Day: 26/11/2012

Straw men, straw men everywhere


Witness the strength of the newspaper lobby as it brings it’s full might to bear. Even if you didn’t know that Lord Justice Leveson’s report is due out on Thursday (actually, since David Cameron finds out on Wednesday, we’ll probably know by the afternoon on previous performances), you could make an educated guess purely from how loudly certain elements are pushing the concept of “press freedom”.

See, for example, this advert in The Sun recently:

Terrifying, no? I certainly don’t want to live in a world where the British press is controlled by Assad. Perish the thought!

On a slightly more serious note, I don’t want the British press controlled by David Cameron. Or even, actually, Ed Miliband. But actually, I haven’t heard anyone suggesting that.

In fact, the most common suggestions I’ve heard for a new regulation regime are:

  1. The Press Complaints Commission, again. More self-regulation, but it failed last time because it had no power, and because the likes of Richard Desmond refused to take part.
  2. An independent regulator, backed by statute, and thus able to enforce it’s judgements. Along the same lines as Ofcom.

Neither of those gives politicians control of the press, and indeed the broadcast press are currently regulated by the statute-backed Ofcom. And that doesn’t seem to be politically interfered with.

I’m pretty certain that we need the second option. The press had systematically failed to regulate itself, and the Leveson Inquiry was set up because phone hacking and other infringements on rights by the press were rampant. And, actually, they had gotten away with it in party thanks to the interference of politicians.

And yet, the press is kicking back on this under the guise that they are somehow innocent and can be trusted to sort the mess out. Michael Gove — perhaps looking for press support for a future party leadership and Prime Ministerial bid — has talked about “a chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression“. Boris Johnson told the audience at the Spectator Awards:

MPs, members of parliament and all the rest of it, don’t you for one moment think about regulating a press that has been free in this city for more than 300 years, and whose very feral fearlessness and ferocity ensures that we have one of the cleanest systems of government anywhere in the world.

This is the same Boris Johnson who met numerous times with News International bigwigs at the height of the hacking scandal — and tried to cover it up — and said of the emerging phone hacking controversy:

In other words, this is a load of codswallop cooked up by the Labour Party and that we do not intend to get involved with it.

I can understand why certain powerful elements of the press are keen to retain the cushy regime of unaccountable independence which has allowed them to get away with so much for so long. But why are senior politicians willingly participating in the construction of straw man arguments?

A cynic might think that they want to hang onto the previous arrangement, where they turned a blind eye to the sins of newspapers. A cynic might think that they want to still be able to curry favour in the courts of media kings, buying support for themselves and their parties in exchange for influence over key policies. A cynic might wonder why those politicians are so against an independent regulator actually able to regulate.

I don’t know, but I am always suspicious about over-the-top, hyperbolic, foaming-at-the-mouth arguments in favour of the status quo. I like to ask why they are so desperate for things to remain the same. I wonder if maybe they are simply trying to protect their own privilege.