Tag Archives: press

“Whatever Happened to the Fourth Estate?”

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.

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“Is It Time To Get Tough On The Press?” – a discussion at the LSE

Like many people, I have been gripped by the news about News International and the News of the World over the last two weeks. It is an ever-changing story – the latest is Rupert Murdoch’s apology to the Dowler family, following hot on the heals of Rebekah Brooks’ resignation – and I just heard of Ms Brooks’ arrest. It is a tale of hubris and arrogance on a Shakespearean scale. [There has been a Twitter meme since I wrote this attributing Shakespeare quotations to Murdoch – #shakespeare4murdoch] “Hackgate” is entertaining; and it is all over the media. When the media becomes the main story on the media – you know something is wrong.

On Wednesday, I went to a discussion on the phone hacking scandal at the LSE, arranged by Polis. (Having spent many years in Scotland, polis has different connotations, but that’s also relevant to the discussion…) The title of the discussion was “is it time to get tough on the press”? I say discussion, because although billed as a debate, the panel were pretty unanimous; and whilst they didn’t actually cover the title, they discussed the current situation – or as it was on Wednesday afternoon – widely.

In a way, I’m not surprised that it wasn’t a debate: who would have opposed the motion? The panel Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust (which is running a campaign called Hacked Off); Paul Staines, better known as blogger Guido Fawkes; lawyer Charlotte Harris; and journalist David Aaronovitch – he writes for the Times, owned by News International.

Despite the potential for conflicts of interest, Aaronovitch probably gave the most coherent and objective view of what had gone on in the press over the past few years. I shan’t go into who said what, but here are my takeaway messages…

  • this is the latest in a series of crises to rock the British establishment – politicians, banks, celebrities and now journalists – “the fourth estate”. Societal expectations of transparency and openness, in part facilitated by social media, and the ease of transmission of information have contributed to the impact of these crises
  • the phone hacking scandal isn’t about regulation – it is about ethics and morality. The Press Complaints Commission was roundly denounced as failing and toothless, but the phone hacking undertaken by one or more journalists or newspapers was illegal anyway. Even if it were legal – as Ms Harris pointed out it was when the story of Ulrika Jonsson’s relationship with Sven-Goran Eriksson broke – that wouldn’t make it right. The Sun may not have broken the law when it put the medical details of Gordon Brown’s son on its front page, but I believe it was still unambiguously wrong to do so
  • it wasn’t just the News of the World or News International that was acting in such a way. Staines raised the Information Commissioner’s Office 2006 report, “What Price Privacy Now? ” [pdf], which found the Daily Mail the worse offender identified by Operation Motorman to have breached the Data Protection Act (see table on p9 of the report); the News of the World was fifth; the list of publications undertaking illegal activities includes “quality papers” such as the Observer and the Sunday Times. It would be naive to believe that on NotW or News International was involved in phone hacking or other illegal activity
  • not all journalists are unethical or immoral. Aaronovitch said that the Sunday Times was offered the documents that led to the exposure of the MPs’ expenses scandal, but turned down the opportunity of a scoop because they were stolen; the Daily Telegraph took up the offer, and in publishing them changed the political landscape (and I believe they were right to do so – there is no simple black-or-white in these issues). The scandal of hacking at NotW came to the surface largely because of the relentless doggedness of the Guardian’s Nick Davies
  • readers are complicit: we buy the newspapers that print stories based illegally gathered material, and such stories are published because of the commercial pressures facing newspapers. The recent issues arising from “super-injunctions”, and the public’s response to them (largely ignoring the injunctions and implying a right to know everything), are diametrically opposed to the issues coming out of hackgate – clearly, we as consumers of the news want to have our cake and to it eat it… We get the press we deserve
  • politicians are complicit, too: Staines pointed out that the lobby system by which specific journalists are given privileged access in return for non-attribution is itself corrupt and makes politicians unaccountable (a point strongly made by Heather Brooke in her recent book The Silent State); to see politicians now with knives out for journalists seems rather hypocritical
  • the police are deeply implicated, too. The police investigations, and the admission by Rebekah Brooks that the police were paid for information (both illegal and against the editors’ code of practice), implicate the involvement of the police. Harris told several stories of trying to get evidence for her clients from the police investigating breaches of privacy – and the extent of the obstruction

The discussion covered a lot in a short time – and the panel felt they had only just scrapped the surface: they believed the various investigations and inquiries would uncover more wrong-doing.

I have two thoughts of my own, prompted but not covered by the discussion.

Firstly, hackgate seems largely to be a failure of corporate governance: Brooks claims not to have been aware of the activities of her reporters when she was editor of NotW; James Murdoch sanctioned payments to settle privacy claims as executive chairman of News International (News Corps UK arm). These are (or were) senior corporate officers of News Corp.
Much of the hackgate scandal has focused on Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch. The latter has been described as owning News Corporation, and it seems like he treats it as a family business. It is a business with nearly $33bn revenues (2010); it had $8bn and a balance sheet of $40bn on 30 June 2010. This is a big organisation, operating around the world. In August 2009, Rupert Murdoch and the Murdoch family trust owned between them approximately 80% of the voting (class B) shares and 1% non-voting (class A) shares. News Corporation’s Board of Directors and management are committed to strong corporate governance and sound business practices – apparently. Like the banking crisis within the UK, the board and investors were happy to sanction – or at least turn a blind eye to – unethical and potentially illegal activities when it made them money. Now they too need to be brought to account.

Secondly, the irony of unregulated bloggers – like me! – writing about the regulated press seems deeply ironic.