Copies of the Leveson report. Photo: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on phone hacking: the British press must not be allowed to be unchanged by the hacking scandal

In the aftermath of the Leveson report, journalism has changed forever - but it's not because of the inquiry.

The British press is about to change for ever but that’s no thanks to the Leveson report. After another round of back-room, minute-less meetings between ministers and managing editors, it has become clear that the bland tome of equivocation and suggestion that was the ultimate result of a media and parliamentary corruption scandal that nearly brought down the UK government is going to make almost no difference. An alternative draft bill has been published by Hacked Off, a pressure group representing “victims of press abuse”. The term describes a group distinct from the vast majority of us who have to live in a country where “shirker” has become a political cLaurieategory.

Hacked Off’s report is hardly a radical document. It merely suggests that the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry be implemented in full, rather than politely ignored. In 2013, the Murdoch media empire continues to profit from the muckraking, misogyny and celebrity-gossip dross that it uses to buy and sell electoral influence to the highest bidder; Jeremy Hunt is still in the cabinet and David Cameron remains Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Jonnie Marbles went to jail for throwing a plate of shaving foam at an aged media baron and I’m beginning to suspect that he might have had the right idea all along. This was our Watergate and the political establishment has been allowed to wipe its hands on its trousers and walk away.

Revolving door

That’s how privilege works in Britain – privilege in the true sense of the word, meaning “private law”. The poor get exemplary sentences and riot police smash their skulls in Parliament Square for daring to question austerity; the rich get inquiries and polite suggestions that need not be heeded. One law for them, another for the rest of us. The Leveson report focuses its attention on the failures of the press but the problem was never that the press had too much power. The problem was that it had the wrong sort of power, concentrated in too few hands.

The problem wasn’t just phone-hacking, nor simply a plague of shark-eyed, underfed tabloid hacks going through celebrities’ bins for gossip and half-eaten sandwiches. Phonehacking simply provided a focus for challen - ging a media corporatocracy that has forgotten that the first rule of news journalism is to speak truth to power, not to offer power a free pony ride and a weekend in the country.

The problem was and remains a political class that sees itself as the patron and occasional confidant of a media industry whose services can be bought with cash and favours; the problem was and remains the revolving door of access and privilege between the press, the police and the upper echelons of government. Corruption, in other words. Corruption in plain sight, circumventing the mechanisms of democracy, of law and order and of journalism and thereby making a mockery of all three. The political class has decided to solve this problem by allowing the Prime Minister – a man whose integrity and career are at the centre of the scandal – to decide unilaterally what changes to the law should be made, if any. If anyone else sees a problem with this, please shout now.

Cameron has said that he won’t implement any part of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations that he deems “bonkers”. He has explicitly rejected a suggestion that the report deems “essential”: that of writing press regulation into law, or “statutory underpinning”. It is bonkers, of course – you’d have to be a fruit loop or a government shill to believe that placing more restrictions on the press will do anything to cure a political culture already poisoned by overfamiliarity between the media and the mechanisms of state. It’s bonkers, but Cameron – Rebekah Brooks’s riding partner and Andy Coulson’s former boss – is the last person who should get to say so.

Good journalism is as necessary as ever. In the current crises of capitalism and civil society, we need more press freedom, not less. We need journalists, both professionals and citizen amateurs, to inform, to analyse and to explain; to investigate corruption and to articulate political trends. The newspaper industry is losing the capacity or volition to provide this service, as celebrity fluff and cheap comment fill the dwindling space in between the advertising, revenue from which is predicted to drop by 9 per cent in 2013 alone. Fortunately, the end of newspapers does not mean the end of news. The Leveson inquiry may have devoted only a few lines to dismissing digital journalism but the unfolding history of cultural production already tells a different story.

The future is now

In a recent report published by the Tow Centre, Post-Industrial Journalism, C W Anderson, Clay Shirky and Emily Bell explain that the model of advertiser-subsidised print newspapers creating and delivering autho - ritative political information is defunct. Attempting to legislate on it – and on a halfhearted, parochial scale, at that – is rather like trying to legislate on the proper wheel size for horse-drawn carriages six months before the opening of the Ford factory.

The only good thing about the Leveson report is that it has had almost no impact on how the many committed, ethical journalists I know do their jobs. More and more are reaching beyond the mainstream, building networks that destroy the old hierarchies and opening new doors for publication, investigation and dialogue with what Anderson, Bell and Shirky call “the people formerly known as the audience”. The delicate ecosystem of the British press has become contaminated by corruption, poisoned by privilege and sterilised by a failure to adapt. Now, all the many-eyed mutant things that have grown up breathing this foul air are crawling out of the shallows – and they are hungry.

The failure of the Leveson report exposes the true irrelevance of the old mainstream media in speaking truth to power, but the future of journalism is already here. In the words of William Gibson, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.