Tuesday 19 March 2013

Power Without Responsibility

Mark Seddon writes:

For months now, ever since the first howls of anguish greeted the publication of the Leveson Report, the political and media establishment in this country have sought to present his essentially fairly modest proposals as a monstrous threat to liberty. But we have been here before. Many times before.

Much of the debate has revolved around ‘statutory underpinnings’. Many people may imagine that this somehow relates to architectural plans for sinking buildings. But it was David Cameron and his the Conservatives who until the eleventh hour, gave every impression of wanting many of Lord Leveson’s plans to sink without trace – that is until a last minute agreement was thrashed out between the two main parties and the Liberal Democrats.

It is worth remembering that back in 1953, in response to a threat of statutory regulation, the General Council of the Press was formed, with membership restricted to newspaper editors, funded by newspaper proprietors. By the time of the Second Royal Commission on the Press in 1962, the General Council had been subject to considerable criticism for its lack of teeth. The Commission’s report demanded improvement, particularly the inclusion of members who were not employed by print media.

So here we are fifty years later, having exactly the same argument. But with David Cameron and the press barons pretending that this is the first time we are having it. Just as hugely unpopular nuclear power stations have been re-named each decade or so, so has the General Council of the Press. For subsequently it became the Press Council, and then when that was abolished in the 1990s for being utterly toothless and for its membership restricted to, er, newspaper editors, it became the Press Complaints Commission. This too, has been an abject failure, whose membership has been restricted to the industry.

I should know, I helped advise the organisation for its first two years in existence.

The only times I can ever remember the PCC struggling to wield the big stick that it didn’t have was when one of the Royals had had their privacy invaded. That Britain is still the home of the libel industry owes a great deal to the failure of the PCC. For most though, who cannot afford to go to court, and who imagined that the PCC might be there to defend them, the organisation has been a terrible disappointment.

Up until the agreement brokered with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, David Cameron and the press barons want to maintain the status quo. They didn’t want anyone to be a member of whatever replaces the PCC who is not part of the newspaper industry, thus maintaining the status quo that has existed ever since 1953. It is simply outrageous for David Cameron, at the behest of the press barons to make this his line in the sand. Any new regulatory authority needs to include reader’s representatives, representatives from media unions and the general public. It needs to be able to insist on the right of reply, enforce fines where necessary, while also making sure that newspapers properly moderate their websites.

What has changed since 1953 and even since the 1990s has been the increased monopolisation of the British media by a handful of media barons who have frankly terrified the political class into surrender. What has also changed as technology has marched on, and as standards across the press have fallen, has been the emergence of behaviors more common to the Mafia or the old East German Stasi. Let us not forget that had it not been for the emergence of the hacking scandal, Tory Minister, Jeremy Hunt, was set to allow the British print and TV industry to become a virtual Murdoch monopoly.

But in many ways, Parliament is today attempting to address a mess, grown much worse, left over from the last century. In truth, power is ebbing away from the press barons. Their readership is declining and the public is increasingly revolted by what it has learned of the activities of the Murdoch Empire in particular. Increasingly it is the social media, the blogosphere and Twitter that is moving into the gap, and this in some respects poses an even deeper problem. A lie can be around the World in minutes, and there is little anyone can do about it. Off shore registered websites can seemingly libel with impunity, and then of course there is the whole grotesque World of unmoderated commentary and ‘trolling’. It is not only Lord McAlpine who needs protecting, it is all of those who could not afford, as McAlpine did, to take on the new giants.

This is where the debate needs to focus next. But it also needs to re-focus on the issue of media ownership. The hacking scandal has re-ignited the whole argument around power without responsibility and straightforward illegality by some media organisations that have simply become near monopolies and see themselves as above the law.

Before 1997, Labour had a strong policy on restricting cross media ownership, and it is perhaps time that that policy was re-visited again.

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