In recent weeks, so-called press regulation in the UK has lurched a little closer to fruition. October 11 saw the publication of a proposed Royal Charter on the matter, just one day after Lord Justice Leveson’s tight-lipped turn before a Commons select committee. Almost immediately after these events, the mouth of outrage started to spew, with journalists and commentators blasting the document for seeking to muzzle the heroically free press of this country. For instance, in a column dripping with fallacy, the great public servant Paul Dacre thundered thus: ‘politicians must not be allowed anywhere near press regulation’. And an erstwhile editor of the widely mourned News of the World shook his fires too: ‘[t]he idea that politicians can have any say in any way in the running of a free press is simply laughable’.
Yet the uproar concerning press regulation is in fact much ado about nothing, because the Royal Charter is frankly useless. The British news media, which for a long time have been neither free nor fair, will be allowed to continue in their iniquity.
Any decent disquisition on the reviled Royal Charter must begin by uncovering its provenance. For years, certain elements of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire had been engaged in the illegal interception of telephone communications. Eventually, revelations of hacking tumbled out into the public arena. Little was done about them until it came to light, in July 2011, that the voicemail messages of murder victim Milly Dowler had been accessed in the wake of her abduction.
All of a sudden, the offending newspaper was closed down; David Cameron’s friend and former spokesman was arrested on suspicion of having overseen the scheme of hacking; and, most importantly, the Prime Minister declared that a public inquiry would be held regarding the culture, practices and ethics of the media.
Lord Justice Leveson, of course, was entrusted to chair it. Beginning in September 2011, he gathered evidence from hundreds of witnesses. His efforts culminated a year or so later with the publication of a rather ponderous report, in which he found, unsurprisingly, that the Press Complaints Commission was utterly ineffectual. Leveson recommended that an independent regulatory body be established in its stead, complete with the Damoclean sword of legislation. The judge also concluded that politicians of all stripes had become too close to the press.
Leveson never envisaged that a Royal Charter would be the chosen vehicle of change, but the three main parties decided on one anyway. A first draft was released in March 2013; it is on the slightly differing final version that we shall briefly train our focus.
Above all, the document proposes to establish an independent regulatory body with the powers to demand corrections and apologies, and to levy fines on errant publishers of up to a million pounds. It sanctions the creation of a new code of standards, and journalists who ‘feel that they are being asked to do things which are contrary’ to those standards will be able to find succour in the form of a whistleblowing hotline. The arbitration process for victims of media misbehaviour will be cheaper under the Charter, which also ensures that exemplary damages will be visited on non-subscribing publications.
It might seem to some that these provisions are nothing short of revolutionary. Any such assessment would be wrong. After all, the Charter will allow the industry to help author its own code of standards. Corrections will be demanded and fines levied on the basis of that code. This may serve to reduce activities like hacking, but it will not change one whit the serious, systemic problem with the British media.
For, loathsome though it is, phone hacking does not represent the worst of press conduct in this country. In reality, the most outrageous thing about the mainstream news media is the fact that they routinely and knowingly violate the sacred basic principles of journalism. Instead of holding power to account, they serve it faithfully. Instead of informing the public, they wilfully deceive us. In other words, the media do the direct opposite of what they are perceived, proclaimed and trusted to do. This can have grave and far-reaching consequences.
We may begin to disentangle the problem by asking who exactly owns our media outlets. So far as newspapers and newspaper websites are concerned, the corporations of two men — Lord Rothermere and Rupert Murdoch — each command enormous shares of the British readership. One of these barons is an avowed Tory whose flagship paper encourages the blindest jingoism, but who himself is domiciled in France, and therefore pays practically no tax at all. The other is a man of singular greed and ruthlessness, one whose power over politicians is well-known, and whose empire knows no borders. Both are billionaires. Another large chunk of the readership can be claimed by corporations owned by the Lebedevs, the Barclays and Richard Desmond, who are all just as wealthy. None of these corporations would dare to include in their media anything that went against their interests, which, as we can see, concern power and profit and nothing else. None would employ editorial staff who threatened to analyse critically the system that enthroned them and their ilk at the expense of the people they stupefy. All would instead select editors and peddle news that reflected their own agendas. In short, then, the British press cannot be considered free or fair so long as control of it is concentrated in the viscid hands of a few wealthy, profit-seeking bodies. Naturally, though, both Leveson and the Royal Charter are deathly silent on this matter.
