I have never had any dealings with Melanie Phillips, never had a baby and never eaten cat (to the best of my knowledge – although, these days who can say with certainty?). I just thought it appropriate to emblazon a sensational title across the top of this piece, which has nothing whatsoever to do with its content or the truth. My thinking was, in the words of Kelvin MacKenzie, “If it sounds right, lob it in.”
This is, apparently, the way in which a “raucous press” must be allowed to behave, otherwise Britain will turn into Iran or North Korea or both at the same time. Essentially, “raucous” boils down to the idea that the public should put up with papers behaving badly, because there are significant benefits. This is the plain argument behind all the elegant rhetoric. And it’s not a bad one, but it must be accompanied by an explanation of the benefits, tangible, rather than theoretic.
There is an unacknowledged tension at the centre of the debate. The free press is already unfree – there, I said it. Ninety per cent of national titles are owned by a very small group of billionaires, the majority of them based abroad. The international Press Freedom Index, compiled largely from the responses of people in or related to the industry, ranked the UK at 29 this year. The top country according to the index is Finland, which has a system of self regulation, fully underpinned by statute, very similar to what is being proposed.
There is a business aspect to what we do. We work for commercial organisations with commercial considerations. The environment is so highly competitive that it can push journalists to excess. It is a great myth to suggest that the public interest is the primary preoccupation of these companies. It may be in the mix – for some more than others – but dominant is the imperative to sell copies and generate website traffic. The public interest and the commercial interest can, and often do, clash. Inside our heads, we might be Superman, vigilante hero from Krypton. To the world, we’re just Clark Kent, salaried employee of the Daily Planet.
If we want people to collectively and individually support a request for special dispensation, we must demonstrate what they might get in return. Otherwise, it is just a carte blanche to vandalise people’s lives for some romanticised past or speculative future good. If we wish to put ourselves forward as defenders of constitutional freedom and democracy, then we have to take that role seriously. Having hissy fits about state involvement in our own regulation, while applauding Theresa May for trying to impose her will on the Qatada case, is hypocrisy. A constitutional role is not a Groucho Marx nose on a bit of elastic, to be worn only when it suits one.
Then, there is the total denial of the cavalier “lob it in” attitude which brought the inhabitants of the Fourth Estate to the cusp of their first ASBO. Such a lack of contrition and reflection is an insurmountable obstacle to rehabilitation. It reinforces the argument that we cannot regulate ourselves. Cheap, personal attacks on celebrities who support statutory regulation are symptoms of our very malaise. Louise Mensch’s “two Churchillian fingers” to Hacked Off, is an insult to the ordinary people who found themselves at the centre of a press feeding frenzy. How can anyone trust an industry to put its own house in order when it suggests, increasingly, that it did nothing wrong?
Many point to the MPs’ expenses scandal as the brightest recent example of the press holding the powerful to account. But let us also remember that the story was exposed and pursued largely by papers, which did not engage in the sort of conduct which was the subject of the Leveson inquiry. As a matter of fact, Rebekah Brooks turned down the story when it was brought to her. Perhaps minor celebrity A had been telescopically photographed putting Appendix X into minor celebrity B that day, so space was scarce. The truth is that if anybody illegally hacks the phones of a few hundred powerful people, they will occasionally come up with stories which are in the public interest. It does not follow that this was their motive.
“Anything bad that happened is already unlawful”, is a popular argument. But what about the death of Lucy Meadows and the way she was treated by the media? Is that not a perfect example of conduct which may not have been unlawful, but could have been covered by a strong code of ethics? “It’s covered by existing regulation”, a colleague suggested (apparently articles 3, 4 and 6 of the PCC code), “the issue, as ever, is one of enforcement, not a lack of rules”.
To whom is this plea for better enforcement directed? It can’t be to the police, whom the press had been bribing into breaking the law. It can’t be to the state, which the press resolutely rejects as an overseer. It can’t be to the PCC (or a variation thereof) which has shown itself to be completely ineffective. It can’t be to individuals within the press itself – if there were a general understanding that this kind of reporting is wrong, it wouldn’t have happened. So, who is left to oversee us? We have corrupted, manipulated and undermined all other instruments of regulation, only to bleat about the enforced remaining alternatives.
Membership of the PCC is proof that newspapers accept the principle that they must operate within restraints which go beyond what is merely unlawful. The rejection of a robust way of enforcing such a code shows that they are only happy to do so in circumstances where enforcement is weak and toothless. In other words, we will agree to comply, provided we can get away with not complying. I have a lot of sympathy for constitutional arguments against state involvement. But when the continuum between an unfettered press and self regulation has been tried and has failed, what is left?
We have made it very clear what we don’t like, but not what alternative we propose. This is the question to which I have not yet seen a cogent answer. All I have seen is a cleverly reformulated plea: to continue to be allowed to behave appallingly, to trample the likes of Lucy Meadows, to invade people’s private lives with catastrophic results – all in exchange for some fictional benefit: the vague notion that, while we are looking for cheap smut, we may stumble across something of actual value to the nation.