For the last few days the media has been engaged in one of its most cherished pastimes – talking about, and to, itself.
Undoubtedly freedom of the press is one of society’s most cherished principles (despite the decline in readership of the mainstream press) and should be defended by all those who believe in exposing the misdeeds of the powerful and the corrupt. Yet the argument over press regulation has become a repetitive media circle jerk.
Essentially, the problem is that a press regulator that isn’t statutory would risk being toothless (like the PCC), as organisations could simply opt out and print what they like. (Statutory regulation does not necessarily imply “state controlled media” – but many columnists and commentators have made a successful stab at claiming them as synonymous).
And yet such regulation is essentially pointless in the era of the Internet, as it would leave papers and magazines held to far higher standards than online publishers, a pressure which could exacerbate the speed of growth for online news and the decline of the print press.
Essentially, you can’t regulate the Internet. You can try, but you’d fail.
But that doesn’t mean that efforts to bring about a better – more responsible – print press should be abandoned. Whilst we’ve heard plenty about untrammelled press freedom (which we don’t have – libel anyone?), we should remember that there are two different and distinct types of liberty. There must also be freedom from malicious and inaccurate reporting, and freedom from having your privacy invaded, as well as freedom to publish the truth. The Leveson report deals with the often dull but entirely necessary task of balancing these two competing notions of freedom. Because the rights and freedoms of both the Dowlers and the Murdochs are important.
Yet all of this to-ing and fro-ing over press regulation (and the lack of necessary nuance) is showing the press in a dreadful, self regarding light. Because with a few honourable exceptions, the focus of the media – and therefore public conversation – has been on just one aspect (regulation) of Leveson. Yet his remit was far wider, and touches on issues that are at least as important as how/if papers are regulated in a free society.
On the day that Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson are making their latest court appearance, why is there so little discussion of Leveson’s remit to investigate the relationship between the police and the press?
Why, when political leaders of all stripes are bracing themselves for the backlash of an angry press against changing their cosy consensus, are we not talking about Leveson’s remit to investigate the relationship between the press and politicians?
And why, when we talk about press freedom, don’t we ask what impact the ownership of a huge proportion of our media by a few wealthy individuals is having on press freedom?
A modest kitchen table would be large enough to host a meeting at which Britain’s press barons could co-ordinate the majority of Britain’s press against the government, or Labour, or both – such is the small number of people involved. Indeed as Political Scrapbook suggested yesterday, those conversations already appear to be underway.
It is often said that the phone hacking scandal showed the best of British journalism (investigative journalism) as well as the worst (illegality). Whilst that may be true, the one dimensional and self-obsessed reaction of the media to the very idea of stricter regulation has shown them in a very dim light indeed.
Which is a great shame, as we have the finest press in the world. This week would have been a great time to show that.