Copies of the Leveson report. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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

CENTRAL PRESS/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Excitement, hatred and belonging: why terrorists do it

A new book by Richard English suggests that killing can bring its own rewards.

Like most questions about terrorism, why large numbers of people join terrorist organisations can only be answered in political terms. However terrorism may be defined – and disputes about what counts as terrorism are largely political in their own right – we will be ­unable to understand how terrorist groups ­attract members if we don’t consider the politics of the societies in which the groups are active. But terrorism’s appeal is not ­always political for everyone involved in it. Richard English, in his wide-ranging new book, highlights some of what he calls the “inherent rewards” of terrorism gained by members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). According to some former members, involvement in PIRA operations brought adventure, excitement, celebrity in local communities and sometimes sexual opportunities.

Terrorist activity also brought other intrinsic benefits. As one Belfast ex-PIRA man put it, “You just felt deep comradeship.” Or as another said, regarding involvement in the Provos: “Now I felt I was one of the boys.” Yet another reflected tellingly: “Although I was ideologically committed to the cause, for me, in many ways, being in the IRA was almost the objective rather than the means”; conspiratorial “belonging” and “comradeship” were, in themselves, rich rewards. Friendship, belief, belonging, purpose, community and meaning. One ex-Provo described his PIRA years as “days of certainty, comradeship and absolute commitment”. A bonus was that PIRA members’ actions could gain them influence and standing in their own communities; one ex-PIRA man reflected on how he saw himself after having joined the PIRA, in the simple words: “I felt important.”

English is a professor of politics and director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. He has studied political violence in Northern Ireland for many years and, for him, these inherent benefits are one of four ways in which terrorism can “work”. The other three comprise strategic victory in the achievement of a central or primary goal or goals; partial strategic victory, which includes determining the agenda of conflict; and tactical success, which may lead to strengthening the organisation and gaining or maintaining control over a population.

Understanding terrorism, English writes, requires taking it seriously: “treating it as the product of motivations and arguments which deserve serious, respectful engagement; and also assessing it as something worthy of honest, Popperian interrogation”. He is sanguine – surprisingly so, given the conflicts with which he is concerned – regarding the practical results such an inquiry might bring. Finding out how far and in what ways terrorism works has “practical significance” – indeed, its importance may be “huge”. As English makes clear, he “is not arguing that if we understood more fully the extent to which terrorism worked, then everything would have been fine in the post-9/11 effort to reduce terrorist violence”. He is convinced, however, that understanding how far terrorism works can greatly improve the struggle against it. “It does seem to me strongly possible that if states more fully knew how far and in what ways terrorism worked (and does not work, and why), then they would be able to respond much more effectively to it in practice.”

With all its caveats, this is a strikingly bold claim. It assumes that the failures of the post-9/11 “war on terror”, which no one can reasonably deny, were largely due to intellectual errors. But was it a lack of understanding that rendered these programmes ineffectual or counterproductive? Or was it that some of the West’s allies – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and, more recently, Turkey – have been less than unequivocal in taking a stand against terrorism or may even have had some complicity with it? If so, it was the geopolitical commitments of Western governments that prevented them from taking effective action. Again, much of the current wave of terrorism can be traced back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Voicing a long-familiar consensual view, English criticises the US-led occupation for being “ill-planned”, leading to the destabilisation of the Iraqi security situation. But it is not clear that more forethought could have prevented this result.

If Western leaders had thought more carefully about the likely consequences of the invasion, it would probably not have been launched. With the regime and the state so closely intertwined, topping Saddam Hussein always risked creating a power vacuum. It was this that enabled al-Qaeda and then Isis and its affiliates to emerge, gain control in parts of the country and then project their operations into Europe.

Errors of analysis may have played a contributory role in this grisly fiasco. When British forces were despatched to Basra, it may have been assumed that they could implement something like the pacification that was eventually achieved in Northern Ireland. But the kinds of allies that Britain made in Belfast – and before that in the successful counterterrorist campaign in Malaya in the 1950s – did not exist in that part of Iraq. Like the overall programme of pacifying a country whose governing institutions had been dismantled abruptly, the mission was essentially unachievable. But this was not accepted by either the US administration or the British government. The invasion was based in ideological conviction rather than an empirical assessment of risks and consequences. In this case, too, high-level political decisions were far more important in unleashing terrorism than any failures in understanding it.

As has become the usual way in books on terrorism, English begins with his own definition of the phenomenon:

Terrorism involves heterogeneous violence used and threatened with a political aim; it can involve a variety of acts, of targets and actors; it possesses an important psychological dimension, producing terror or fear among a directly threatened group and also a wider implied audience in the hope of maximising political communication and achievement; it embodies the exerting and implementing of power, and the attempted redressing of power relations; it represents a subspecies of warfare, and as such can form part of a wider campaign of violent and non-violent attempts at political leverage.

This is a torturous formulation, not untypical of the academic literature on the subject. English tells us that his book is intended for readers in “all walks of life”. But the style throughout is that of a prototypical academic text, densely fortified with references to “majority scholarly opinion” and buttressed with over 50 pages of footnotes fending off critics. As a storehouse of facts and sources, the book will be a valuable resource for scholars, but its usefulness to the general reader is more doubtful.

