Go after abusive media companies, not bloggers
Samuel Johnson famously asked, in an essay written during the American war of independence, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”. These days, we hear the loudest yelps for free speech among a group of corporate bodies who act like the thuggish and brazen secret police of a tin-pot dictatorship. They harass members of the public who have the gall to be talented or otherwise famous, or who are unlucky enough to be a victim of a serious crime or to have some detail in their lives that these self-appointed Mukhabarat deem to be of interest to their customers; they rummage through their rubbish, they talk to their friends if the prey themselves will not talk, they hack their mobile phones and illegally access their voice-mail, they camp outside people’s houses and follow them down the streets, and they rely on gangs of photographers who have been known to pursue motor vehicles down roads and cause fatal car crashes. This week, these organisations have been loudly protesting a new form on press regulation that is meant to cut off the sharpest edges of their tyranny, while more moderate publications have announced that they will not be signing up to it or suggesting that it should not be the focus of an early-hours political deal. For once I agree with them: this new régime is the wrong way to go about it.
Also this week, we heard that someone whose life had been the subject of hostile press coverage last December — a transsexual primary school teacher in Accrington, Lancashire who finished the autumn/winter term of 2012 as a man and started the first term of 2013 as a woman, Lucy Meadows, whose story was reported in the national press (who used underhand means to get a picture as Lucy and her family and friends had the audacity to refuse to supply one) and was the subject of a prurient piece by the ever loathsome Richard Littlejohn and persistent harassment by the press, for which reason she had to leave her own home by the back door, was found dead earlier this week and is suspected to have committed suicide. I say “suspected” because the actual cause of death has not been reported yet, and people in their 30s do die sudden, natural deaths, but even if her death is nothing to do with the press harassment and public humiliation, those things still happened and are quite inexcusable. Transgender activist Jane Fae has reported that the press were actively seeking to give a one-sided story, only interviewing the few parents who were opposed to what she was doing in which she was supported by her school, not the supportive majority. (Note: the link contains material sourced, though not directly quoted, from Meadows’ private emails, to which some have objected on privacy grounds.)
As was revealed at the Leveson report, she was far from the first victim: Baroness Hollins, former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, whose daughter Abigail Witchalls was stabbed and left paralysed in 2005, reported that journalists would interview her friends and neighbours when she and her family refused to co-operate, and made up details such as a family holiday that never took place. Much like the “benefit scroungers” they so despise, they have the impression that the public owe them a living, that they are entitled to a story, and if the public do not oblige, then they can make up facts as long as they are not libellous.
Their harassment of celebrities and victims of crime are one facet of the evil of the tabloid press in the UK. The other is what they actually print, in particular, their regular demonisation of various minorities over the years in front-page campaigns, claiming that minorities are making outrageous demands, that they get special favours, that they are not loyal to this country or want to impose Shari’ah law (no prizes for guessing which minority that refers to), or that an outrageous group within the minority are representative of the minority, giving no air-time to the mainstream. When they have more recently turned their attention to benefit claimants, they also misrepresent the issue, as with a much complained-about cartoon that showed a man having a blister tended to by his wife, with the slogan “It’s a bad blister, but a bit of Disability Living Allowance should make it better” attached underneath. Many people complained to the PCC about this cartoon, among them Margo Milne who reproduced the PCC’s response on her blog. In response to the complaint about accuracy — that DLA is not claimable for passing, trivial inconveniences like blisters — the PCC had this excuse:
The Commission was satisfied that readers generally would have recognised that the cartoon expressed the robust, and even controversial, opinion of the newspaper about the general availability of disability benefits, rather than a statement of fact about the precise circumstances in which benefits can be claimed. While the cartoon had suggested that benefits are too readily available, it had not implied that everyone on DLA was receiving it unnecessarily. The newspaper had not failed to distinguish comment from fact. There was no breach of the Code.
However, the cartoon did not imply merely that DLA was too widely-available; it implied that it was available for trivial inconveniences rather than long-term impairments. (As a comment on Margo’s blog makes clear, DLA is also not claimable for short-term injuries, so the inaccuracy is much greater than the PCC had considered.) As is well-known, the PCC is a fig-leaf so the press can pretend it is regulating itself, and the press are well-versed in the tricks of circulating prejudicial material to give misleading impressions (or reinforce them) while avoiding actually breaking the rules they set for themselves, and the PCC rules that there has been no breach of their “code” if the tricks have been applied. Libel laws do not cover such misinformation; it covers only material which tarnishes an individual’s reputation. The law could be extended to cover misinformation about entire groups, or misinformation which has ramifications for anyone, especially for large groups. Even the American First Amendment excludes speech which contains “false facts” from protection, and newspapers have been successfully sued for promoting the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-semitic fabrication which purports to be the manifesto of a Jewish conspiracy. Such a suit could not happen in the UK.
