How the free press threatens the UK’s media and political establishment

Free twitter badge

Free twitter badge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we await the Leveson report, expected later this year, the debate over press regulation has intensified.  The allegations that have emerged after the Jimmy Savile investigations, Tom Watson’s question in Parliament, the resignation of the Director General of the BBC, and the furore over the unsubstantiated allegations about Lord McAlpine have increased the focus and stakes in the debate.

The overriding message presented is that press regulation will destroy the United Kingdom’s tradition of a free press. One would be led to believe, that the journalists working for large media corporations were individual, independent, bloggers struggling to uphold the public interest and reveal the truth in the face of a crushing censorship. We see a strange dichotomy, a desire to restrain journalism by the blog or twitter (they are dangerous amateurs) while defending the august, professional journalist from press regulation. Journalists and politicians are uniting to protect the free press from political regulation. Yet, the so-called threat to the free press is a myth.

The real threat is that a truly free press is emerging to challenge media and political establishments.  For the first time in the United Kingdom, we can see what a free press might mean.  The media corporation and the political establishment, long wedded in a corrupt covenant of political influence want to stop it. To the extent that the free press is emerging and forcing the media corporations to adapt, the Leveson Inquiry may be overtaken by events.  The regulations that it may propose are for a dying industry and an outdated business model.  Even if regulations were proposed, they would have to avoid the being diluted or delayed by politicians who benefit from the media establishment, the regulations.  The groundwork for that political effort is already underway, as the claims that a free press is under threat grow louder and more insistent. The claims belie the fact that the media and the political establishment face a structural problem in their relationship that will not survive the post-Leveson era. The relationship cannot avoid regulation because the Leveson Inquiry has shown the corrupt relationship between politicians, the press and the police. Yet, they cannot adapt to the challenge from the free press. On the one hand, they cannot fight regulation of the establishment media while at the same time demanding regulation of the free press.

The free press is challenging and changing the political and media establishment in three main areas.

The public interest is more than the domain of media corporations.

In a democracy, the media use the power of the public interest to help guard the public. In this role, they support the public good.  To be effective, the public must trust them to work in the public’s interest, not their personal or corporate interests.  When the BBC failed to broadcast a programme of public interest and then compounded that error by broadcasting a flawed programme, it undermined the public’s trust. In response, the BBC leadership recognised the problem and began the work to rebuild the public’s trust in the integrity of its journalism. To sustain the trust, journalists and media corporations need to display a higher level of integrity regarding the stories they pursue in the public interest.  When journalists or the media corporations using the public interest to further their personal or corporate interests, the integrity is broken and trust disappears.

Regulation is not about control, it is about accountability. When the press use the public interest, they need to justify their actions.  What is clear is that the public want accountability beyond circulation figures. The false belief that the “market” regulates the media is built on the idea that circulation determines the public interest.  If it is popular, it must be right.  Such an approach requires the public to know what is being done in their name. Yet, the illegal phone hacking and payments to the police were unknown to the public, yet done in their name. The danger is not bias within the news. Instead, it is that the media companies use journalism to further its corporate interests and justify it as the public interest.

What is changing is that the public though through the free press, can comment on and shape the public interest. The public now have a voice and they want to be heard.  They no longer want their voice to be translated by the mainstream media corporations.  The public are beginning to realise they can influence the government by social media networks.  They do not need the mainstream media to make those through their social networks.  While the social networks will never replace media corporations, or the professional journalist in their role, they are challenging them for power and influence.  The public, using a free press, create uncertainty and challenge the relationship between the press and the political establishment.

A free press to serve the public interest or the establishment interest?

For many commentators who benefit from the relationship between the press and the politicians, Twitter appears like an unruly and unreasonable mob. Some have commented that it is time to regulate twitter and all social media, especially in times of unrest.  The focus is misplaced as you regulate institutions and you police mobs. In both situations, the issue is not about “free speech”, but the extent to which that free speech is accountable.  Twitter plays to the passions, the topical, and the ephemeral of the public domain.  By contrast, the press are media corporations, working to further their corporate interests.  The corporations are not created to serve the public interest; they are not elected to serve the public interest; they designed to serve their shareholders.  Media corporations use journalists and journalism to make money. Media companies are not run as charities and they can, and do, go out of business. The circulation is the bottom line, not the public interest. The issue is not about free speech or even a free press but who decides the public interest.

