The press likes nothing more than talking about itself and acres of newsprint have been devoted to the debate on whether statutory underpinning is tantamount to the end of a free press as we know it.
As so often happens when a scandalous event takes place, two quite different issues have been conflated which may lead us to a result with many unintended consequences. Remember the Dangerous Dogs Act? The problem was the owners, not the dogs.
The problem facing the newspaper industry is not the threat to the freedom of the press, but the damage being done to the fourth estate by the insidious publishing of distortions and untruths. It infects everything that newspapers do. From the language they use (take a look at David Higgerson’s entertaining list of daft and distorting vocabulary used by newspapers).
None of this will be fixed by press regulation, underpinned or otherwise. The worst cases of press excess, which the Leveson proposals are supposed to police, are just gross symptoms of an endemic disrespect for the profession of journalism.
I am reminded of the wonderful conversation between the idealistic reporter and the wife of the mine owner in Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day. She says to him: “I am with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.”
How true. All sides of the debate agree we want a free press, so it seems an odd solution that the remedy is to constrain it through legislation. After all, most of the appalling behavior of the press, police and politicians described in the Leveson evidence was already illegal.
What readers really don’t like is the sneering manipulation of headlines and stories to twist and pervert the truth in the interests of better sales (not a strategy that seems to be working too well!). There are examples every day of stories that undermine readers faith in quality journalism; examples where an intelligent reading of the headline should provoke a response which says: “That’s obviously bollocks.” And it’s not only the tabloids that do it. Take this headline from The Telegraph, for example: “Almost three quarters of Britons update social networks from bed”. No they don’t.
Or the endless examples of churnalism, where press releases are routinely cut and pasted into stories. (The fascinating Churnalism.com shows you how to spot them) These sorts of practices continuously drip doubt into the minds of readers that newspapers are not the bastions of truth and quality journalism that they claim.
The idealistic journalist in Night and Day says in reply to the mine owner’s wife: “You don’t have to tell me, I know it better than you – the celebration of inanity, and the way real tragedy is paraphrased into an inflationary spiral of hackneyed melodramas: Beauty Queen In Tug-of Love Baby Storm… Tug-of-Love Baby Mum In Pools Win… Pools Man In Beauty Queen Drug Quiz. I know. It’s the price you pay for the part that matters.”
It turns out he is wrong. The celebration of inanity is not the price we pay for the good stuff; it’s the cancer that destroys readers’ faith in newspapers as a force for good.
So the victory for the press is not in seeing off statutory underpinning, but rather seeing the malaise in journalism for what it is. A poisonous infection of inanity and untruths that clouds the best of what journalism can do. Until or unless that is fixed, newspaper owners pleading for a free press is little more persuasive than the pimp arguing for sexual freedom.