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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.