The regulation is about the media companies wanting to protect their political influence. The origin of the term “the free press” as explained by David Allan Green’s article helps us to understand the issue.  Media is now a business; they no longer have the same essential nature of the pamphleteers of the early age of print.  Blogs and Twitter are closer to the ideal of a free press.  As such, they wield a different type of political influence because they express the public interest in a different way. Even though social media trends may reflect what is popular, social media is a source of what the public thinks on a topic. Newspapers can no longer claim that they alone speak for their readers. Now, the readers can, and do, speak for themselves.

Before the Leveson Inquiry, most people would have believed that journalist and the media corporations served the public interest first then their corporate interests.  The idea was that the journalists investigate stories and their company either publishes the stories or drops the stories “in the public interest”. The editor and the journalists would be guided by the public interest when they decide to investigate someone or some issue.  The stories justify their judgements about their use of the public interest. Trading stories for access, or dropping stories, was rarely seen or known by the public, yet it was done in the public interest. Little, if any, transparency existed about the public interest decision making by editors or journalists except for what the media company decided to reveal.  The public rarely saw the process by which the journalist and their editor determined the public interest before publishing or dropping a story in the public interest.

What has also changed is that media companies have lost their public interest roots as they seek profits as part of the larger entertainment industry.  The Daily Mail’s success exemplifies this change.  The Daily Mail has overtaken the New York Times as the largest circulation based largely on the success of its celebrity gossip pages.  While the Daily Mail online attracts audience and builds market share, its function is more for the public appetite than the public interest.  Journalism, like their corporate parents, increasingly relies upon the entertainment business.  Their company profits from celebrity gossip and news so their work is focused in that area. Yet, their success with celebrity gossip undermines the claims to work in the public interest. Instead, the focus becomes the circulation figures and the need to give material or content that panders to the public’s appetite increases.

The blogger, by contrast, does not have an immediate corporate interest to satisfy. They are not searching for profits or for access to the rich, powerful, or the celebrity. Although they may have a personal or political interest in their work, their focus and interest is closer to the ideal of the public interest. The bloggers can raise and sustain the public interest in stories long after the mainstream media have moved on to the next story. For example, the Lance Armstrong story was pursued by bloggers while the mainstream media were scared to investigate for fear of lawsuits and pressure from the negative publicity associated with questioning a celebrity hero.

Self-regulation has failed in the UK media.

The drive to regulate the UK media is not about curbing the freedom of press, or silencing particular journalists. Instead, the industry has failed to regulate itself. Self-regulation has failed repeatedly and systemically in large part because it was based on a flawed relationship between the press, the politicians, and the police. In a corrupt reciprocal relationship, the press traded access to each institution while providing positive or negative coverage depending on the agreed arrangement. In industries that are self-regulating, like the press or hedge funds, research has shown that “rogue” employees are more prevalent. The self-regulation is reflected in poor managerial oversight, or worse a management structure that encourages excessive risk taking, so that problems occur. The more an industry relies on self-regulation, the less it will manage the risks associated with that behaviour.  Instead, an external standard is needed that creates the risk framework for structure and guidance. What is also needed is for the laws to be enforced around the corrupt and illegal behaviour associated with the worst forms of tabloid journalism.  In many ways, if the laws had been enforced, the problems would never have become systemic.  The goal is not to police each story, but to change how they decide the public interest.  One way to do this is to have the media corporations prepare, internally, their own public interest test.  They would prepare their own understanding of the public interest in the story. Once the story was published, they could file that public interest test with the regulator.  If the story was challenged, then the regulator could go to the public interest test and not wait for a defence to be built after the fact in the courts. If the story had credibility before it was published, it would have credibility after it was published.

The editor’s self-restraint, it would seem, was guided more by the strength of their legal team and the size of their legal budget, than by a concern for the public interest.  By contrast, Twitter and other social media sites have been policed effectively by the threat of legal action.  The bloggers who were publishing allegations about a senior politician were served defamation notices.  If they did not withdraw their posts they would be sued. They complied by removing the post.  In this case, the threat of legal action policed the bloggers.  Two issues emerge here which highlight the problem with the media and political establishment.  First, the bloggers were afraid of the law, they feared the law would be enforced.  In the News of the World Scandal, the press appeared complicit in failing to enforce the laws. As Ian Hislop pointed out in his testimony to the Leveson Inquiry, there are laws in place to stop the illegal behaviour. Why were those laws not enforced?  The second issue shows a different approach to institutional power. The bloggers did not have any more proof than someone’s allegations. If they had more proof, they could stick by their story and publish the proof.

