Leveson v. the moguls – can the lawyer who let Ken Dodd slip, outwit Murdoch?

Review by Tim Dawson.

The British press has rarely been in such a fix.  During two weeks in July, apparently unshakeable pillars crumbled to dust.  News International was humbled, the company’s BSkyB deal collapsed, the News Of The World closed and several senior officers of the Metropolitan Police resigned.

Buffeted by its own proximity to the Murdoch empire, the government has initiated an inquiry which will consider what ails British journalism, and what can be done to improve matters. It will be chaired by The Rt Hon Lord Justice Leveson whose prosecution of Ken Dodd for tax evasion famously failed, despite an otherwise impeccable legal career.

Sadly, in all the fulminating about the evil octogenarian emperor, relatively little has been heard from journalists themselves about what the think ought to be done.

So the publication of the submission from the Campaign For Press and Broadcasting Freedom A Chance For Change is welcome.  Not so good, however, is that its invective is informed by a critique of the media that dates back to the Wapping dispute, and today is more museum piece than rallying cry.

At its heart is a staggering failure to understand the nature of newspapers.  “Is the press, and not just News International, above the law, beyond regulation and accountable to no one but itself?” it asks rhetorically and then, to no great surprise, answers in the affirmative. “If democracy is to survive, this situation needs urgent remedy,” CPBF fulminates.

British newspapers are unusual in a numbers of ways, as consumer products and by way of international comparison.  The vast majority are purchased daily from newsagents.  If the buying public don’t like what their paper is saying, they have the most immediate remedy imaginable – they can keep their money in their pockets.  Or they can buy an alternative.  There is more choice of national newspapers in the UK than in nearly any other county.  This is the basic means by which newspapers are held to account, by millions of people, every single day of the week.

CPBF, of course, would have you believe that newspaper buyers are dupes, fed wicked subliminal messages by malign owners and their henchmen in the editor’s chairs. It is a tired insult, born of a dislike of the politics of much of the press and a rather lofty disdain for ‘ordinary people’. As anyone who has worked in newspapers knows, the buying public are highly sophisticated consumers who are wooed daily with products that require enormous imagination, talent and investment.  Far more effort goes into figuring out how to make newspapers chime with readers’ interests and proclivities than in promoting the proprietor’s agenda.

What particularly irks the report’s authors is that the most successful newspaper stables in the UK are News International (for whom I undertake on-going freelance work) and Associated (publishers of The Daily Mail).  Not only are they generally right wing, but neither recognises independent trades unions.  Like it or not, however, both also produce the most successful newspapers available today and, to judge from September’s ABCs, their consumers have demonstrated an extraordinary degree of loyalty, despite the scandals.

Happily, CPBF’s three-fold prescriptions are slightly more grounded than their analysis.  Media ownership should be regulated in such a way that newspaper owners with a national market share of 20% or more should be limited to a 20% stake in any broadcast media in which the are involved.  There should be a statutory right to the correction of factual inaccuracies with financial penalties for newspapers that fail to satisfy the aggrieved and there should be tighter regulation of contacts between government ministers and media executives.

All worthy enough, but it is worth considering what would be the consequence of enacting any of these might be.  Rules on density of media interests sound laudable – but were CPBF’s model to be applied, it would almost certainly reduce overall investment in the media.  Perhaps that is a price worth paying for a more pluralistic society, but I suspect that it would also mean a significant reduction in the number of journalists in reasonably well-paying jobs.

A statutory version of the Press Complaints Commission might improve standards.  Funnily enough, though, in the cases about which CPBF professes to care the most – ordinary people about whom untrue stories have been written – my personal experience is that the PCC provides an effective remedy.

On those few occasions when complaints have been made about my work to the PCC (none of which have been upheld, I might add) I have been required to present my case, and my notebooks to the managing editor and the lawyers. My work was then scrutinised in an atmosphere of chilly seriousness that left me thinking that I would be out of the door if I could not provide watertight justifications for everything that I had written.  Statutory penalties, over and above the libel-law lottery, can only make newspapers more cautious and journalists’ lives more difficult.

The case for routine recording of contacts between ministers and the media is obvious – although, no amount of paperwork and oversight will remove the unofficial means by which politicians and the media cross-pollinate.

The most glaring admission in CPBF’s manifesto is any clear sense of what the media of the future might be like.  Indeed, given the speed at which the public’s attention is switching away from printed media, in years to come it may seem that the entire Leveson enquiry had more to do with the past than the future.

I share CPBF’s enthusiasm for more plural media ownership and control, but what is needed is some idea of how that might happen, be it levies on broadband providers to fund local news, for example, or tax concessions for owner-operated news services.  Fond as the left is of refighting the wars of yesteryear, figuring out how a new media model might work is a far more fruitful undertaking than trying to settle old scores.