Corporate control of the media does not — could not — stop at ownership. After all, advertising is the means by which these institutions generate most of their revenue. Of course, advertisers are usually corporations, and they therefore belong to the same dominant class and have the same basic interests as those who own the outlets in which they pay to push their wares. They necessarily receive favourable conditions for their advertisements, because the media are dependent on their money. As a result, any news becomes even more severely infected with corporate bias, and in a way is almost relegated to the incidental. Meanwhile, readers, whose attentions are bought and sold, become mere products. The prominence of advertising underlines the fact that our media are concerned not with educating us, but with generating profits and protecting their own profit-making ability in addition to that of other corporations. But unsurprisingly, despite its significance, neither Leveson nor the Royal Charter dealt with advertising at all.
Many other elements of corporate control were also left untouched by the judge in his report and by the politicians in their Charter. For example, the media often rely on political and corporate sources for their information, and portray such information as intrinsically legitimate. In doing so, they subtly narrow the framework of debate, and marginalise or forestall dissenting voices. Moreover, the media constantly condition us through linguistic sleight of hand. Whistleblowers are ‘narcissists’; drone attacks are ‘controversial’; individuals who speak out with authority against the prevailing system are derided when they are not ignored. There are numberless instances of trickery such as this, and all of it serves to keep the population cooped up within the accepted political framework. Thus the very basic principles of journalism are inevitably never honoured.
Of course, all of the above — and much else besides — was codified by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent, a seminal analysis of the structure and functioning of news media. Herman and Chomsky’s findings are not arcane conjecture; they are based on simple observation and have not yet been effectively challenged. Lord Justice Leveson, who happily believes in the illusion of a free press, would have done well to read them.
We may summarise the problem thus: a press that is wholly owned and funded by capitalists will necessarily reflect and support the capitalist agenda of power and profit. When, then, the press itself insists that it is free and fair, we can respond with the most obstreperous laughter. The Royal Charter is simply a diversionary document, mere window dressing that warrants neither applause nor hysteria.
It would be useful to identify, by way of a short postscript, two particularly egregious manifestations of the structural problem with our media.
Firstly, the sheer gravity of our ecological situation is seldom properly acknowledged in the press. The vast majority of scientists agree that human activity is driving climate change, and that such change will soon enough have catastrophic effects. Responsibility for this lies not with campesinos in Guatemala or with slum-dwellers in Mumbai. It is global corporate capitalism, in its frenzied thirst for profit, that is ravaging the Earth. Yet the media largely ignore this fact, and often hide behind a guise of balance or impartiality that involves giving deniers of climate change a considerable platform for their baseless views. The refusal of the media to expose the rapaciousness of big business is tantamount to complicity in the continuing depredation of our environment.
Secondly, the media are generally very restrained in their condemnations of Western aggression abroad. In fact, over the years, they have repeatedly supported the warmongering of politicians and corporate elites. In 2003, large sections of the press endorsed — expressly or impliedly — the barbarous and criminal invasion of Iraq. In doing so, they persuaded many ordinary people that the invasion was necessary. Now, ten years later, the same media shy away from reporting honestly on the legacy of the ‘war’; on the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis; on the birth defects that plague their children; on the lucrative contracts handed out to Western corporations for the purposes of rebuilding a land thoroughly devastated by Western governments.
Parts of the media nevertheless called for action in Libya in 2011. Their wish was granted, but Libya today is a failed state, hence its absence from the news. And, lest we forget, media bloodlust erupted again this summer, when Bashar al-Assad was supposed to have crossed a line that the Americans overshot in Fallujah. The Syrian rebels fight on against their oppressor, but their cheerless cousins in Palestine, according to the media, are militants still.