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During the Leveson report’s gestation period, the closure of ranks among the media against any form of real change progressively intensified. What we were presented with was a pseudo-choice between self or statutory regulation. What we ended up with was a set of modest proposals for a self-regulatory body with statutory underpinning. But it has been decried as an open door to state intrusion not seen since the repeal of censorship and stamp duties.
In the midst of this fervour, it may be forgotten that Hackgate was about first and foremost institutional corruption of the gravest order between the media, police and politicians of all colours, which testimony to the inquiry has underlined. The result has been a media that is not adequately accountable and does not do its job adequately of holding others to account. Leveson only partially and tangentially pays attention to this heart of the matter.
The press themselves have sought to emphasise that the problem facing Lord Leveson was solely to do with the behaviour and ethics of (some) journalists. Even within this narrow framework, there were growing complaints that his remit was too wide and not appropriate to the extent of the problem; that British journalism is, on the whole, a robust and vigorous defender of the public interest. Within this narrative, the Guardian in particular is hailed as the champion of a pluralised press that can deliver accountability of itself.
But a genuinely democratic and accountable media system cannot be upheld by one or two titles with relatively minor readerships. What’s more, these titles have failed comprehensively to promote public interest journalism in other areas. For instance, the Guardian’s disastrous handling of Cablegate in 2010 (the series of US diplomatic cables released in partnership with WikiLeaks) resulted in stories about Gadaffi’s mistresses gaining more prominence than those about the government undermining the Iraq Inquiry to protect US interests, or misleading Parliament over the banning of cluster bombs.
The real problem for democracy is not so much that bad journalism gets published, but rather that good journalism often doesn’t. Finding alternative ways to regulate press ethics – which has occupied the near exclusive focus of Leveson’s report – will deal only with a marginal and surface symptom of a much broader disease that has seen the space for real, professional journalism in the public interest progressively diminish. It’s about decades of unchecked concentration of media power and a resurgence of press baronism; it’s about structural declines in circulation exacerbated by the migration of readers and advertisers online; and it’s about incessant closures and cutbacks to operational journalism across all platforms and sectors, but most acutely affecting those areas central to the media’s democratic role: investigative and local journalism.
In the event, Lord Leveson was perhaps inevitably circumscribed by the terms of debate established by the press. In essence, that debate consisted of a pseudo conflict between the victims of press intrusion on the one hand (who, despite the exceptional cases like the Dowlers and McCanns, are by in large an elite cadre of celebrities and public figures) and on the other, an alliance of media owners, editors and journalists propagating a misguided libertarian evangelism. It was as if the most important issue facing British democracy is how to balance the privacy of individuals with the free speech rights of media proprietors. Not the endemic corruption exposed between the highest levels of politics, police and media. It is this corruption which enabled the phone hacking cover up to endure for the best part of a decade and has fostered the malaise which has undermined the integrity of our most important public institutions.
It is for this reason – over and above the uncertainty as to whether Leveson’s modest recommendations will be implemented – that the struggle for media reform goes on. The next stage is to maximise pressure on politicians to support Leveson’s recommendations, but also to build on an emerging consensus among grassroots and civil society groups that tackling plurality is the only way to effect meaningful change. Specifically, by introducing media ownership thresholds that trigger public interest obligations and/or divestment; and by recommending new ways to fund and support journalism that serves the public interest over profit. Both of these goals are in keeping with the broad principles regarding plurality which Leveson outlined. But he shied away from making explicit recommendations and wrongly deferred to Ofcom, the government and industry stakeholders.
Clearly, the most important stakeholder in the question of plurality is the general public. It is imperative that we do not allow the ownership question to be side-lined because of technicalities. Media concentration is notoriously difficult to both measure and apply remedies to. But this is not a reason for abandoning policy altogether and there are certainly historical and contemporary precedents elsewhere on which to base a renewed approach to ownership regulation; one that takes into account the emergence of new oligopolists in the digital domain, whilst acknowledging the enduring capacity of legacy media to dominate public conversation.
It is precisely this capacity which has enabled the whole issue of ownership regulation to be marginalised from the debate. It has fostered a view of new rules as unrealistic or unfeasible which has found its way into the discourse of politicians and even campaigners who are nonetheless committed to substantive reform. The press has opted to engage these voices on its own terms, allowing editors to espouse a sense of libertarian defiance whilst continuing to dance to the strings of their owner-bosses.
It is telling that even those, like Peter Preston, who acknowledge the enduring fear of politicians to contravene the will of the press, at the same time emphatically demand that the press be left alone. Yet the fear of politicians – exemplified by Labour’s recent recoiling from earlier calls for ownership caps – should itself be a warning sign for media reformers.
Politicians will not be able to counter the dominant narrative emerging from a closing of ranks among the press without a concerted mobilisation of grassroots pressure. An IPPR poll six months ago suggested that a sizeable majority of the public support statutory limits on media ownership. Regardless of whether Leveson’s recommendations will be implemented, now is the time to establish and expand a movement for change that gives voice to this silent majority.
There are perhaps few issues that provoke a broader spectrum of opinion than media regulation. Familiar lines between left and right become blurred and no one seems to agree on what is really meant by media plurality, freedom or the public interest. In his calls for evidence in regards to media reform proposals, Leveson has unwittingly induced a focus on difference rather than core common principles. But there is certainly a wide consensus that something needs to be done about the concentration of media ownership which has fostered the kind of awkward and insidious relationships between media and political elites so vividly exposed by the Leveson hearings.
A media reform coalition is seeking to build on these core principles and engage broad support for real change in favour of real journalism. It has emerged from a cross section of civil society and campaigning groups including Hacked Off, Avaaz, the National Union of Journalists, 38 Degrees and the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform. Together, these groups are mobilising to maximise pressure on Parliament in support of new laws that will promote a genuinely democratic and accountable media.