The media corporations have more power (connections as well as circulation) and more resources (money and lawyers) to promote and defend their stories. The media corporation, unlike the blogger, can use these resources to intimidate the ordinary citizen.  The political and media establishments protect themselves with the power of the public interest.  In some situations, an extraordinary individual like Mr Mosley (one with the money and the willingness to fight the case publicly) can win a court case. The cost though is higher than ordinary citizen can afford.  Few social media users have large legal teams or legal budgets to deal with threatened legal action.  As a result, their reaction is immediate. When the Cabinet Office served defamation orders on bloggers, they responded quickly. The BBC and others responded to Lord McAlpine’s threatened libel legal action.  The response on Twitter and on blogs is remarkably different from the approach by the News of the World or even the Sun.  The New of the World contested their case against Max Mosley to the European High Court.  The Sun refused to apologise for the Hillsborough headline for 23 years until unimpeachable evidence was published.

The evidence showed the dishonesty of the Sun’s headline. It also revealed the corrupt covenant between the press, police, and politicians. The same corrupt relationship that the Leveson Inquiry has explored. The police doctored statements. Senior officers fabricated allegations about the Liverpool fans. The Hillsborough Inquiry revealed these issues and more about the corrupt relationship between the South Yorkshire Police and the media.  The case shows the flawed relationship between the media and the political establishment.  They served each other’s institutional interests and failed to protect the public interest.  The truth was not revealed for 23 years.  Two institutions we expect to protect the public interest protected their institutional interests and defended it as being in the public interest. They did not want justice. They did not want to be accountable to the public.  The press colluded in their injustice by failing to challenge or investigate the claims. Instead of self-regulation, integrity and honour before a higher truth, we had lies, smears, and institutional malfeasance. The people who are meant to protect it betrayed the public interest.

We are not regulating a free press we are challenging political influence

The Leveson Inquiry is not about restraining a free press. The surface issue is about accountability and responsibility within an industry that has failed at self-restraint. The claims of a threat to free press reflect the perceived threat to political influence. The media have had a major role in deciding the public interest. The politicians, the public, and the courts have let them have that role. The media corporations and their political allies, who benefit from this power, do not want their political influence over the public interest weakened.  What the free press is doing is challenging the political relationship between the media and the establishment.  Neither wants that to happen even though they want to renegotiate the relationship.

The media establishment do not want their political influence reduced. Rupert Murdoch’s testimony to the Leveson Inquiry showed the extent to which he used his media empire for political influence. To paraphrase, what is good for News International is good for the public. Stories were used to gain access or advantage over public figures. They were tools to further his interests, not the public’s interest. The issue, as such, is not whether the press should have political influence. The issue is how much influence and whether that influence should only be unaccountable.  As long as there have been newspapers, editors and proprietors have had a political influence. The influence can range from endorsing a candidate to an editorial on an issue.  They have political influence by acting as a public check on the government, the politician, or the public official.  The Leveson Inquiry is more than an investigation into the criminal acts by News of the World. Their criminal behaviour was not emulated by every media organisation. Instead, the central problem is captured by the following question. Who decides the public interest?

Who defines the public interest?

A free press has emerged.  The free press is shaking the media corporations to their core and they do not like it.  They are being attacked on two sides.  From one side the political establishment is aggressively renegotiating the relationship with the media.  Political regulation is the overt symptom of the change. On the other side, the bloggers, the tweeters, and the social media sites are the new free press.  They are challenging all the fundamental journalistic advantages once held by the media corporations. The blogger does not (yet) serve a corporate interest, which is why the politicians and the media have difficulty calculating their political influence.

We now have the dawn of a new era where a free press exists. In the UK, we are now beginning to see what a press free from political and corporate control means for the first time.  The free press of the blogger, the tweeter, the social media adventurer is arriving.  Their work may be crude, uncertain, and at times haphazard, but they are free from corporate and political interests. In that sense, they serve the public interest by serving their own interests. By contrast, the media and political establishments had both benefitted from the cosy, if at times fractious, relationship are unable to respond.  The relationship is over and the separation has grown acrimonious.  The media cannot escape the regulation nor do they have the public interest power to stop it.

Today for the first time, through social media, the public have a voice and the press and the establishment do not like what they are hearing.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
This entry was posted in censorship, Government, privacy, transparency and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.