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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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.