As the media world collectively holds its breath for Lord Justice Leveson’s report into the practices and ethics of the press this afternoon after his lengthy, mind-numbing and expensive inquiry (while ordinary people shrug their shoulders), it’s tempting to resist joining the UK commentariat’s headlong rush into an op-ed frenzy. But I can’t help it.
Firstly, this is about political power, not just journalism. Far from being a media story, despite its genesis in the wrong-doings of a handful of reporters, from its inception the Leveson Inquiry has been a political exercise. What we are witnessing is the redrawing of boundaries between political elites – three wings of Britain’s most powerful people: the political executive, in the shape of David Cameron’s Tories and Parliament generally; the fourth estate and its supposed role in a functioning democracy, and the police and judiciary.
Perhaps the most damaging thing to emerge from the News of the World phone-hacking scandal was not the sheer number of people involved nor the fudging, obfuscation and temporary amnesia of News International senior management when repeatedly and doggedly questioned on the matter, but the closeness of media executives to political executives. Cameron and Brooks’ embarrassing texts and mutual support, Horsegate and most importantly Jeremy Hunt effectively campaigning in secret for Rupert Murdoch’s bid for all of BSkyB all showed up a far more cosy relationship than many had imagined.
Is it too conspiratorial to imagine the 86 MPs vigorously opposing state regulation may not just ideologically believe in a free press, but also want to curry favour with powerful media figures?
Similarly, on the flipside of the argument, left-leaning activists – who would like nothing more than for Rupert Murdoch and his fellow press barons to magically disappear, leaving a so-far undefined journalistic fantasy utopia – argue that press regulation is necessary.
Tabloid scourge and part-time bumbling funnyman Hugh Grant says this explicitly, calling for current media owners to be cut out of the picture and for newspapers to be run “by the people". Labour leader Ed Miliband and Lib Dem deputy PM Nick Clegg are both keen for Leveson’s recommendations to be carried out in full, including expected statutory underpinning. Neither would suffer from the curbing of right-wing media of the UK.
In any case, these are the machinations of Westminster, not of media policy.
Press freedom, or freedom to make money from scandal?
Press freedom and the public’s right to know are occasionally invoked by media owners when they’re in a regulatory pickle but essentially this is about business. Newspapers want to be able to publish whatever they want without having to answer to a regulator all the time or – even worse – have something preemptively censored by strict rules, like with Ofcom’s statutory Code of Conduct. Tabloid newspapers and some magazines make money from scandalous pictures and salacious stories and that niche is being threatened by the looming possibility of state regulation.
The less interesting and sexy tabloids become, the smaller their audience gets. This trend is well under way already but might only get worse if a sharp-toothed regulator forced editors to get a confirmation or even permission every time they ran a controversial or damaging story about someone, as some press reform activists have demanded.
Although, given that the Big Four populist newspaper groups, News International, Express Group, Associated Newspapers and Mirror Group Newspapers collectively paid out £600,000 to the parents of missing girl Madeline McCann for publishing a string of false stories over many weeks, and The Sun just this week paid out £400,000 to X Factor judge Louis Walsh, it might even save them money in the long term.
More than regulation – what about existence?
Lastly, there is a genuine existential threat to newspapers and it seems perverse that the public debate hasn’t touched on this directly. I won’t labour the oft-heard point that print circulation is in terminal decline and will cease to be the main profit-driver for news publishers within the next 20 years – our research shows that national newspaper circulation, at current rates, will have fallen by 45 percent between 2007 and 2017. Print advertising is going the same way, eventually. But whatever Leveson unveils today, the more print-focused its recommendations, the more redundant it will be.
Emily Bell and others have successfully argued the point that any national legislation is redundant in an international, internet-driven media economy. The interweb is a little bit more than an “elephant in the room”, your honour.
In a society where 80 percent of all households have a broadband connection (95 percent in households with children), it matters not what UK regulators decide we can and cannot see. When newspapers where debating whether to display Prince Harry’s royal derrière back in silly season August, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people had already seen it free of charge, on TMZ.
Take for example the evidence of Martin Clarke, the head honcho at dailymail.co.uk, the more sexy and lively online sister product of the venerable Daily Mail and probably the most-read news website in the English-speaking world. He said (via Guardian):
“You can’t really slice and dice the internet up into different bits. People consume the internet as a kind of continuous spectrum. They’ll get up, look at their friend Facebook’s page, they then follow somebody on Twitter who has also published something… Stephen Fry has nearly 4 million (Twitter) users. He can reach more people in an hour than I can. So is he going to be regulated?"
(A note of caution on the print-is-dead meme: it's dying a lot slower than many people had thought according to the NRS data released this year).
But after all the shouting, paranoia, propaganda… David Cameron called for this inquiry and it’s up to him what he does with it – which could well be absolutely nothing (remember all the promises made in Labour’s Digital Britain report?).
But for now let’s see what the report says.