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.

Photo: Getty
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In the race to be France's next president, keep an eye on Arnaud Montebourg

Today's Morning Call. 

Good morning. As far as the Brexit talks are concerned, the least important voters are here in Britain. Whether UK plc gets a decent Brexit deal depends a lot more on who occupies the big jobs across Europe, and how stable they feel in doing so.

The far-right Freedom Party in Austria may have been repudiated at the presidential level but they still retain an interest in the legislative elections (due to be held by 2018). Both Lega Nord and Five Star in Italy will hope to emerge as the governing party at the next Italian election.

Some Conservative MPs are hoping for a clean sweep for the Eurosceptic right, the better to bring the whole EU down, while others believe that the more vulnerable the EU is, the better a deal Britain will get. The reality is that a European Union fearing it is in an advanced state of decay will be less inclined, not more, to give Britain a good deal. The stronger the EU is, the better for Brexit Britain, because the less attractive the exit door looks, the less of an incentive to make an example of the UK among the EU27.

That’s one of the many forces at work in next year’s French presidential election, which yesterday saw the entry of Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, into the race to be the Socialist Party’s candidate.

Though his star has fallen somewhat among the general public from the days when his opposition to halal supermarkets as mayor of Evry, and his anti-Roma statements as interior minister made him one of the most popular politicians in France, a Valls candidacy, while unlikely to translate to a finish in the top two for the Socialists could peel votes away from Marine Le Pen, potentially allowing Emanuel Macron to sneak into second place.

But it’s an open question whether he will get that far. The name to remember is Arnaud Montebourg, the former minister who quit Francois Hollande’s government over its right turn in 2014. Although as  Anne-Sylvaine Chassany reports, analysts believe the Socialist party rank-and-file has moved right since Valls finished fifth out of sixth in the last primary, Montebourg’s appeal to the party’s left flank gives him a strong chance.

Does that mean it’s time to pop the champagne on the French right? Monteburg may be able to take some votes from the leftist independent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and might do some indirect damage to the French Thatcherite Francois Fillon. His supporters will hope that his leftist economics will peel away supporters of Le Pen, too.

One thing is certain, however: while the chances of a final run-off between Le Pen and Fillon are still high,  Hollande’s resignation means that it is no longer certain that the centre and the left will not make it to that final round.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

The government began its case at the Supreme Court yesterday, telling justices that the creation of the European Communities Act, which incorporates the European treaties into British law automatically, was designed not to create rights but to expedite the implementation of treaties, created through prerogative power. The government is arguing that Parliament, through silence, has accepted that all areas not defined as within its scope as prerogative powers. David Allen Green gives his verdict over at the FT.

MO’MENTUM, MO’PROBLEMS

The continuing acrimony in Momentum has once again burst out into the open after a fractious meeting to set the organisation’s rules and procedures, Jim Waterson reports over at BuzzFeed.  Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder, still owns the data and has the ability to shut down the entire group, should he chose to do so, something he is being urged to do by allies. I explain the origins of the crisis here.

STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE  BEFORE

Italy’s oldest bank, Monte Paschi, may need a state bailout after its recapitalisation plan was thrown into doubt following Matteo Renzi’s resignation. Italy’s nervous bankers will wait to see if  €1bn of funds from a Qatari investment grouping will be forthcoming now that Renzi has left the scene.

BOOM BOOM

Strong growth in the services sector puts Britain on course to be the highest growing economy in the G7. But Mark Carney has warned that the “lost decade” of wage growth and the unease from the losers from globalisation must be tackled to head off the growing tide of “isolation and detachment”.

THE REPLACEMENTS

David Lidington will stand in for Theresa May, who is abroad, this week at Prime Ministers’ Questions. Emily Thornberry will stand in for Jeremy Corbyn.

QUIT PICKING ON ME!

Boris Johnson has asked Theresa May to get her speechwriters and other ministers to stop making jokes at his expense, Sam Coates reports in the Times. The gags are hurting Britain’s diplomatic standing, the Foreign Secretary argues.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

It’s beginning to feel a bit like Christmas! And to help you on your way, here’s Anna’s top 10 recommendations for Christmassy soundtracks.

MUST READS

Ian Hislop on the age of outrage

The lesson of 2016: identity matters, even for white people, says Helen

Why I’m concerned about people’s “very real concerns” on migration

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