The new regulatory régime agreed last week will be optional, but papers and other “publishers” (which means anyone who publishes news-related material, including private bloggers like myself) will be liable for “exemplary damages” if they refuse to sign and are successfully sued for libel or some other offences such as breach of confidence. The UK already has some of the world’s most stringent libel laws, so it is unlikely that this will put many people off, and it seems that reforming those is off the agenda for the time being. The Mail produced a row of stories that they say could not have been printed if there had been a “press law” in operation, exposing the corruption of the rich and powerful, including their own “Murderers” (above pictures of Stephen Lawrence’s killers), with the sub-heading “if we are wrong, let them sue us” (something they would surely not have printed if any of them had a rich daddy, but as they were from a council estate, there could be no consequences) and a headline from the Guardian which read, regarding Jonathan Aitken, “He lied and lied and lied” — this being after he had been convicted of perjury and had been sent to prison, so it was a report on something that had been proven as fact in a court of law, not the result of an investigation (although it was the Guardian which pushed for Aitken to be charged with perjury). We all know, however, that the low- and mid-market tabloid press mostly do not concern themselves with the corruption of the rich and powerful, but with victimising allegedly uppity minorities and poor people. As I quoted Laurie Penny saying a couple of weeks ago: insulting the powerless carries much less risk than insulting a royal or an aged right-wing politician.
The elephant in the room in this whole discussion is not even media ownership; it is precisely these newspapers. The vast majority of sensational, prejudiced reporting we see comes from three newspapers: the Sun, the Mail and the Express. These three papers also command a huge degree of power, and their “scandals” have resulted in panic reactions from governments which have caused enormous degrees of hardship for ordinary people. The clearest example was the “foreign prisoner” scandal, which saw a principle invented overnight that a foreign national who was convicted of a crime should have been expelled, and numerous such people were locked up and threatened with deportation, despite having been in the country for years or since childhood, despite not speaking the language of the countries they came from, despite having British family, despite being accepted in their local communities, for no apparent reason other than that the Daily Mail demanded it. (The more recent scandals of ex-soldiers being threatened with deportation for petty black marks on their records, that the Mail and other right-wing journals have complained of, are a result of policies adopted after the fake foreign prisoner scandal.)
The fact that a private newspaper can trigger a panic reaction in an elected government is something that should give great concern. The combined circulation of the Daily Mail, Sun (as a 6-day paper) and Daily Express was 5.1 million from June 2011 to June 2012; the UK population as of the census of 2011 was 63.2 million, with the adult population being around 50 million, so these papers’ combined circulation is just over a tenth of the adult population, although their true reach may be higher than this as people read copies provided for free in cafés or left on trains, and friends’ copies, though there may be unread bulks (copies bought in large numbers to be given out). It should also be remembered that the Tories fought two election campaigns (2001 and 2005) under two successive leaders primarily by appealing to the kinds of sentiments promoted by these newspapers and lost handily both times. Still, there is evidence that the attitudes they promote have been widely accepted: for example, recent research demonstrated that even many people who were receiving benefits believed that others receiving them did not deserve it.
Whatever the effects of these paper’s propaganda, the obvious fact is that they do disseminate propaganda, often based on half-truths or distortions and sometimes outright lies; they encourage readers to be suspicious of other ordinary people, often poor people, of visible minorities and of immigrants — the latter are a particularly easy target as they cannot vote — and they have such a reach that many people will have seen and absorbed their propaganda before anyone has had a chance to refute it, and a refutation posted on a site like Five Chinese Crackers or Tabloid Watch, or this site, will be read by a tiny fraction of the number of people who read the offending article. As Mark Twain is reported to have said, “a lie can travel half way round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”. These papers tell people what they are thinking, and encourage easy, visceral or top-of-head responses rather than well-thought-out ones, and ridicule thinkers and intellectuals by calling them lefties or even Marxists. They press buttons in people’s minds in order to sell papers, and policy is being made according to what sells tabloids. As we have already seen, Labour is particularly vulnerable to intimidation by the press while in government. If you want to know why the Tory press currently promotes policies that are mid-way between the Tories and UKIP (and thus risk splitting the Tory vote), the reason is that Labour would not greatly challenge policies and norms established by the Tories, and the press would be greatly more powerful and would set the agenda.
We must start treating this group of newspapers as a power in itself, a power that nobody elected but exists because of the wealth of those who own these companies. These papers are a tool that the rich use to out-shout everyone else, and decide who even gets a shout, as opposed to a whisper. Of course, there is no objection to whatever opinions people wish to express in a comment piece, as long as it is clearly presented as such; the objection is to propaganda disguised as news and prominently displayed, which is what these newspapers specialise in. It is time to make a moral judgement and recognise that these newspapers are different from others, and that the rules should be different for them. They must be taken into public control, or closed down. I do not support establishing a censorship régime for them, as it could easily be extended to all the other newspapers. With these newspapers taken out of the picture, no more stringent regulation of the press would be necessary. It is quite grotesque that reputable newspapers and small bloggers are being threatened with more stringent regulation simply because of these three corporations which abuse their power by harassing ordinary members of the public and bombarding it with hate- and lie-filled propaganda. They should be the target, not anyone who speaks their mind about any issue related to news or politics.
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