Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

News of the World: we need more than a public inquiry

Natalie Fenton calls for a new framework for news in the public interest

July 8, 2011
5 min read


Natalie Fenton is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths College, London


  share     tweet  

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

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Natalie Fenton is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths College, London


What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament


32