A Royal Charter for the benefit of newspaper editors, not the public

The ways in which the Government has altered Lord Leveson's recommendations is telling.

Crucially, it [the new regulator] must have the power to demand up-front, prominent apologies.

So said the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in his statement in response to the publication of the Leveson Report on 29th November 2012. This was one of a number of central recommendations in the report, one of what Cameron called the Leveson principles.

Yet the Royal Charter published by the Conservatives on Tuesday 12th February has removed all reference to apologies. Apologies has been replaced with the much weaker and more general remedies. This despite a key Leveson recommendation being that a new regulator should have The power to direct the nature, extent and placement of apologies. This has been changed, and replaced with the power to require (not direct) a remedy, and only after negotiations between the member of public and the newspaper have failed:

In the event of no agreement between a complainant and a subscriber, the power to require the nature, extent and placement of a remedy should lie with the Board (Royal Charter, Schedule 3, #16)

This dilution of Levesons recommendations is typical of much of the Royal Charter. Where Leveson proposed a system that would give power to members of the public and individual journalists, the government has watered down or even removed that power, and given it back to the editors and proprietors.

The journalists conscience clause, for example, which the National Union of Journalists fought so hard for, and which Leveson recommends a new regulatory body should consider requiring, is downgraded to an optional extra. The same with a whistleblowers hotline for journalists who want to report illegality, abuses of the Code or bullying in newsrooms.

The Charter, as published, reeks of a deal done behind closed doors between senior politicians and senior newspaper executives and lawyers. Almost all of the demands made by editors and publishers appear to have been acceded to. There is no statute to prevent the interference of the government in the Royal Charter. Nor is there a legal guarantee of freedom from interference in the press in the future. This would have provided, for the first time, Harold Evans said in his Cudlipp lecture, a legal duty of the government to protect the freedom of the press. No such duty has been proposed.

But the real evidence of press-political collusion is in the fine detail of the Charter. Schedule 3 sets out the so-called recognition requirements for a new regulatory body. These, according to Leveson, are the essential criteria that any new body has to adhere to or it will not be recognized as an independent and effective regulator.

It is these criteria that have changed markedly from the recommendations made by Leveson, and those changes bear a striking similarity to the parts of Leveson the editors were unhappy with.

For example, in their discussions shortly after the publication of Leveson at the Delaunay restaurant, the editors found Levesons recommendation that the Board of the new regulator be responsible for the Code of Practice unacceptable (from leaked Delaunay document). This Leveson recommendation, we then discover, has been transformed in the Royal Charter. So Leveson recommended that:

The standards code must ultimately be the responsibility of, and adopted by, the Board, advised by a Code Committee which may comprise both independent members of the Board and serving editors.

But in the Charter, control of the Code is given to the Code Committee as now for the Board simply to adopt. Indeed the Charter goes even further and removes the obligation to include independent Board members from the Committee, enabling the editors to choose whoever, and as few, 'independent members' as they want (exactly as the previous discredited Hunt/Black plan proposed):

The standards code must ultimately be adopted by the Board, and written by a Code Committee which is comprised of both independent members and serving editors.

The editors were also strongly against Levesons recommendation that a new regulator have the power to take complaints not just people directly referenced in an article, but from other people too, including representative groups. The Delaunay document shows that editors felt this was unacceptable. Instead, they agreed that third party complaints [are] only to be allowed at [the] discretion of [the] Complaints Committee where there is substantial public interest. Group complaints [are] only to be allowed on matters of accuracy.

And again we find that the recognition criteria in the Royal Charter have been changed to appease the editors. Instead of Levesons criteria #11:

The Board should have the power to hear and decide on complaints about breach of the standards code by those who subscribe. The Board should have the power (but not necessarily in all cases depending on the circumstances the duty) to hear complaints whoever they come from, whether personally and directly affected by the alleged breach, or a representative group affected by the alleged breach, or a third party seeking to ensure accuracy of published information. In the case of third party complaints the views of the party most closely involved should be taken into account.

The Royal Charter changes the criteria to:

'The Board should have the power to hear and decide on complaints about breach of the standards code by those who subscribe. The Board should have the power (but not necessarily in all cases depending on the circumstances the duty) to hear complaints: (a) from anyone personally and directly affected by the alleged breach of the standards code; or (b) where an alleged breach of the code is significant and there is substantial public interest in the Board giving formal consideration to the complaint from a representative group affected by the alleged breach; or (c) from a third party seeking to ensure accuracy of published information. In the case of third party complaints the views of the party most closely involved should be taken into account.'

In other words, it has been altered to map almost exactly to the demands made by the editors. It restricts complaints only to those directly affected, unless there is a significant breach and substantial public interest in doing otherwise (it does not detail who would define significant breach or substantial public interest).

For the last two months senior politicians from the government have been working secretly on a Royal Charter. The impression they gave was that they were working to achieve everything Leveson wanted through Charter rather than through statute. Now we know they were actually working to achieve everything the editors and proprietors wanted out of Leveson, regardless of the interests of the public or individual journalists.

A full comparison of the differences between the Royal Charter and Leveson's recommendations can be found here (pdf)

Martin Moore is the director of the Media Standards Trust

The Leveson Inquiry. Photograph: Getty Images
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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

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 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era