by Des Freedman
When asked what he thought of western civilisation, the Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi replied that ‘I think it would be a great idea’. The verdicts handed down from the phone hacking trial together with the information contained during the eight months at the Old Bailey suggest pretty much the same thing. We need a free and fearless press because we certainly don’t appear to have one now.
Ignore the self-serving celebrations by Murdoch apologists that one of his lieutenants was found not guilty and focus instead on the news that the former editor of the News of the World and the current prime minister’s former director of communications – in other words a man at the very top of the political and media establishment – was found guilty of conspiring to hack phones. The fact is that it wasn’t just Andy Coulson who was incriminated (nor the 20 other News International personnel who are involved in criminal proceedings) but the wider patterns of corruption and collusion that mark the highest levels of the British elite.
We have a press where the single best-selling title, the News of the World, was shut down in 2011 because of a public outcry following the revelation that the phones of thousands of people were systematically hacked in order to secure scoops and sensation. Intriguingly, this followed private conversations in the boardroom of its publisher News International (now News UK) about whether the company should close the title in order to help push through its parent company take full control of the biggest British broadcaster, BSkyB. Profits trump ethics in a news culture like this.
We have a press that has all too often trampled on the rights and privacy of ordinary people while failing adequately to ask the toughest questions of those in power. Little wonder that Lord Justice Leveson came to a pretty devastating conclusion after examining press behaviour in his Inquiry.
“There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist. This has caused real hardship and, on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained. This is not just the famous but ordinary members of the public, caught up in events (many of them, truly tragic) far larger than they could cope with but made much, much worse by press behaviour that, at times, can only be described as outrageous.”
We have a press where just three giant corporations control some 70 per cent of national daily newspaper circulation and where only five companies account of 70 per cent of regional daily circulation. These levels of concentration give the biggest companies a degree of market power and political influence that cuts against the idea that the press should ‘hold power to account’ when they themselves are increasingly the bearers of real economic and strategic influence.
In the face of this influence, we have a political system which remains in thrall to the power of large news organisations to set the pace on issues of the day – on immigration, our attitude towards the EU, on the need for austerity. Even Ed Miliband, one of the few figures initially to stand up to Rupert Murdoch’s baneful political influence on politics, took the decision last week that it was still worth posing with a copy of the Sun given the forthcoming general election – a disastrous decision that totally backfired on him.
We also have a press that, until recently, was monitored by an organisation, the Press Complaints Commission, that was controlled by the industry itself and that, not surprisingly, was very reluctant to hold itself to account. One small example: Les Hinton, the former chairman of News International and a long-time Murdoch loyalist, who was interviewed for three hours by police in 2012 in relation to phone hacking, was chair of the PCC’s code committee for many years.
Now we have some of the most powerful parts of the press refusing to yield to a new system of independent press regulation that was agreed by Parliament and supported by the majority of readers in every daily newspaper on the basis that it would undermine ‘press freedom’. Freedom to do what? To act ethically? To tell the truth? To hold power to account? Or to dismiss any attempt to create the conditions for a more accountable and diverse press culture?
A free press isn’t guaranteed simply by consumer sovereignty (just as it isn’t possible in authoritarian conditions like those in Egypt which jailed three Al Jazeera journalists earlier this week simply for doing their job). Indeed, how can you have a truly free press in conditions where billionaire moguls vie with desperate politicians to shape the issues of the day? In the short term, we need public pressure to break up these huge concentrations of power – ownership limits and a conscience clause for journalists might be a good place to start. But like with any institution that has been shown to be riddled with problems, we also need to start thinking about what a real ‘free press’ might look like. And that’s probably not a discussion we will see soon in the pages of our leading news titles.