Leveson: what about the content?

Picture of Lord Leveson, chairman of the Leveson inquiry into the British pressLast week the Leveson inquiry finally reported, and the key points can be found here, but they include a new independent regulator backed by statute but independent of government and the industry, with membership not compulsory but non-members monitored by Ofcom; the watchdog should have the power to fine a newspaper up to 1% of turnover or £1m, whichever is smaller, with “sufficient powers of investigation”, a libel resolution unit, and possibly a First Amendment-style law. David Cameron immediately opposed statute-backed regulation, claiming that it would “mean for the first time we have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into law of the land”. He is opposed in this by Labour, the Lib Dems and much of the Tory party as well as some of those who reported to the inquiry about their experience of press intrusion, phone hacking etc., but supported by the Tories in his cabinet (and, of course, the commercial media).

I have also heard it suggested that any British statutory regulation of the Press would have knock-on effects in places like Africa, where British political decisions are followed closely and authoritarian policies especially are used as excuses by local autocrats. I find this to be an inadequate reason. To talk of setting a good example is to treat Africans as if they were the little children at the playgroup who need that kind of guidance from an older person. Africans are not children, they have been independent for around 50 years — longer than some countries in eastern Europe which are now stable democracies — and are responsible for their own political progress. Overseas tyrants commonly use the misdeeds of democratic countries as excuses for their own repression, from African dictators quoting Lord Denning on the need for security to come before liberty to the Russians and Chinese pleading that Guantanamo Bay still isn’t closed. Besides, many former colonies are plural societies (often because Britain, and other colonists, mixed up different populations in one political unit for their own convenience) and need laws to keep the peace between them.

It was a source of much concern in the disability community that groups representing it were prevented from giving oral submissions and were instead restricted to written evidence. David G at Where’s the Benefit? noted that the only submission about disability that was referred to in the report was sourced from an accuracy monitoring group, Full Fact, rather than from actual disability activists; Katherine Quarmby noted in her Channel 4 News article that more submissions from the public were concerned with the representation of disability than any other equality strand except women, and that disabled people have been the targets of an orchestrated witch-hunt by sections of the popular press, but no oral evidence was accepted.

I realise I’m shouting into the wind here, but the inquiry has paid an awful lot of attention to the methods the press use, and to little to their actual content — particularly the most prominent content, which is often thinly-veiled attacks on sections of the community (rather than politicians, and often when it is, it is often an incitement to stick the boot into a group of ordinary people), along with some pseudo-scientific scaremongering drivel. Two main organisations are behind this: the Daily Mail group, and News International. Despite the protestation that some well-known revelations of corruption on high would not have appeared if the press had been “muzzled”, much of it is not about high-flown ideals of any kind but simply about fostering popular prejudices so as to sell papers while also encouraging pro-capitalist views that support their own business interests. They have an awful lot of power and very little responsibility.

I fully recognise that the press need to be able to investigate and freely report facts and express contributors’ opinions freely. The problem comes when opinion and propaganda are prominently presented as facts and when, instead of holding the powerful to account, they try to turn people against each other with irrelevant facts, distortions and lies. Any reform of press regulation must tackle the popular press’s ability to cast suspicion on, and print untruths about, whole groups of people, thus exposing them to prejudice and danger. Currently, libel law only covers defamation of individuals, not of groups, so claims that Muslims are making unreasonable demands, receiving special favours or showing insufficient loyalty, or that a large proportion of those claiming disability benefits are frauds because one is seen out walking or mowing their lawn are entirely legal. We currently have a curious situation where there are libel laws which protect powerful individuals and make British lawyers a very good living (which may well explain why Parliament has not reformed it — because of the large proportion of politicians who are also lawyers) while there is no sanction against damaging claims against entire groups of people. Their freedom to speak, and make money for it, must be balanced against others’ rights to live a life free from harassment, and the press have had the scales tipped too far in their direction for too long.

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