Few weeks ago I heard Louis Blom-Cooper give a talk entitled “Whatever Happened to the Fourth Estate?” I was reminded of this by the ongoing (and frankly surreal testimony from the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics. Blom-Cooper was chair of the Press Council, the forerunner to the Press Complaints Commission.
He didn’t really answer his own question: instead, this was a kicking off point for a discussion about the press and society – and which feeds which.
The fourth estate – which Blom-Cooper said Fielding originally applied to “the mob”, and only later became attached to the press by Carlyle – demonstrated power without responsibility; but whilst irresponsible, they were not too irresponsible. (Milly Dowler’s parents and the McCanns, together with more celebrated witness to Leveson, may disagree.)
He discussed the problem of regulating the press in the age of electronic media. Broadcasters are regulated by OfCom; the press by the PCC (regarded by many as toothless); the internet not at all. Perhaps, Blom-Cooper suggested, a single media regulator was needed. (It wasn’t clear that Blom-Cooper fully understood new media such as blogs, let alone Twitter, and how these interact with more traditional media.)
For Blom-Cooper, it wasn’t news-gathering and reporters apparently errant methods, but publication that was the real issue: breach of privacy, he felt, came with publication. I think he is wrong on this: in phone-hacking (albeit an extreme example), the breach of privacy surely came with the intrusion? Blom-Cooper’s point was that it was papers’ editors who were responsible, not reporters, and editors who needed a code of ethics – and to manage their reporters. (Paul McMullan’s claim that editors at News of the World knew that voicemails were being intercepted puts a different light on this: clearly they were responsible, and didn’t act.) For Blom-Cooper, what isn’t reported – the information and knowledge that the press “sit on” and withhold – is as important as what is.
He expressed the view that “journalism is the best medicine for the truth” – that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, perhaps: a free press is needed within society to hold others – those with power – to account. Knowledge that wrong-doing may become public leads to self-censorship of action. (This again leaves press “stings” like those carried out by the “fake sheikh”, including those that are clearly designed to expose wrong-doing like corruption in sport in a hard-to-justify swamp.)
The difficulty with the PCC is that it can only act after the event – the Press Complaints Commission needs a complaint to act. A code of conduct would be better than statutory regulation, he thought, but clearly it would need to have teeth. A widespread change in the culture of the press – its ethics, perhaps – would also be needed for editors to comply with a code of conduct.
With the development of electronic media and the internet, the fourth estate is returning to the mob: anyone can become a citizen-journalist and, despite the concentration of media in few hands (and, Blom-Cooper pointed out, this concentration is not new – Murdoch and Desmond today were more than matched by Beaverbrook and Rothermere, thought little of flexing their power to influence governments), anyone can now become a publisher, too. The role of the press in a civil society requires the freedom criticise society – but also the freedom to criticise the press. Educating readers into the ways of the press may be as important as educating the press itself – its editors and reporters.
I think the exposure – the disinfectant of sunlight – press methods have received in the Leveson inquiry is probably a good start.