by Damian Tambini
The Leveson Catch 22: responsibility for delivering tough regulation of the press and a new framework on media ownership lay with a Parliament and a government that reformers agreed was under the boot of the press and therefore unlikely to deliver them. Leveson himself worried about the ‘megaphone’ with which the press could influence policy debate.
Five years after Leveson reported, we are still kicking the can down the road. On January 10 the government consultation on press self-regulation closes, and the same regulatory framework that was applied to the 2011 merger will be dusted off and applied to the new Sky merger. Plus ça change…
It is clear that the power of the press, although waning, is far from dead. In a more volatile political environment in which party loyalties are breaking down, the papers may have more power than ever, despite declining audiences, and the concentration of perceived influence of a few titles (particularly the Mail and the Sun) may give these even more power.
Given what was learned during the Leveson inquiry it is inconceivable that the politicians now in charge of implementing the Leveson scheme through the Crime and Courts Act are not aware that how they deal with it could impact their popularity with the press, and it is by now utterly clear – given the coverage of the issue over Christmas – that the press are prepared to use whatever power they have to impact public policy in what they perceive to be the interests of their own industry. To date, deployment of this power has included distorted and self-serving coverage of the issue itself, propagandist campaigning corralling readers to respond to a government consultation, and lobbying use of regional newspapers as human shields in their campaign. The personal attacks and reputation assassinations that characterised the newspapers’ activity during the Leveson process have not been much in evidence, but the threat is always there.
All this makes me pessimistic about the outcome of the government consultation which closes on Tuesday. Reformers should hold their nose and respond, but as has been made clear, the entire consultation is a fishing exercise in crowd-sourcing evidence on one side of the argument, so it is of dubious legitimacy. Whilst reformers still do hope that the Crime and Courts act will be commenced, and the government might still do the honorable thing and implement it, another fudge or even a reversal is the likeliest outcome.
So what will media reformers do if another fudged compromise is reached, and the Leveson cycle of reform is finally laid to rest?
The short answer is that such people will, and should, become more radical in their outlook. They will have had their suspicions confirmed. Real reforms of press accountability, even when they are delivered by an independent judge-led inquiry, are not possible, as the press themselves hold too much power and they will use it in pursuit of their own narrow interests. If this is the case, the press should be considered beyond reform, and it should be acknowledged that they are likely to worsen as the industry becomes more focused on the bottom line, and more likely to engage in more and more intrusive and unethical behaviour in pursuit of popular stories. In such a context, a new agenda for media reform on the Left may view press reform as a lost cause. If that is the case, some new policy directions might become more attractive:
- The newspaper industry has demonstrated contempt for the recommendations of an independent inquiry and a cross party Parliamentary process. It should be regarded as undeserving of the remaining regulatory privileges that it enjoys. These include for example the VAT exemption on newspaper sales, and various other regulatory carve outs.
- The regulatory framework for media mergers should be reformed to bring down the thresholds and limits for large media mergers, and a new set of public interest obligations should be implemented for those that are permitted to merge.
- The coming regulatory settlement on platforms. Whilst many, egged on by the newspapers, have been arguing that platforms should be considered media and held responsible as such, this can also be seen as special pleading on behalf of the newspapers. The alternative view might be taken that the platforms are a welcome means to break the power of the press and should be approached in that light.
Readers might see this agenda as a flight of fancy, and point out that such reforms will themselves be vetoed by the Press megaphone. But these are volatile, populist times, and the media-politics cabal is the very epicentre of the mistrusted elite. A future rainbow coalition of Greens, SNP, Labour and the Lib Dems could build a coalition in support of such reforms, and they would be justified in taking a more radical approach to the newspapers than ever before. In the long term, the Crime and Courts Act’s Section 40 might look like a small price to pay.
This article was originally posted at the LSE Media Policy Project and is reproduced with thanks.