The first instalment of Lord Leveson’s inquiry report into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press is due in the autumn. It’s vital that Labour are ready to argue for a truly free press. We should be well aware that the political right and the press industry itself have major combined interests in adhering as closely to the status quo as possible. Although the issue of privacy was the final trigger for the inquiry, the most important failure of our press is to provide high quality information about current events and a true variety of interpretations of their causes. We need these if we are to make good collective decisions on important matters. The truth-distorting bile that issues from some outlets has had a measurable effect in false impressions left on the public.
A truly free press must be able to criticise business interests just as much as political interests. But while the majority of the press is in the hands of wealthy individuals and corporations, competition will be on fairly narrow fields. In particular the importance of advertising for the vast majority of titles means there is an inevitably close link between the press as a whole and corporate capitalism as a whole. This is beyond the fact that most media organisations are themselves (albeit not always successfully) capitalist corporations. And power in this industry is double-edged. Wealth enhances the power of voice and vice versa. Without proper vigilance we get the sort of dominance that News Corp have and have striven to increase further.
It’s hardly a surprise that the press industry is uniformly against a regulator with legal powers. But we should be suspicious of their arguments, which sometimes are as misleading as their headlines. Government intervention in the content of press output is clearly anti-democratic and is any case prevented by the European Convention on Human Rights. But Parliament is the ultimate representation of the people. If it doesn’t have some role in backing the power of press regulation, this simply leaves a vacuum to be exploited.
Independence of the press is the citizen’s right, rather than just a right of the press itself. So the existence of strong sectional representation by the corporate press on its own regulator, as with the Press Complaints Commission, should be questioned. There needs to be a clearer distinction between the need of the regulatory body to understand how the press works and how journalists ply their trade, and the need for the press to be represented in its decision-making processes. What’s more, the contractual structure proposed by the industry for a new regulator seems unlikely to be sufficient. Why would any revenue-oriented business enter into a contract which might end up with it losing sales, advertisers and money? And without that, why would it comply when the competitive chips are down?
The error and bias of individual journalists, or even individual media outlets as long as they are plentiful, is not a concern. But a systematic tendency toward particular misrepresentations is. A fully independent regulator should therefore have the ability to enforce rigorously that all significant errors of commission or omission in factual reporting are properly acknowledged after publication. Punitive sanctions with legal force should then be available for non-compliance and subversion of this process. A Parliamentary oversight committee, representative of the full membership of both Houses, should have responsibility for monitoring the performance of this body and making binding recommendations for any changes of process.
But this can’t be the end of the story. A regulator cannot initiate reporting of topics that are avoided by the press. Market conditions must allow for a large variety of viable media voices. The dual effect of profit-led and promotion-led dominance by a few wealthy proprietors, whether corporate or individual, currently prevents this. In part this can be addressed by tougher restrictions on media concentration, but the combination of more pro-active regulation of press standards and more diligent monitoring and control of market structure will be costly. So it’s a priority that the press industry in particular, with its vital role for the health of society, conforms to a better form of capitalism. Instead of ownership of media groups in the hands of wealthy individuals and shareholder corporations, in the future we need to see many more of them existing as co-operatives, social enterprises and stakeholder corporations – with a commitment to accurate and balanced reporting that is intrinsic rather than a strategic add-on.
If the left are serious about changing society and our economy for the better, we absolutely have to get serious about improving our press.
Diarmid Weir writes on economics and policy at www.futureeconomics.org