Laurie Penny: 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.
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.