Without real contrition, press piety leaves me cold

The cross-party deal is a stitch-up but there is no moral authority on Fleet Street to resist it.

Last year, when the Leveson inquiry was under way and journalists might have thought it prudent to behave with honour, something happened to friends of mine. It was what newspapers call a tragedy, although the word has been bled of any emotional potency by over-use. Two members of a family died together in an uncommon accident; one of them was a young child. One phrase swirled around my head at the time and I heard it repeated by bereaved friends and relations: "there are no words". How could the pain of such a loss be described?

The press found words. Two national newspapers – one tabloid, one broadsheet – and local papers wrote up the story. There were pictures too. There were pictures of a mother at the scene of an accident, not yet knowing if her child is alive or dead. There were pictures of the child taken from the parents’ Facebook page without permission. There were calls to the house and reporters loitering at the door.

There was no public interest in this family’s grief. They were not celebrities and did not have any significant connection with public life. I tried to imagine what justification an editor might come up with if challenged on such egregious breaches of the Press Complaints Commission code of practice - section three (privacy); section four (harassment); section five (intrusion into grief). The best I could imagine was some cockamamie extrapolation from the peculiar circumstances of the accident – a cautionary tale. But really there was no excuse. A complaint was made and the coverage tailed off, although the family dreaded seeing photographers and reporters at the funeral. I felt ashamed to be a journalist in those few days.

I sometimes consider the steps that are involved in an episode of that kind. Someone on the desk hears of a private agony and declares it a story. A reporter is despatched and agrees to capture the agony in 800 words. Someone points a camera at the agony. Someone approaches strangers for a quote because they know someone whose child is killed. Someone looks at the images that a mother has posted on Facebook when her child was alive and, knowing that the child is now dead, thinks "I will download these and put them in the newspaper." Someone adds a caption to the picture. Someone subs the story. Someone puts a headline on the story. Someone revises the pages for later editions. None of them says "stop this cruelty."

What sort of people are these? Is there another arena – war, perhaps – where the suppression of basic compassion is a requirement of the job? It is a sickness.

There are countless similar cases. Some were described in the Leveson hearings. Many more are unreported. Those are the cases worth remembering when people talk about "victims of the press". They are the cases that matter a whole lot more than the intrusion into Hugh Grant’s voicemail, incommoding though that must have been for Mr Grant.

This is a problem of culture, not law. Phone-hacking was illegal before Leveson and continues to be illegal. Its endemic use by Fleet Street hacks expresses a failure to apply the law (now applied with zeal) not a case for regulating the press. I don’t like the idea of politicians setting up bodies that can stipulate what constitutes virtuous conduct by journalists. I like still less the idea of a statute that empowers courts to impose "exemplary" – i.e. punitive – damages on a publication that chooses not to submit itself to the politicians’ agreed regulatory regime. Yet that is the arrangement that Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have concocted. It can’t be a glorious day for British democracy when the only thing three party leaders can agree on in private talks is that the press should be constrained.

I suspect the Royal Charter for press regulation will be a disaster. The circumstances of its genesis, the reluctance of the newspapers who are supposed to be governed by it, the lack of understanding among its architects of how the internet works – everything points to chaos and perverse unintended consequences. Maybe some conservative British newspapers will discover, on mounting their legal challenges to the new regime, an affection for the European Convention on Human Rights?

Maybe nothing much will change at all. Of the many things journalists have done in the past that I admire and consider worthwhile, I can’t see any that are now forbidden. Nor can I see much evidence that things journalists have done that I despise are made impossible. A Royal Charter won’t rehabilitate the conscience of people in whom empathy has been dulled.

There has been a heap of commentary in the last couple of days to the effect that an ancient liberty is lost. Quite a lot of it has come from newspapers that are guilty of the worst acts of intrusion. The press is a raucous, ribald, unruly beast, say its defenders. Mistakes have been made, offences committed but … But what?

The argument, if I’ve understood it correctly, is that a genre of wild irreverence is indigenous to British newspapers and therein lies their unique genius. If it weren’t for their capacity to offend and behave appallingly, they couldn’t reasonably be expected to hold the powerful to account. The grubby hacks who sometimes cross the threshold of decency and propriety are precious gadflies that prick the vanity of the establishment. Take away their licence to be bad and they cannot properly do good. It is a neat syllogism: a free press does wicked things; a press that is not free cannot perform its democratic functions properly, therefore, in order to perform its functions properly, the press must be partly wicked.

Really? What part of democracy is protected by stealing photographs of dead children from their parents? I know that the commentators, leader writers and headline composers who fulminate against Leveson are not all individually responsible for offences against privacy, decency, compassion and dignity. They are, no doubt, decent men and women (mostly men) of principle. But their crusading passion leaves me unmoved even when I agree with much of what they say. They speak on behalf of their institutions and the sickness in British journalism is institutional.

Where is the contrition? I hear only what might be called "bankers' apologies". That is the special kind of bogus sorry containing no remorse, only peevish irritation at having been caught doing something deemed unacceptable. The banker's apology is offered to people who - in the eyes of the one apologising - don’t really understand the issues, cannot appreciate the contribution that the accused industry makes to the greater good and yet must be placated because the diplomacy of the moment requires it. The banker's apology says: "I’m sorry you are so obtuse as to dislike me but really, you need me".

So I think I won’t elbow my way onto that crowded pulpit where so many of my fellow journalists compete in pious denunciation of Leveson and all his works. No, I don’t like the cross-party deal. I think some of the political responses have been noble but more have been vain and a few are sinister. Yes, I cherish Britain’s venerable but not impeccable history of free speech and fear that it is in some abstract way imperilled. But I also understand why some people might look at particular newspapers and, remembering things they have done, choose not to take moral lessons from their front pages. And when some papers address the nation to say: "we defend your rights," I can see how a reasonable rejoinder might be: "No, you defend only yourselves. We know what you really think of our rights. The evidence speaks for itself and you don’t give a shit."

Billboards in Wapping advertise the Sun. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.