The Leveson enquiry opened today with Lord Justice Leveson feeling the need to reiterate the tired line that a free press is of fundamental importance in ensuring that public figures and governments are held to account. Therefore what he wants to consider is not whether the press needs to have its freedom curtailed in any way, but rather the inquiry should address the question: ‘who guards the guardians’?
Perhaps equally pertinent questions to be asked along the way – and they all seem linked to me -might be ‘who runs the guardians’ and ‘for what purpose’?
This enquiry isn’t limited to phone hacking – after all, that is an illegal practice that the police will be dealing with in a separate criminal investigation – but it is about the wider behaviour of the press. It is, I feel, crucial that the inquiry properly addresses how the newspaper industry seems to apply vastly different standards to the behaviour of those outside the press industry than it does to those working within it.
Another problem that the inquiry might like to discuss is that freedom of the press is not as simplistic as the newspapers would like you to believe – or even as Lord Justice Leveson implied during his opening address.
For starters, how can a press truly be free when it has owners able to legally and freely insert their own editorial influence over what a given newspaper prints? How can we call it a ‘free press’ in the truest sense when each newspaper has a clear political alignment and often a very clear corporate agenda that often benefits in the whole the wealthy – and very few – owners of the newspapers?
Freedom in this sense is merely the freedom for anyone to set up their own press as an outlet for their own biased and perhaps blinkered view of the world. Or, it is the freedom for corporations to set up their own press to print propaganda that suits their own business interests. This is not actually a bad thing in terms of absolute freedom goes – as this is exactly what an authoritarian government would want to ban. However, it is a bad thing if such newspapers can get away with printing lies in order to support their own version of the world. Or, equally as bad, printing outright distortion or invasive articles merely to make a profit. How can a newspaper truly be considered free when it has to constantly serve up what the consumer wants?
Although a news purist might find it an odd concept to acknowledge, we expect our newspapers to have a clear bias and this is part and parcel of press freedom: they are free to pick a political side just as they are free to pick one side of a particular debate. However, it does not follow that newspapers should therefore have carte blanche to engage is constant lying or distortion to portray this bias as an absolute truth.
A population should never be in the situation where the line between editorial comment (opinion) and news (generally regarded as a factual retelling of a given event) becomes so blurred as to become meaningless. We should not be in a situation where a democratic population is served a constant diet of dishonest propaganda masquerading as news. The Press Complaints Commission and the Editor’s code of conduct exist so that we should not – in theory – ever be exposed journalists twisting the facts of a story beyond credibility just so that it fits in with the newspaper’s editorial line.
But this is precisely the situation we find ourselves in. Public debate and political discourse no longer concerns itself with what stories are in the news, but rather what propaganda the influential newspapers are currently pushing. We therefore have constant inaccuracies or distortions serving as the basis for public, political debate which serves no-one but the press that created them. Or, at least, given how close some relationships between the politicians and newspaper owners / editors are it does make you wonder if the agreement is rather more mutually beneficial than the press would have you believe.
I think the depressing reality is that at the moment the whole power, weight and influence of the press is only challenged by a handful of bloggers and a small media section in the Guardian. The PCC has shown – repeatedly – that they cannot effectively even blunt the torrent of lies, abuse and invasion that is carried out every day in the pursuit of newspaper sales or a political-corporate agenda.
Newspapers have shown that they are quite prepared to destroy people’s reputations and lies and will pick up the legal bill at the end of it rather than behave decently in the first place. They have also shown that it is no longer about the press admitting to making genuine mistakes – which they are often happy to do – but rather that they are happy to make the editorial decision that lies are now perfectly acceptable to be printed as news – whether it be a front page lead story or a throwaway few paragraphs elsewhere in the newspaper.
The real key – it seems to me – to selling newspapers is to lie and to lie brazenly, repeatedly and in order to stir up as much outrage and hatred as possible. It is this that the Leveson inquiry must deal with, because – quite simply – there is no-one else that can.