The day after Leveson: ethics and the ‘raucous’ press

By Media Reform Coalition / Saturday December 1, 2012 Read More
Do we need a whisteblowing hotline for journalists? How can we protect the idealism of young journalists from the economic pressure of the newsroom? What does ‘raucous’ really mean? Media Reform’s Maire Messenger Davies, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Ulster, gives her view on the Leveson Report – written the day after.

‘The buzzword is betrayal’

Well, the report is written – 2000 pages and four fat volumes – it’s been presented to the world in measured, sober tones by Lord Justice Leveson, and, in the words of one tweeter, the Prime Minister David Cameron has ‘bottled it.’ In a statement to the House of Commons after the Report launch, he rejected Leveson’s recommendation of legislative backup to press regulation reforms. “Nothing is going to change,” claimed Michael Portillo, speaking on BBC’s The Week later on Thursday night. Many of the phone-hacking victims feel the same way; Hugh Grant tweeted midway through Thursday afternoon: “With a group of (non celeb) victims including Hillsborough families listening to PM. Buzzword is betrayal.” After so much time, effort, expenditure and major revelations about the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the press’, there is a strong sense of disappointment among victims and many commentators, and a sense of triumph among the perpetrators. According to Michael Wolff, Rupert Murdoch’s biographer writing in a comment piece for the Guardian, Rupert must be feeling like a winner. This is surely not what was intended.

Why care? Standing up to ‘raucous’

As an ex journalist, one of a family of journalists, as a media scholar, as a teacher of future journalists, and – as I’ve recently discovered, as a ‘victim’ (my phone was hacked because I was a friend and colleague of Professor John Tulloch, the 7/7 victim) – I’ve been following the Inquiry from the start with fascination and concern. Simply as a media event, it’s made great viewing, with people usually far from the public gaze being, as the press likes to claim for itself, properly ‘held to account’: Rupert & James Murdoch; Piers Morgan; Paul Dacre; Rebekah Brooks; Andy Coulson; senior police officers; muckrakers like Paul McMullan. (See a clever mashup of some of these people’s dire statements, at ‘Forgetful Editors’ on the Hacked Off website) All of this material is available on the Leveson website – and is a priceless resource for media research and teaching. Some of the offenders – the so-called ‘raucous’ press – are having a curiously conflicted response to the report and its reception. On the one hand, Tim Shipman of the Mail tweeted proudly that “the whole furore yesterday was read by fewer BBC website visitors than ‘Germany Moves to Ban Bestiality'”’. On the other hand, all the papers have devoted pages to the report, with the Mail itself giving up 10 pages of pre-report rubbishing of the Media Standards Trust and its ‘leftie’ connections. Well, which is it? Does it matter or does it not? If papers publish what the ‘public is interested in’ as a definition of ‘the public interest’, then what they are doing with their acres of space devoted to Leveson, is a better indication of their true view than what they say. Of course the public is interested. And this word ‘raucous’. Nick Clegg was not the only politician and commentator to use it as a term of approval in his speech in Parliament on Thursday. But what’s so special about being ‘raucous’? Raucous is rude, noisy, in-your-face, smoke-and-mirrors stuff, designed to stop people from thinking about what’s being said because they’re too busy recoiling from the clamour. ‘Raucous’ is a way of stopping, not promoting, freedom of expression. If you know that somebody is going to bellow insults every time you ‘put your head above the parapet’, as Anne Diamond described her decision to give evidence to Leveson, you’re going to keep quiet. Diamond herself has already been crudely dismissed as a ‘has-been journalist’. Luckily she’s a feisty performer who will keep answering back – but ordinary members of the public can’t easily do that. The ‘raucous’ bullying hasn’t ended for Diamond; it seems unlikely that it should end for Mr and Mrs Average.

Challenging sexist stereotypes

Diamond and Jacqui Hames, former police officer and victim, were two of the brighter moments of yesterday’s rather dreary coverage of Leveson, which was dominated by grey-suited, middle-aged white men. Another bright moment was the sparkling, articulate, well-researched performance of Charlotte Church on the BBC’s Question Time. How terrific to see a smart young woman explaining in clear language how the rise of printing in the 16th century enabled widespread freedom of speech, and how social media are a modern parallel.  Even her co-panelist Neil Wallis, formerly of the News of the World, currently on bail, had to admit that she was impressive. Indeed the shocked response of many people in the media to Charlotte Church’s QT performance was a depressing indication of how the public’s views of young women have been corrupted by tabloid coverage of their sex lives – ‘Wow, she’s got a brain’. For teachers of young women (and young men) who want to work in the media, challenging these stereotypes should be a major issue. Which brings me to training. Different people have different reasons for being concerned about Leveson and the issues raised by the Inquiry. My reasons are both personal – my journalistic family background and the recent discovery of what happened to my friend – and professional. As someone who works in a Media Studies department and teaches young people who want to be journalists, I’ve never met a student whose ambitions were to spy on other people’s bedrooms, to bribe the police, or to print raucous insults about those who have the temerity to be well-known for the job they do. Most students are almost excessively idealistic; they do want to ‘hold power to account’, and the students where I currently teach, in Northern Ireland, have further strong reasons for being concerned about ‘press bias.’ Perceived bias in the press, towards one Northern Irish ‘community’ or another, is one of the commonest choices of topic for student research projects. Yet the Inquiry has revealed that, once these idealistic young people find themselves in some national newsrooms (the local press is different, as Leveson acknowledged) they find themselves asked to behave in ways totally opposed to the idealism with which they embarked on their training and careers. How can they be protected? It’s important – and this seems to have been accepted by Cameron- that they do have protection. In section 64 of the Executive Summary, Leveson writes:

“I was struck by the evidence of journalists who felt that they might be put under pressure to do things that were unethical or against the code. I therefore suggest that the new independent self-regulatory body should establish a whistle-blowing hotline and encourage its members to ensure that journalists’ contracts include a conscience clause protecting them if they refuse.”

Employees’ rights

He might also have added, that their right to join and/or form a union should be protected too. For many of us, the expulsion of the unions from Wapping in the 1980s, removed one of the ‘bulwarks’ (Cameron’s word) of opposition to unethical practices from News International, with results we now see. There is a case for a balance of power in any powerful organisation, and effective unions are one part of this balance.  I also believe in change from the bottom up, rather than it being imposed from above; really, we should never, or hardly ever, get to the point where victims of unethical practices need to sue, or claim redress because of the way they’ve been reported. These bad practices wouldn’t happen so often in properly and professionally run institutions, who did their self-proclaimed job of ‘holding power to account’ and who employed people acting according to well-established and explicit professional ethical standards, as in other industries. Another perhaps unnoticed brighter point of this affair is that the NCTJ, at last, is going to include ethics modules as part of its required training. Good, about time. In-service ethical training would be a welcome part of this reform too. There’s much more to be said – and more will be said at our media conference in Derry/Londonderry in January 2013. Media academics have been central to many of the debates and campaigns surrounding the Leveson Inquiry, and will continue to be so. Watch this space.