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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.