So, the report of the Leveson Inquiry will be published next Thursday and, already, the dead tree press has worked itself up into a frenzy of shrill hysteria with everything from dire warnings that the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse will surely be let loose on Fleet Street should Leveson conclude that even the merest hint of statutory regulation is an appropriate response to their recent misdeeds and the obligatory 10-page hatchet job on one of Leveson’s advisors in the Daily Mail.
It’s the end of the world as they know it – and frankly, I feel fine.
At stake, if one were to believe Fleet Street’s early morning bullshit chorus, is the much vaunted ‘Freedom of the Press’ but what, exactly, does that mean? What is this freedom that they’re talking about?
I’ll get to that in a minute, but what I can say right now what it definitely isn’t is anything that press would like you to think it is.
What the press would like you believe is that the freedoms they’re seeking defend are, amongst other things, freedom from political interference and the freedom to investigate and make public the misdeeds of the ‘powers that be’, to expose corruption in criminality in high places. None of this will be least bit affected by the introduction of independent press regulation with statutory underpinnings. Statutory is not the ‘dirty word’ that the press would have you believe – that’s a myth that David Allen Green roundly debunked only a few weeks ago.
No, there are but two ‘freedoms’ that the press – and especially the tabloid and mid-market national titles – are desperate to protect, these being:
1. The freedom to generate revenue by facilitating and exploiting public voyeurism.
Where would the4 Daily Mail be without its notorious sidebar of shame?
Certainly not amongst the top 100 websites in the United States in terms of online traffic, where it currently sits in 94th place in Alexa’s US rankings (and 14th place in the UK, where its topped only by the BBC and the true internet giants – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, E bay, etc.).
The nature of the Daily Mail’s business model is easily revealed using its own on-site search engine, which is powered by Google.
The biggest political story of the last few years that fits bill for ‘holding the political classes to account’ defence of press freedom is, of course, the MPs’ expenses ‘scandal’ for which a search on the Mail’s website returns a total of 2748 articles. A search for the word ‘Kardashian’ – the name of grossly overexposed family of talent-free exhibitionists – will, however, net you a total of 3186 articles and 81 photo galleries. Suri Cruise, the six year old daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes racks up a total of 884 articles and 9 photo galleries despite the fact that the Press Complaints Commission’s Editors’ Code of Practice states that:
Editors must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child’s private life.
Anyone care for a few more examples?
– Rihanna – 2640 articles, 50 photo galleries.
– Lady Gaga – 2491 articles, 48 photo galleries.
– X-Factor – 9960 articles, 21 photo galleries.
– TOWIE – 1991 articles, 4 photo galleries.
– Britney Spears – 2869 articles, 68 photo galleries.
– Katie Price – 2329 articles, 49 photo galleries.
To put all that in perspective, Theresa May, the current Home Secretary racks up only 2116 articles while William Hague was thought worthy of mentioning on just 2596 occasions while the term ‘WAG’, which really is scraping right through the bottom of the ‘celebrity’ barrel and several feet into the concrete beneath, racks up 2633 articles.
The core tabloid/mid-market business model amongst the UK’s national daily papers is, in essence, little different from that of the likes of Ben Dover, Jim Slip and Babestation. It feeds the public’s voyeuristic appetites and reaps the rewards in terms of driving to traffic to its websites in order generate revenue from advertising, even if that sometimes means describing 14-year old Elle Fanning in the following manner (with photos, naturally – several photos).
The 14-year-old took to Instagram to share a photograph of her Halloween outfit and wasn’t afraid to flaunt her curves for the camera.
Elle was a posing professional as she wore a metallic maxi dress which looked rather demure at first glance.
Although it covered up her chest area and thighs, the design featured a high split which allowed her to pop her leg out of the side.
When she turned around, flesh was on show as the cut-out material scooped to just above her derrière and featured clasps which fastened at the centre of her neck.
The Mail has, of course, no shortage of form for this kind of thing and frequently seeks to justify its photographic pandering by claiming that its it only trying to show it;s readers what they should be outrage by. This odd and utterly hypocritical mindset would, one would assume, explain why, back in September, the Mail chose to illustrate an article attacking internet sites that publish ‘creepshots’ with a set of four photographs taken from one of the websites the paper was, ostensibly, attacking, photographs that it took all of 15 hours to remove from the article.
