The Royal Charter does not signal the end of press freedom or licensing of the press, but neither does it deal with the question of ownership and control at the heart of the problem
There are many more significant events that should concern the left at the moment — campaigns against austerity, the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, bank runs across Europe — but the agreement in Parliament of a new system for press regulation is important for a couple of reasons.
First, it reminds us just how weak David Cameron is. Having tried to face down demands for independent press regulation in order to store up press support for the Tories in the next election, Cameron crumbled and essentially adopted the Royal Charter proposed by Labour and the Lib Dems.
Secondly, the rather hysterical reaction to the Charter from whole sections of the press is breathtaking in its hypocrisy and a reminder of why there is strong public support for a new regulatory system. Consider a recent column by the Sun’s political editor, Trevor Kavanagh. Not only does he claim that proposals for a Leveson-compliant Royal Charter ‘risk an irreparable blow to foundations of true democracy’ but he actually has the cheek to claim that the press would no longer be able to investigate things like Hillsborough – a scandal unleashed by his newspaper’s outrageous lies about the behaviour of Liverpool fans back in 1989 and a cover-up that his newspaper did nothing to reveal.
Hysteria and hypocrisy
Nick Cohen followed up his on his Observer column from 3 March where he declared his unwavering support for the Iraq War with an argument that independent press regulation is the result of what happens when ‘“progressives” run riot and smash the liberties they are meant to defend’. This is presumably in contrast to the far more progressive practices of hacking people’s phones in order to get stories that will bump up circulation, doing secret deals with the police, lobbying politicians behind closed doors and generally devoting far more resources to courting power than holding it to account.
Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph insisted that proposals to curb unethical journalism are all about the left taking its revenge on years of being marginalised and humiliated—nothing to do with any bad behaviour on the part of the press themselves. We will now apparently end up ‘with a system of press regulation that will be the most draconian of anywhere in the free world. The Americans will be gobsmacked by it; in Moscow, Harare and wherever else we like to lecture about freedom they will have a laugh.’ Yes, because up until now, no British newspaper has had anything to do with state control – except for already being subject to multiple forms of statute, from contempt of court to libel, and for happily taking some £600 million of public money in the shape of exemption from VAT.
Press power, the subject of the Leveson Inquiry and the cause of the Royal Charter, has now been mobilised to undermine the plans for regulation. The Sun talks of a ‘Ministry of Truth’ while the publishers of the Mail, Express, Telegraph, Sun and Times—usually the most staunch defenders of ‘law and order’—have now decided collectively that they may refuse to abide by the new law and boycott the new regulator. Indeed, if the Sun was so committed to human rights and social justice, why has it refused to campaign against the Justice and Security Bill which extends the use of secret courts and limits the media’s right to cover cases concerning allegations of rendition and torture?
Standing up to Fleet Street?
Thirdly, is the model of regulation contained in the Royal Charter strong enough to tackle this kind of press power? Given that Royal Charters are fundamentally undemocratic mechanisms where control is usually vested in a tiny number of ministers, you would hardly expect it to stand up the combined influence of what used to be called Fleet Street.
However, there are certainly elements of the deal that should help to iron out some of the worst examples of intrusion and inaccuracy. Ordinary journalists and members of the public will now be part of the process of drawing up a new code while preventing editors from having a veto over membership of the new regulator is already a step forward from the utterly discredited, industry-dominated Press Complaints Commission. Allowing for third party complaints is another significant step forward so that, finally, there can be more challenges to those titles that take pleasure in scapegoating and stereotyping vulnerable groups like asylum seekers and refugees. Access for ordinary people to a free arbitration system as well as the regulator’s power to insist on prominent corrections and apologies should also help to stop the most damaging excesses of sensationalist journalism.
Yes, there remain concerns about how the new regulator is going to deal with whistleblowing, data protection, journalists’ sources and now whether all news-related websites are going to be subject to the model laid out in the Charter. Given the fact that the deal was struck in private—a rather ironic reflection of the criticism made by many during the Leveson Inquiry that too many deals between press and politicians are made in secret—it is no surprise that there is confusion over whether the rules would apply to a site like Counterfire or whether they are aimed specifically at the online versions of mass-circulation titles and, as the Culture Secretary put it, at ‘news-related material in the course of a business’. The difference is crucial: it was the most powerful voices in the media who were found to have hacked phones, bribed police officers and bullied journalists and it should be they who should be subject to the new guidelines.
The final point, however, is that nothing is likely to change soon unless we change our targets. The Royal Charter doesn’t challenge the root of the problem of the arrogance, complacency and neoliberal orthodoxy of newspapers like the Mail, Sun, Express and Telegraph: the fact that the British press is dominated by a handful of giant corporations whose responsibility is not to the public but to shareholders and proprietors hungry for profits and power. Transforming the culture of the British press requires not just better codes and a more forceful means of persuading newspapers not to hack phones and bribe public officials without any evident public interest (though this would actually help journalists to write stories that tackle the powerful and don’t criminalise the vulnerable) but will involve a challenge to an ownership structure that has placed the press in the hands of a tiny group of oligarchs and moguls. How can our media be said to be genuinely free when it is subject to the diktat of men like Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre, the Barclay Brothers and Richard Desmond?
The proposals contained in the Royal Charter do not signal the end of ‘300 years of press freedom in the UK’ and do not equate to licensing of the press. However, without dealing with the question of ownership and control — that newspapers have always been either sources of profit for large businesses or instruments of propaganda for men seeking influence — we are likely to see a repeat of the same crimes and misdemeanours as soon as the dust settles on the pages of the Leveson Inquiry and the Royal Charter.
Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), Vice-President of Goldsmiths UCU and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.
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