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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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