The phone-hacking scandal, which formed the centrepiece of the Leveson Inquiry, is ultimately, of course, about privacy and the lengths that parts of the tabloid press have been prepared to go to to obtain private information in order to keep its voyeuristic reader supplied with celebrity scuttlebutt in order to keep the money rolling in.
What the tabloids and mid-market titles fear most, here, is that an independent press regulator might just take a very different view the right to privacy, one that holds that even public figures have a right to go about their day to day lives without the tabloids shadowing and reporting their every move and, frankly, that would be an innovation in press regulation that I would personally welcome.
It should be remembered that some of the activities that tabloid journalists and members of paparazzi engage in, as a matter of routine, would, if there were carried out by private citizens, likely result in criminal charges – and I don’t just mean things like phone-hacking. One of the long-standing staples of tabloid photo-‘journalism’ is the long-lens image of holidaying celebrities in various states of undress; bikini shots, images of topless sunbathing and even the occasion full nude. A private citizen caught taking those same type of images with a telephoto lens, at least in this country, fully expect to arrested and charged under section 67 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (voyeurism) on the assumption that the images were taken for the purposes of sexual gratification and not for commercial gain.
So, the freedom to continue to derive revenue from a quasi-pornographic business model is one thing that the dead tree press is desperate to protect – what’s the other key ‘freedom’ they’re scared of losing?
2. The ‘freedom’ to influence the political process by rousing the mob.
Forget cosy country suppers with the Prime Minister or beer and sandwiches at Number 10, the real manner in which the press exerts a significant, and often malign, influence over the political process is through their ability to rouse the mob into a state of fury sufficient to see many of them reaching for their torches and pitchforks and it frequently wields this power by mean of deliberately misleading its readers and distorting the facts to suit well-established but factually inaccurate political narratives.
The fear that the press has here is that an independent regulator, operating outside their control, might just be that bit more assiduous in enforcing clause 1 of the current Editors’ Code of Practice.
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published. In cases involving the Commission, prominence should be agreed with the PCC in advance.
iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
iv) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.
Worse still, an independent regulator might well be less inclined to tolerate the many shady practices that newspapers routinely engage in in order to conceal and cover up their mistakes, from the weasel words that make up the overwhelming majority of published corrections and retractions in certain newspapers to the still too common and dishonest online practices of stealth editing articles, failing to link notifications of corrections to online articles to original article and burying correction notices in niches sections of newspaper’s websites, in some cases in sections aimed primarily at foreign visitors to the site – and again, the Daily Mail is, of course, amongst the worst offenders.
In truth, the lowest point in the sorry history of the Press Complaints Commission has not been the phone-hacking scandal – one cannot reasonably blame the PCC for failing to deal effectively with criminal conduct when it was not set up for that purpose in the first place and was, therefore, wholly lacking in the powers necessary to conduct an effective investigation. The real low point came, in fact, in December 2010 in an adjudication in which it cravenly accepted what has come to be referred to, by bloggers, as the ‘Richard Littlejohn defence’.
The facts of this case are simple. In September 2010, the Daily Mail published a column by Richard Littlejohn in which included the following statements:
“During the General Election campaign, David Cameron promised that his government would help people who did the right thing. How does that square with the news that Lance Corporal Craig Baker and his family have been refused a council house after he returned home to Bracknell following a tour of duty in Afghanistan? Especially as any Afghan climbing off the back of a lorry in Dover goes automatically to the top of the housing list.”
Quite obvious the assertion that ‘any Afghan climbing off the back of a lorry in Dover goes automatically to the top of the housing list’ is statement of fact, not opinion and on that basis a blogger complained to the PCC about Littlejohn’s article citing clause 1 of the Editors’ code of practice.
A little over two months later, the PCC issued an adjudication in which it rejected the complaint, giving the following argument as justification for its decision.
The Commission acknowledged the complainant’s concern over the statement; however, it had to consider the remark in the context of the article in which it appeared. The article had been clearly presented as a comment piece, in which the columnist expressed his concern that a soldier who had served in Afghanistan had not been granted a council house. The Commission considered that the columnist had exaggerated and simplified the example of housing immigrants for the purpose of stressing his assertion that the “system of government exists simply to punish those who do the right thing”. It emphasised that the newspaper should take care when using such rhetorical methods of expression that readers would not be misled into understanding that they reflected statements of fact.
