Some thoughts on reactions to press regulation
Press regulation is a funny one for me, because I often feel that when it comes to the media, I am in the centre of that great Venn diagram of ‘employee of newspaper,’ ‘reader’ and ‘subject of story.’ Like most people writing for national publications, I have spent ages on the phone negotiating words with lawyers, or feeling annoyed that I can’t say what everyone is obviously thinking, or slag off someone powerful because they also happen to be litigious as well. I have often thought the press is already regulated enough.
But through my involvement with activism, I’ve been the subject of stories as well. I’ve personally had reporters from the Daily Mail attempt to write hatchet jobs on me; I’ve been present at events that I know to be misreported by the press later, often to such an extent that lying can be the only explanation for it. I remember a certain scurrilous rag accusing a friend of mine of being involved in alleged criminal activity, and photoshopping a picture of him standing at the scene where it was all apparently taking place. They took it down after he made a PCC complaint, but not before his boss read it. I also remember how certain publications behaved after the anti-cuts march on March 26 2011. I know they lied about what happened at Fortnum & Mason. I know that because I read their articles and I was there.
So when you have these angsty hacks arguing that it’s impossible for journalists to lie because every word they say is verified by seventybillion conscientious editors, I know that’s not true. It simply can’t be – because half the stuff written about protests over the last two years just wouldn’t have been written if that were the case. I also know it’s not true because everyone who has a critical mass of friends in the MEEDJA has heard the stories of editors pressurising journalists into taking certain angles on things. And then there is the empirical evidence: Hillsborough being the most glaringly obvious here, but have a scroll through the blog Tabloid Watch, and you’ll find dozens more almost run-of-the-mill examples of newspapers apparently disregarding fact altogether.
I don’t write this to make any particular comment upon the press regulations that we’re likely to end up with following Leveson. I just want to address this idea that certain journalists are putting about now: that the British press is some kind of crusader for truth, that we have a free press in this country, and that any form of regulation will strangle democracy.
Our press is not free; it is highly regulated. It’s just not regulated by media law. It’s regulated by profit, like any other corporate industry would be. An unregulated press whose primary motivation is to make as much money as possible can be as damaging as any other unregulated capitalist institution, like banks or energy companies. Newspapers will and have destroyed democracy, lied, and ruined innocent lives in order to get their own way in the past - just like banks or oil companies have. It’s the nature of big business.
Anyone who even takes a cursory glance at the media can see that for a long time now, the British papers have been locked into a sort of arms race to get the most sensational, exclusive story they possibly can. And that often the stories within those papers represent the political interests of their owners. Who would ever think that a massive industry owned by a few billionaires looking for ever more money and influence could really exist for the good of the people? All that stuff about ‘if journalists can’t ask questions of the powerful, neither can you’ is just nonsense. Most journalists are employed by the powerful.
I suppose what I’m saying to those hacks who are suddenly feeling very defensive of their industry is that you’ve got to be a bit more honest about what the reality of your industry actually is. Journalism has achieved brilliant things – it’s changed the world – but it’s also destroyed the lives of many blameless people simply to sell papers. That’s why all of this is happening in the first place, remember? Pretending now that all along it’s been Clark Kent and Lois Lane just won’t cut it. And the public agree: only 21% of them trust you. More than half want regulation with legal backing.
I don’t think the proposals put forward today are perfect. The fact that so much of the media is owned by so few is the main issue for me, and that wasn’t touched upon at all. But it’s obvious to anyone capable of processing basic information that there is something very wrong with our media that needs to be fixed. And maybe if those working in it admitted that to themselves and to the public, they might find more people leaping to their defence the next time around.