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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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.