The most interesting and informative of the book’s four main sections – on jihadism and al-Qaeda; Ireland and the IRA; Hamas and Palestinian terrorism; and Basque terrorism – is the one on Ireland, where English’s knowledge is deepest. Extensive interviews with people who had been involved in terrorist campaigns in the province led him to what is perhaps his most instructive generalisation: those who engage in and support terrorism “tend to display the same levels of rationality as do other people . . . they tend to be psychologically normal rather than abnormal . . . they are not generally characterised by mental illness or psychopathology . . . the emergence and sustenance of terrorism centrally rely on the fact that perfectly normal people at certain times consider it to be the most effective way of achieving necessary goals”. Terrorists are no more irrational than the rest of us, and there is no such thing as “the terrorist mind”. In many contexts, terrorism has functioned principally as an effective way of waging war.

As English notes, there is nothing new in the claim that terrorism is a variety of asymmetric warfare. The practice of suicide bombing has very often been analysed in cost-benefit terms and found to be highly efficient. The expenditure of resources involved is modest and the supply of bombers large; if the mission is successful the operative cannot be interrogated. The bombers gain status; their families may receive financial reward. (Religious beliefs about an afterlife are not a necessary part of suicide bombing, which has been practised by Marxist-Leninists of the Tamil Tiger movement and in Lebanon.) An enormous literature exists in which asymmetric warfare has been interpreted as demonstrating “the power of the weak”: the capacity of militarily inferior groups using unconventional methods to prevail against states with much greater firepower at their disposal. Understood in these terms, there can be no doubt that terrorism can be a rational strategy.

Yet there is a problem with understanding terrorism on this basis, and it lies in the slippery word “rational”, with which English juggles throughout the book. Terrorists are not always rational, he says; they are prone to overestimate the impact of their activities, and they make mistakes. Even so, what they do can be understood as rational strategies, and in these terms terrorism often works, if only partly. Here, English is invoking a straightforwardly instrumental view of reason. What terrorists do is rational, in this sense, if there is an intelligible connection between the ends they aim to achieve and the means they adopt to achieve them.

This means/end type of rationality typifies much terrorist activity, English maintains. But some of the ends achieved by terrorism are internal to the actual practice. “Inherent rewards from al-Qaeda terrorism might potentially include aspects of religious piety; the catharsis produced by revenge and the expression of complicatedly generated rage; and the remedying of shame and humiliation.” In this case, “hitting back  violently and punishingly at them [the US and its military allies] has offered significant rewards in terms not merely of political instrumentalism but also of valuable retaliation in itself”.

The inherent rewards of terrorism also include the expression of hatred. “The vengeful, terrorising punishment of people whom one hates, or with whom one exists in a state of deep enmity,” English writes, “might be one of the less attractive aspects of terrorist ambition. But it might also (perhaps) be one in which we find terrorists repeatedly succeeding fairly well . . .” Here, he may have understated his case. Killing cartoonists, customers queuing at a Jewish bakery in Paris and families celebrating Bastille Day in Nice will be a rational act as long as it succeeds in venting the terrorists’ hatred. Even if the operation is somehow aborted, the attempt to inflict mass death and injury may still serve as a type of therapy for those who make the attempt. If “hitting back at people whom one holds to be (literally or representatively) responsible for prior wrongs” can be rational on account of the emotional satisfaction it brings the terrorist, how can terrorism fail to work?

Clearly something has gone badly wrong here. Without mentioning the fact, or perhaps without noticing it, English has switched from one conception of rationality to another. Much of what human beings do isn’t the result of a calculation of con­sequences, but more an expression of their sense of identity. Philosophers describe this as expressive rationality, an idea they use to explain why voting in circumstances where you know your vote can make no practical difference can still be in accordance with reason. But is expressive rationality beyond rational criticism? In order to understand terrorism in Israel-Palestine, Ireland and Spain, English tells us, we need to understand the national context in which the terrorists act. This doesn’t imply “a comfortable acceptance of any single national narrative”, given that various terrorist groups “have done much to open such narratives to a very brutal interrogation”.

But is the terrorist narrative exempt from questioning? The reader might think so, as there is nothing in English’s account that fundamentally challenges the narrative of Hamas, for example. There is no discussion of the endorsement in the Hamas Charter of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and no examination of the influence on Hamas’s policies of the delusional world-view that this infamous anti-Semitic forgery articulates. If this is a Popperian interrogation of terrorism, it falls short of the impartial critical rationalism that Karl Popper recommended.

An analysis of the intrinsic rewards of terrorism may be useful in considering the outbreak of Isis-affiliated ­terrorism in Europe. In contrast to that of the IRA, including its ultra-violent Provisional wing, this cannot easily be understood in terms of instrumental rationality. Even when compared with its predecessor al-Qaeda, Isis has been notable for making very few concrete demands. No doubt the present outbreak is partly a reaction to the jihadist group losing ground in Iraq and Syria. But as English suggests, we need to ask for whom terrorism works, and why. When we do this in relation to Isis, the answers we receive are not reassuring.

Nothing in human conflict is entirely new. There are some clear affinities between anarchist terrorist attacks around the end of the 19th century and jihadist “spectaculars” at the start of the 20th. However, there are also certain discomforting differences. Anarchists at that time made public officials, not ordinary civilians, their primary targets; they attacked state power rather than an entire society; and they never acquired a mass base of supporters and sympathisers. Bestowing identity and significance on dislocated individuals and enabling them to discharge their resentment against a hated way of life, terrorism by Isis is of another kind. Against the background of deep divisions in European societies, these rewards could become an increasingly powerful source of the group’s appeal.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom” (Allen Lane)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue