The media’s reporting of the politic of press regulation shames it. It demonstrates a hypocrisy and abuse of power it would not tolerate in others. With each new editorial it’s credibility and reputation slip further.
My head is spinning cartwheels at the media reaction to any suggestion that they have any responsibility to society other than the minimum required by criminal law. The nation’s newspaper proprietors have got together and decided that not only do they have no question to answer on anything other than direct crimes but that they are the single most important aspect of democracy. Much more important than democratically elected governments. Because without them democracy couldn’t function. Freedom of expression (they’ve rolled back a bit from ‘freedom of the press’) is priority number one for any human.
The layer upon layer of wilful failure to see flaws in this argument is disturbing. Let’s take an initial test of the argument. How many comments, quotes, commentaries or contributions of any description did the usually admirable Sunday Herald run today which countered it’s self-interested campaigning editorial position? Answer – zero. Any desire to see greater pressure put on the newspaper industry to act competently (never mind responsibly) is either a complete fabrication and held by no human in Scotland or the newspaper deliberately chose to censor it. Since I have written on this on a number of occasions for over ten years, I know there is at least one person. I don’t think I’m alone from the conversations I’ve had.
Sunday Herald, lecture me not about censorship while presenting only one half of the debate.
Next I want to take head-on the core argument that without a ‘free press’ Scottish (and British) democracy would fail to operate. The idea behind this is that without a press willing to break free from a sycophantic adherence to the views of the ruling classes in society, no organs of power will ever uncover the giant, unspoken scandals which destroy society. As these newspapers have all been quick to point out, if it wasn’t for them we’d have gone into a war in Iraq believing there were weapons of mass destruction, we’d have had a massive financial crash because no newspaper was willing to challenge the orthodoxy of the City of London, we’d have people eating horse burgers because no-one did a decent investigative job on the UK food industry. And so on.
Except the media has made the generalised point (we are here to save you) but have turned up only two examples I can see. One is MPs expenses (like that was the big democratic failure of the last decade) and the other is Cardinal O’Brien or some other sex allegations. The former is true, and yet of marginal significance. The latter is wholly false – not one of these newspapers challenged O’Brien while he was hypocritically lecturing us about our sexual behaviours. In fact, they granted him a deference way beyond anything merited by his words. The media did not hold O’Brien to account; the media made him, hanging on each burst of homophobia to emerge from his mouth. It was four brave priests who brought him down by complaining to the Vatican. At best the media accelerated matters and avoided a cover-up. This was not investigative journalism.
On the really big issues of democratic failure in the last ten years, most of the media not only failed the nation, they were actively complicit in the failures.
For years and years I had conversations with journalists telling them they were living in an alternative universe if they really believed Britain was in rude economic health. I briefed on unsustainable borrowing and the risks of finance capitalism. These points are taken now as significant aspects of the democratic debate, but only now that it is too late to do anything about it. At the time they were ignored. There was more done in relation to the Iraq war and some pretty brave media reaction. But remember that the only people to this day who suffered in the media from reporting of Iraq were opponents – Piers Morgan (like him or not) ran an admirable campaign in the Mirror until he was ousted over one inaccurate story which was nothing like as inaccurate as the pro-war press ran, and then of course there was Greg Dyke and Andrew Gilligan who lost jobs for correctly reporting that UK claims on weapons of mass destruction were at best greatly exaggerated.
Meanwhile, the media has acted as non-stop activist for decades. The Sun, the Mail, the Express and (in slightly different ways) the Telegraph and the Times have run a campaign which has been to the right of any major UK political party for 30 years. This isn’t reporting, this is political campaigning. Why is it important to democracy that the line between ‘news’ and ‘political campaigning’ must never be drawn? Why should ‘news’ be allowed to assimilate and protect opinion irrespective of accuracy or truth? I don’t think anyone is suggesting that it should be illegal to go down to the pub and claim that Britain is facing an HIV epidemic because of immigrants – but since it isn’t true I’m suggesting that there might be a case for asking whether the Express should be running it as a front page news story.
What perhaps upsets me most about this is that our hypocrisy-finders-in-cheif (many of whom I greatly respect) have no qualms about their own hypocrisy over this. Imagine a political party using legislation to benefit the financial interests of the party itself without a clear declaration of conflict of interests. Yet I haven’t yet found a single disclaimer which says even something as mild as ‘while we believe our editorial position to be true and correct, we think it appropriate to point out that our opposition to these proposals are likely to be in our future financial interests and we declare this so you as readers are able to take a balanced view of our opinions’. Imagine Rob Edward’s reaction if he discovered that fish farmers were to be allowed a veto on any member of SEPA (which regulates them). The Sunday Herald is defending that position for itself. Imagine if an NHS scandal with resulted in deaths was defended on the basis that ‘no criminal law was broken so no action will be taken’. I doubt Tom Gordon would buy that line. But that is the line that has been taken by the UK press.
I’m setting aside here the big issues – ownership, accuracy, social benefit – and instead taking the newspapers only at their word. In other places I have gone on over and over about the fact that we DON’T have a free press – it is owned at great cost and funded largely by advertisers. Unless you have A LOT of money, the press is a closed shop and you’re not allowed in. I note that there is no legal requirement to tell the truth in a newspaper – telling outright, knowing lies is entirely fine unless it is defamatory to an individual. The PCC is there to make sure there are no meaningful sanctions.
I’m not here going to repeat my personal views on what needs to be done. I avoid putting these here partly because my views are quite radical but mainly because this isn’t about me. I don’t want to wake up with anything I write in this blog being the subject of a media hate campaign. I want only to challenge head on the exact terms of debate as set out by the media. And I have to do it here because I have had very, very little luck in pitching any kind of writing challenging the proprietors’ orthodoxy in a national newspaper.
That I have to read liberal commentators defending the fact that you are more likely to have an accurate view of world events if you read nothing than if you read certain newspapers (this has been proved conclusively a number of times) bothers me. If all this vaunted ‘freedom’ is so absolutely essential, why is it that even post-Hutton, post-Saville, we still trust the BBC more than any of the print media? How do they manage to produce better news than you all if regulation is the end of journalism?
Make no mistake – I know you all rely on your proprietors for your jobs. I am not having a go personally at any of you. I realise the editorial pressure that will have been put on you. But I have read nothing in the Scottish press about this debate which does not shame you on lack of balance, lack of declaration of self interest or blatant use of media ownership to pursue what may be purely commercial interests.
During the Oscars, satirical US web-mag The Onion crossed a line with a tweet it put out which was neither funny or appropriate. From a source which is notably high-minded it was an aberration. One tweet in response said only ‘for the first time in 20 years we’re on the moral high-ground over the Onion’. Today I feel like that over the whole Scottish print media – all my respect for the good you have done is tainted by behaviour reminiscent of those you have pursued with the greatest zeal.
Of course, you’ll have to read this blog or others similar to hear this half of the argument. Freedom of the press? What a nice idea.