In this instance, on balance it considered that readers would be aware that the columnist was not accurately reflecting the government’s policy on the housing of immigrants, but that he was making an amplified statement for rhetorical effect. It was therefore the Commission’s view that, on this occasion, readers generally would not be misled in such a way as to warrant correction under the terms of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code of Practice.
So, in the eyes of the PCC, newspapers are not obliged to correct inaccurate statements of fact included in opinion columns where, in the PCC’s sole opinion, it should obvious to the paper’s readers that the columnist is full of shit.
This adjudication, of course, pre-dates the Leveson Inquiry, the announcement of which was made in July 2011.
In September 2011, the PCC received a very similar complaint to that which gave rise to the Littlejohn defence. Again the issue was the accuracy of factual statements included in an opinion column, one in which Melanie Phillips regurgitated the Winterval Myth. On this occasion, however. the Mail, itself, took a very different view of the need for factual accuracy in opinion columns with the result that, in December 2011 (only five days before the Leveson Inquiry began its public hearings’ the following correction appeared in the newspaper:
We stated in an article on 26 September that Christmas has been renamed in various places Winterval. Winterval was the collective name for a season of public events, both religious and secular, which took place in Birmingham in 1997 and 1998. We are happy to make clear that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas.
One very noticeable feature of both these stories is the length of time it took to obtain a correction – or not, in the case Littlejohn’s article. Under the existing PCC system, obtaining even a simple correction to a seemingly innocuous error of fact can take several months, as illustrated here by the five months it took Full Fact to get the Daily Mail to correct a front page article which had erroneously claimed that the UK spends more in on international aid, as a percentage of ‘national income’, than any other country. The delay in this case is, of course, directly attributable to the fact that the truth didn’t fit with the Mail’s preferred narrative, in this case rousing the mob against the UK spending money on other countries during a period of austerity in the UK and delays of this kind have, as many will testify, been a routine feature of their dealings with the PCC over years because delaying corrections so they appear long after the point at which readers will be able to easily connect the correction to the original article is just one of many ways in which newspapers routinely bury their mistakes.
Why this should be the case should be obvious – a newspaper that gains a reputation for misleading its readers and distorting the facts will, inevitably, see its ability to fire up the mob decline over time as its readers cotton on to the fact that they are being lied to on a routine and regular basis, and a newspaper that loses that ability loses, also, its political influence. One cannot influence politicians with ‘populist’ arguments if its readily apparent that those arguments lack popular support. A newspaper that fails to create the impression that it speaks for its readers, speaks only for itself and consequently has no political influence whatsoever, a lesson that is perhaps best exemplified by the Morning Star.
A newspaper’s ‘freedom’ to lie to its readers and get away with it, more often than not, is the foundation on which its political influence is based. If it cannot poison the well of public debate, it has no influence whatsoever on matters where the material facts inconveniently fail to support its political agenda and, in this, what the newspapers fear most about the prospect of independent regulation is that they may no longer be able to delay and dissemble their way out trouble when they get caught bullshitting their readers if the regulator insists on corrections being made promptly, transparently and with a degree of prominence equivalent that given to the original article to which the correct relates.
Those, dear readers, are the ‘freedoms. that the dead tree press are most desperate to protect although neither are, in truth, freedoms – they are prerogatives, specifically the ‘prerogative(s) of the harlot through out the ages’ as Baldwin memorably characterised the dead tree presses’ overweening desire for ‘power without responsibility’ or, indeed, accountability.
What the public desire, however, in the wake of Leveson is best illustrated by a very different press-related quotations, Wellington’s response to the threatened publication of his mistress, Harriet Wilson’s, memoirs – “Publish and be damned”.
Of course, a press that serves the highest ideals of the Fourth Estate and the public interest, on which the legitimate justifications for press freedom are founded, need not fear being damned by their public output, save by those who, themselves, fully deserve public damnation much as journalist’s vehement opposition to any degree of independent regulation and their efforts to derail Leveson before his report has even been published has much to tell us about how journalists see themselves and their own industry.