The freedom of the press is being undermined by newspapers that have backed wars, promoted austerity and spied on innocent members of the public argues Des Freedman.
The Sun’s associate editor Trevor Kavanagh is right to be angry. There is an assault on press freedom and media independence. The question is whether it is coming from the investigations into phone hacking and illegal payments that have absorbed the Leveson Inquiry and Operation Elveden or from within the culture of a commercial press, parts of which, in a misguided attempt to win readers and influence political agendas, have backed wars, promoted austerity and spied on innocent members of the public. It is misguided not least because, according to a recent poll, only 38 per cent of UK adults actually trust newspapers to tell the truth.
Kavanagh rages, in a lengthy piece in Monday’s Sun, that the Guardian-inspired ‘witch hunt’, which culminated in the arrest last weekend of senior Sun journalists (together with a police officer, an Army major and a MoD employee), ‘has put us behind ex-Soviet states in Press freedom’. The UK is now, according to a recent Reporters without Borders analysis, 28th in the World Press Freedom Index.
Except that what Kavanagh fails to point out is that, according to the report, the UK has dropped down the league table because of two things: ‘its approach to the protection of privacy and its response to the London riots’, neither of them issues in which the Sun, nor indeed McKenzie himself, can claim to have a proud record.
For example, quizzed by Lord Justice Leveson on 9 January 2012 about his own approach to questions of privacy, the following exchange took place.
Lord Justice Leveson: Can I ask you, please, first of all in relation to your [written] statement…you say: ‘I didn't spend too much time pondering the ethics of how a story was gained, nor over-worry about whether to publish or not. If we believed the story to be true and we felt Sun readers should know the facts, we published it and left it to them to decide if we had done the right thing.’ So that encapsulates, does it, your thinking at the time?
Kelvin McKenzie: It does.
Lord Justice Leveson: Did you have any particular or any regard to issues such as privacy?
Kelvin McKenzie: Not really, no.
In relation to the UK riots, perhaps Reporters without Borders were thinking of a Sun headline on 9 August 2011 which actually called on police to ‘NAIL THE TWITTER RIOTERS’ and reported that detectives were attempting ‘to trace the accounts of yobs who use services such as Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger’ to organise their criminal activity. Or perhaps RwB were thinking of a Sun editorial on 10 August which declared that:
'The Sun demands decisive action. The law on rioting MUST be toughened. Our brave police must be given a free hand to smash the mobs whatever it takes. Wearing masks on the street should be made illegal. Let's reduce overseas aid and reverse police cuts. The courts must be ruthless. The maximum sentence for riot is ten years. So let's see it applied. Jailed thugs must serve every day. And no let-off for young rioters.'
Kavanagh is understandably furious about the scale of the resources put into the current police investigations and the heavy-handed arrests of upstanding journalists and asks an important question: ‘Who polices the police?’ Yet the question of who should hold the police to account has hardly been one that has previously preoccupied his newspaper. Indeed, in one of the most high-profile cases in recent years, the police killing in 2008 of Jean Charles de Menezes in Stockwell tube station, the paper equated the murder of an entirely innocent and unarmed young man with the trauma allegedly experienced by his police assailants.
‘The young Brazilian was as much a victim of terror as the 52 civilians who died just three weeks earlier on 7/7. So were the officers who ran him to ground, knowing they could be blown to smithereens in the process. They are the casualties of a conflict which strains the nerves and resources of our finest police force.’
This was precisely the conclusion that the IPCC eventually reached in its own investigation of the incident when it decided not to press charges against any individual police officers or their superiors.
Kavanagh’s comments may be hypocritical but, along with a growing number of commentators inside the press, his concern that the current investigations into press ethics, and any future regulatory solutions, will undermine press freedom ought to be taken seriously.
Advocates of a democratic media need to argue that reforms—such as those proposed by the Media Reform campaign for a right of reply, for a new accountable press body to monitor news organisations and for levies to fund new types of news ventures—will actually enable the press to act more ethically and responsibly than they are able to do under regimes which are committed to serving shareholders more than readers. Far from shackling journalists, robust and democratic regulation that is independent of both government and the news barons will actually empower journalists to do their job.
The corruption that has been revealed in recent events is a structural matter and not one confined to a few ‘bad apples’, much as Murdoch would no doubt like to argue at the moment given News Corp’s sudden willingness to identify ‘wrongdoers’. The recent arrests and the evidence provided to Leveson provide the clearest demonstration yet that phone hacking and illegal payments go far beyond individual journalists and the now deceased News of the World and are instead symptomatic of a top-down corporate news culture.
When culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, praised News Corp for cooperating with the police, he unwittingly made an important point. Senior staff at News Corp have been ‘cooperating’ with the Metropolitan Police—paying them for information and indeed hiring them for News Corp’s public relations office—for far too long. Far from welcoming their cooperation, the government should instead demand an explanation of why it took so long for the company to admit any responsibility for its role in phone hacking and make sure senior executives are held responsible.
It is also the time for Ofcom to launch a full investigation into whether News Corp can be seen as a 'fit and proper' organisation to have a controlling stake in BSkyB, the country's most profitable broadcaster. This needs to be accompanied by a strengthening of the media public interest test and more rigorous ownership thresholds to prevent undue influence over the British media by any single commercial group.
Now, more than ever, power without responsibility—in the shape of proprietors who bully their staff, police who accept cash and favours from news organisations, and politicians who design policies with a view to securing a favourable reception by a powerful media—needs urgently to be checked. The mainstream news media failed to anticipate the economic crisis, failed to hold bankers to account, failed adequately to challenge the justifications for austerity and so have failed democracy. We need something radically different.
Des Freedman is a Reader in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Politics of Media Policy' (Polity 2008) and co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011).
From Open Democracy.
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.