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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.