Dear journalists: grow up

Alex Andreou, who used to work for a regulator, responds to the Leveson report.

It feels strange to be writing an article about the art of writing articles. My only defence is that I am so new to this, that I do not yet consider myself part of the industry. I certainly do not have a good journalist’s skill or experience – qualities which I admire immensely. Nor do I work under the sort of pressure you do. With that in mind, you may choose to listen to me or dismiss me. I hope you listen.

I find the lack of self-reflection, which I have observed in the last 24 hours, nothing short of staggering. Please stop being victims. Take responsibility. You are the toughest, smartest bunch I have ever come across. Take your medicine.

Please stop saying “This excellent industry is being punished for the sins of the few.” My brief experience of your relatively small profession is that most people have worked in most environments with most people. I could link any two of you in two steps, through either a publication or a colleague. You may not all have engaged in questionable conduct, but to suggest you did not know what was going on is risible.

Please stop saying “We are not one homogenous group. We are a collection of individuals.” You seem to be able to get together, close ranks and pretty much all sing from the same hymn-sheet when threatened. Precisely the same qualities should have been (and can still be) used to put your house in order.

Please stop saying “This is the thin end of the wedge. Once legislation is introduced, it will grow.” You are possibly the best informed and, if not the most powerful, certainly the most vocal lobby in this country. It’s not like additional legislation will slip past you.

Please stop saying “There is already adequate protection in the law.” You know full well this protection is only available to those with money, time, knowhow and connections. I was having a beer with a buddy last night, who used to work in the tabloid press. He tells me that the single deciding factor in running or not running a less than well founded story is usually the subject’s financial ability to sue.

Please stop saying “We are special. We perform a vital public service. We should be protected.” The same applies to doctors, pharma companies, lawyers, police, farmers, the fire service, pilots. They are all, quite rightly, regulated. A badly put together article might leave me dissatisfied. A badly put together gas boiler can leave me dead. The imposition of professional standards is a fact of modern life.

Please stop saying “We have already changed. It will be different this time.” You sound like a recalcitrant abusive alcoholic begging his wife in hospital not to press charges.

The Leveson report did not arise out of someone getting up one fine morning and thinking “I know what I’ll do today; curtail the freedom of the press”. It sprung forth from an industry’s repeated and miserable failure to regulate itself. It is a direct result of an industry’s totally out-of-control behaviour.

In my many years work for a regulator, I never once sat across the table from an industry facing any kind of change in the rules that hasn’t claimed this would bring about the death of said industry and/or the demise of western civilization as we know it. In my experience, this is usually a knee-jerk reaction with little logic behind it.

One thing I can tell you with certainty is that the market players that come out best, are invariably the ones that are first to concede a change is needed, embrace it and work with the body seeking to regulate them to ensure it is well crafted.

This brings me to my most contentious and most positive point: The Leveson recommendations may be the best thing that has ever happened to this industry.

You constantly complain that you are under pressure from social media and blogs; that yours is a dying art. But if you do away with sub-editors so your copy is poor, if you refuse a system of accreditation and regulation, if you refuse to subscribe to strictly enforced professional standards, the only thing that will distinguish you from those bloggers and tweeters will become the smudge cheap ink leaves on my thumb.

Have you stopped to consider that the system proposed might, just might provide you with the unique selling point you have so longed for? In most other industries consumers are prepared to pay a premium for an approved kitemark which guarantees excellence. Knowing that a news story complies with strict professional standards and is procured ethically can produce immense reputational and financial benefits.

Most of all, please stop saying “This will change the face of the press in the UK.” That is precisely the objective. Embrace the change. Become better.

Finally, please stop using the word “Rubicon”. It was Murdoch’s codeword for the NewsCorp/BSkyB bid. And I don’t think you want to go there.

David Cameron: the ball is in his court now. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder