The problem Leveson can't solve: we want newspapers to lie to us

"As long as our insatiable demand for trashy gossip and comforting lies remains it will continue to be satisfied by any means possible", writes Martin Robbins.

The great twentieth century philosopher Britney Spears once sang: “I’m not a girl, not yet a woman.” As a blogger for two mainstream media organs, I have great sympathy for Spears, as I inhabit a similar twilight zone between the indie blogging community and the mainstream media establishment. Mainstream types don’t take me seriously as an adult writer, and hip young bloggers don’t think I’m cool anymore now that I’ve grown up and sold out to the Man. These tensions are minor compared to the thorny issue of how I’m regulated.

When I became a Guardian blogger, I found myself ‘regulated’ by the Press Complaints Commission. I didn’t really give this much thought until I found myself threatened by the part-time MP for Mid-Narnia, Nadine Dorries. Nadine was upset by an article in which I compared a number of things she had said with a series of facts about the real world. In hindsight this was a grossly unfair thing to do to a self-confessed author of fiction, and the occasional MP rightly threatened to take me to the PCC. Nothing ever came of our little altercation, but it left me wondering why exactly I was subject to the PCC, yet the many independent bloggers writing about Dorries weren’t.

To this day, I don’t have a satisfactory answer to that question. There’s no killer reason that I can think of why I should be regulated when I write for the Guardian or New Statesman, but not when I write on my own personal blog, or indeed on Twitter. Two arguments are commonly made when I raise this. First, I get paid to blog at The Guardian and New Statesman, and the fact that I make money means that I should be more accountable, that I have a professional responsibility to maintain a higher standard. Second, I can reach more people and exert more influence when I write under the high profile brand of a mainstream media outlet, and as Voltaire once told Spider-man, "With great power comes great responsibility."

I’ve never been swayed by the money argument. If you write something for public consumption, then you should try and do a decent job whether you’re being paid or not. To flip it over, would anyone seriously argue that it’s okay to spread lies or baseless smears as long as you’re not being paid for it? I doubt it. On the other hand, I completely agree that writers with tens or hundreds of thousands of readers have more of a duty of care than those with smaller audiences.

The problem with both arguments is that applying them solely to mainstream media makes no sense. There are plenty of independent blogs that have a far higher readership and more revenue than my blog at The Guardian – if this is really about money, power and influence, then where is the logic in regulating guardian.co.uk/layscience and the writers at huffingtonpost.co.uk, but not order-order.com, or Sunny Hundal’s posts at liberalconspiracy.org, or indeed the far more influential micro-blog at twitter.com/stephenfry? Why regulate guardian.co.uk, a commercial enterprise with a high-traffic website that serves as a primary source of news for millions of people, where (some) contributors can directly publish content; but not twitter.com, a commercial enterprise with a high-traffic website that serves as a primary source of news for millions of people, where contributors can directly publish content?

The same could be said for other online media. Many have held up Ofcom as a model of statutory regulation of the media, but the broadcasting regulator has been lucky – producing high quality audio and video online remains a much greater technical challenging than writing articles, and so the great blurring that we’ve seen between amateurs and professions in the textual world hasn’t yet had the same impact, and their approach looks less arbitrary as a result. The day is coming though, with independent podcasts like the Pod Delusion starting to beat BBC Radio shows on iTunes (to the inexplicable indifference of stations who should be clamouring to sign up its producers).  

I’m as big a critic of the press as anyone, but as Lord McAlpine has demonstrated, bloggers and tweeters can be just as powerful and damaging as any tabloid hack. It would be fairer to regulate based on traffic then to select an arbitrary collection of domain names with historical links to 20th century businesses, but of course that would be impractical and unpopular. Many of those calling for tighter regulation of the press would baulk at the idea of submitting their own blogs or Twitter feeds to PCC regulation; if such a scheme were even remotely within the technical capability, budget or manpower of any regulators outside China.

What are we actually trying to solve? Beyond issues of privacy, defamation, press ownership and hacking – all potentially subject to the law anyway - the biggest problems with the press are rampant misogyny, bigotry and dishonesty. As I highlighted in a recent talk, newspapers regularly print things that aren’t true, often with the despicable aim of smearing particular people or groups in society. Their treatment of women, particularly young adolescent women, is downright creepy. In this though, they simply reflect wider society as revealed by the internet, a domain in which racism, misogyny, lies and smears run rampant, and female writers are routinely subjected to vile abuse. Similarly, lies and false claims are a problem all over the web. In the face of all this, it seems bizarre to fixate only on the tiny subset of the internet that still likes to print its content out on paper.

In all of this, the public have been the elephant in the room. One of the enduring images for me in the wake of the Savile allegations was the footage of 14-year-old Coleen Nolan on Top of the Pops, squirming uncomfortably as the presenter roughly manhandled her. That, and another incident broadcast on TV, are powerful reminders that these abuses weren’t the result of one man or even one institution, but took place within a society in which millions of people watched them on TV and saw nothing wrong with it. It’s convenient for us to pretend that Savile’s behaviour was a tragic anomaly, the product of failures at the BBC. The reality is that groping was – and remains – common, and happened – happens – within a society in the context of a wider British culture that allowed and even encouraged it.

I find the Daily Mail’s use of sexually provocative images of 14-year-old girls to sell newspapers disgusting, but millions of others flock to their site to see them, just as millions of people were happy to read the results of intrusive phone-hacking at the News of the World, and continue to demand access to the intimate details of people’s private lives, irrespective of any public interest. As with the Savile affair, focus has remained firmly on the role of the media, when in truth the cancer is rooted firmly in wider society.

We want newspapers to lie to us, to feed our prejudices and play to our fears; we want to invade the privacy of celebrities, and we’d quite like to see their boobs and their beach-bodies please so we can judge, leer or wank over, often at the same time – a judgewank in which orgasm is followed by shame and hate and the depositing of a sticky comment full of snark. If newspapers won’t give us all that, then we’ll get it from gossip blogs or Twitter instead.

Ultimately it’s a question of supply and demand. Leveson may be able to exert some influence over a tiny proportion of the supply, a collection of content producers in one small corner of the internet, huddled on one little island in the north-west corner of Europe; but as long as our insatiable demand for trashy gossip and comforting lies remains it will continue to be satisfied by any means possible.

Savile "manhandles" 14-year-old Coleen Nolan on Top of the Pops.

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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We still have time to change our minds on Brexit

The British people will soon find they have been misled. 

On the radio on 29 March 2017, another "independence day" for rejoicing Brexiteers, former SNP leader Alex Salmond and former Ukip leader Nigel Farage battled hard over the ramifications of Brexit. Here are two people who could be responsible for the break-up of the United Kingdom. Farage said it was a day we were getting our country back.

Yet let alone getting our country back, we could be losing our country. And what is so frustrating is that not only have we always had our country by being part of the European Union, but we have had the best of both worlds.

It is Philip Hammond who said: “We cannot cherry pick, we cannot have our cake and eat it too”. The irony is that we have had our cake and eaten it, too.

We are not in Schengen, we are not in the euro and we make the laws that affect our daily lives in Westminster – not in Europe – be it our taxes, be it our planning laws, be it business rates, be it tax credits, be it benefits or welfare, be it healthcare. We measure our roads in miles because we choose to and we pour our beer in pints because we choose to. We have not been part of any move towards further integration and an EU super-state, let alone the EU army.

Since the formation of the EU, Britain has had the highest cumulative GDP growth of any country in the EU – 62 per cent, compared with Germany at 35 per cent. We have done well out of being part of the EU. What we have embarked on in the form of Brexit is utter folly.

The triggering of Article 50 now is a self-imposed deadline by the Prime Minister for purely political reasons. She wants to fix the two-year process to end by March 2019 well in time to go into the election in 2020, with the negotiations completed.

There is nothing more or less to this timing. People need to wake up to this. Why else would she trigger Article 50 before the French and German elections, when we know Europe’s attention will be elsewhere?

We are going to waste six months of those two years, all because Prime Minister Theresa May hopes the negotiations are complete before her term comes to an end. I can guarantee that the British people will soon become aware of this plot. The Emperor has no clothes.

Reading through the letter that has been delivered to the EU and listening to the Prime Minister’s statement in Parliament today amounted to reading and listening to pure platitudes and, quite frankly, hot air. It recalls the meaningless phrase, "Brexit means Brexit".

What the letter and the statement very clearly outlined is how complex the negotiations are going to be over the next two years. In fact, they admit that it is unlikely that they are going to be able to conclude negotiations within the two-year period set aside.

That is not the only way in which the British people have been misled. The Conservative party manifesto clearly stated that staying in the single market was a priority. Now the Prime Minister has very clearly stated in her Lancaster House speech, and in Parliament on 29 March that we are not going to be staying in the single market.

Had the British people been told this by the Leave campaign, I can guarantee many people would not have voted to leave.

Had British businesses been consulted, British businesses unanimously – small, medium and large – would have said they appreciate and benefit from the single market, the free movement of goods and services, the movement of people, the three million people from the EU that work in the UK, who we need. We have an unemployment rate of under 5 per cent – what would we do without these 3m people?

Furthermore, this country is one of the leaders in the world in financial services, which benefits from being able to operate freely in the European Union and our businesses benefit from that as a result. We benefit from exporting, tariff-free, to every EU country. That is now in jeopardy as well.

The Prime Minister’s letter to the EU talks with bravado about our demands for a fair negotiation, when we in Britain are in the very weakest position to negotiate. We are just one country up against 27 countries, the European Commission and the European Council and the European Parliament. India, the US and the rest of the world do not want us to leave the European Union.

The Prime Minister’s letter of notice already talks of transitional deals beyond the two years. No country, no business and no economy likes uncertainty for such a prolonged period. This letter not just prolongs but accentuates the uncertainty that the UK is going to face in the coming years.

Britain is one of the three largest recipients of inward investment in the world and our economy depends on inward investment. Since the referendum, the pound has fallen 20 per cent. That is a clear signal from the world, saying, "We do not like this uncertainty and we do not like Brexit."

Though the Prime Minister said there is it no turning back, if we come to our senses we will not leave the EU. Article 50 is revocable. At any time from today we can decide we want to stay on.

That is for the benefit of the British economy, for keeping the United Kingdom "United", and for Europe as a whole – let alone the global economy.

Lord Bilimoria is the founder and chairman of Cobra Beer, Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and the founding Chairman of the UK-India Business Council.