalism of the digital age with the need to pull in readers for commercial rather than journalistic reasons it is not difficult to see how the values of professional journalism are quickly cast aside in order to indulge in sensationalism, trade in gratuitous spectacles and deal in dubious emotionalism.
The culture of the corporate, tabloid newsroom embodies this practice to such an extent that Rebekah Brooks wouldn’t even have needed to give the green light to phone hacking – it’s just part and parcel of what is expected. The net result is denigration of the professional life and integrity of news journalists, leading to a detrimental impact on the quality of news journalism and a consequent damage to our democracy.
This latest scandal is shocking not because of the awfulness that the practice of phone hacking is and the lack of humanity it has revealed but because it has exposed the heart of a system that is deeply flawed. Giving more powers to the Press Complaints Commission
would be a sticking plaster on a much deeper wound that will continue to fester until once more the smell becomes unbearable and another scandal erupts.
In a climate where journalists’ jobs are ever more insecure it takes a very brave journalist to blow the whistle or even ‘self-regulate’.
Self-regulation has become the sacred mantra associated with the freedom of the press – the only means to ensure governments can’t interfere in, dictate the terms and thwart the practice of journalism. But this denies the influence and power of a corporate culture that wreaks its own havoc and sets its own agenda often more blatantly than any democratic government would ever dare. If you are relatively powerless (say a journalist in relation to an editor) then self-regulation can be meaningless if the person in power does not share your views.
The question we really need to ask is: what do we want news for and how can it be delivered in the future? This is what Jeremy Hunt should be concerned with in his deliberations over the future of BSkyB, and what the forthcoming Communications Act in 2013 should be designed to address. How the production of news is changing, how it is funded, how it is received and how it can prosper must be put at the centre of this debate.
So go ahead and have a public inquiry into phone hacking, but let’s do the job properly and also have a Media Commission that asks the real questions:
1. What is in the public interest in relation to the provision of news for democracy to thrive?
2. How can we provide the environment that is required to enable journalists to do the job most of them want to do and to do it with integrity?
3. With the prospect of a new Communications Act on the horizon, can we regulate for the relationship between news and democracy while retaining independent journalism and freedom of the press, and if so, how?
The news is no ordinary product. It is indelibly linked to the practice of democracy. When the product of news is broken the practice of democracy suffers. The relationship between news and democracy works best when journalists are given the freedom (and resources) to do the job most journalists want to do – to scrutinize, to monitor, hold to account, interrogate power, to facilitate and maintain deliberation.
But freedom in this context does not simply mean freedom from censorship and interference from government so frequently associated with the term ‘freedom of the press’; it also means freedom from the constraints and limitations of a thoroughly corporate culture. In neoliberal democracies the power of the market is just as significant as the power of government. In the UK, there is certainly no rush to regulate for a healthy relationship between news media and democracy, yet there is plenty of urgency about the need to deregulate media for the benefit of the market.
The phone hacking saga shows that a marketised and corporatised media cannot be relied upon to deliver the conditions for deliberative democracy to flourish. Markets do not have democratic intent at their core. When markets fail or come under threat or simply become too bullish, ethical journalistic practice is swept aside in pursuit of competitive gain and financial stability.
Yes, we need a public inquiry – but what we really need is a whole new framework for news in the public interest.
Natalie Fenton is is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths College, London
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace