Tuesday, 29 May 2012

How do you solve a problem like the media?

Brian Leveson has given some early indications of his thinking on press regulation. This includes independent oversight, pre-notification (so factual errors can be challenged by subjects), group complaints (which the PCC didn't address), and a "mechanism for swift resolution of privacy and small libel-type issues". There should be no surprise that a lawyer sees the issue in terms of legal recompense, i.e. specific wrongs can be righted, and that such recourse should fit within the existing legal regime, thus pre-notification will co-exist with injunctions and "large" libel claims will still be the preserve of the rich.

In respect of giving an independent regulator more teeth, specifically financial sanctions, he noted: "I recognise entirely the parlous financial position of much of the press but it's important that sanctions are taken seriously". This is an interesting statement as it may show that he has accepted at face value the claims of various press people that newspapers don't make money (some do, some don't), and that only a fine would be an effective sanction (as opposed to a correction of equal prominence, approved by the victim).

The non-barking dog is ownership. Both this and the more nebulous concept of plurality are within Leveson's terms of reference. His reluctance to comment on either at this stage may indicate that he is keeping his powder dry. That is to be hoped for, because ownership is ultimately the key to abusive press behaviour and therefore the only effective route by which it can be tackled.

Media tycoons aren't in it for the money alone, if at all. It should hardly need saying that the true value of a newspaper is the platform it provides to pursue the owner's political as well as economic agenda. Despite the competing charms of TV and the Internet, the combination of greater freedom (no need to provide balance) and a guaranteed audience means that a newspaper still counts. It can still provide an entree to polite society for ambitious men, such as Alexander Lebedev, in much the way that it once did for Beaverbrook and Murdoch (still trading as an anti-establishment larrikin in his 80s). It can also offer the rejected a means to take revenge on that same social elite, a la Maxwell and Desmond.

The British press has long attracted unsavoury characters such as Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe), Harold Harmsworth (Lord Rothermere), Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook), Conrad Black (that's enough lords), Tiny Rowland, Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch. However, a "fit and proper person" test would be as ineffective as it has been in football. The only credential ever demanded is money, and the source of that money will not be examined too closely.

The only sure way of limiting the ability of a single media mogul from exercising excessive influence is by limiting the number of media he owns. The real danger that Murdoch posed was his concentration of power, first within the newspaper sector with the addition of the Times and Sunday Times to the Sun and News of the World, and then across sectors with the launch of Sky and the aborted absorption of BSkyB. His so far inept attempts to build an online presence (MySpace, The Daily) are equally driven by a desire to grab as large a slice of the cake as possible.

Where an individual has a dominant share of the media, that dominance inevitably corrupts some politicians who come within its orbit. The "war criminal" interjection as Tony Blair was giving his evidence yesterday rather detracted from the frank admission he made. He may not have finagled us into supporting the invasion of Iraq in return for a sack of cash, but he was quite up-front about admitting that he decided to schmooze Murdoch as confronting the press was too big a task. Excusing this as a matter of priorities was an example of spin (he had ten years to do something), as was his claim that he frequently took action against Murdoch's interests (blocking the takeover of Man Utd and increasing the BBC licence fee were not major challenges to the Dirty Digger). Basically, Blair was arrogant enough to believe he could ride the tiger, and, to be fair, he proved he could do so for the first half of his premiership.

Without the quid pro quo of favourable (or the absence of unfavourable) coverage, politicians will be less tempted to trim or fawn. Having half a dozen megalomaniacs to deal with is better than having just one as it allows an astute politician to play them off against each other. Where a newspaper owner believes he is king-maker, he will tend to act as such, and some politicians will treat him so.

Such restrictions should apply not only within each medium but across multiple media as well. For example, no more than one national daily newspaper and one national TV channel, and no more than n% of total readers/viewers. If media plurality means anything, then it is that no single person or company should own so much as to be considered a king-maker by anyone. Blair didn't jet off to the other side of the world for every national newspaper owner, just the one.

A policy also needs to be devised for the Web. Leveson said: "I am struck by the fact that what the BBC does is covered by quite different rules to what the Guardian or News International does, and yet you could look at their websites and on the face of it they're doing similar things". Well, that's because they are. Their Web presence is intended to advertise and augment their paper or TV presence. The issue online is less the ownership of individual outlets, as anyone can setup a website, and more the online extension of existing brands (there's a reason why the BBC site gets more hits that this blog). An online presence should be treated as part-and-parcel of the "paper" or the "channel".

It will be argued that this may lead to fewer media outlets, as many are only viable today through cross-subsidy, however even loss-making titles will find a buyer as a vanity project if the brand has value (e.g. the Times), and those that do end up folding (perhaps the Star) are presumably unloved by both readers and potential owners, so we shouldn't shed a tear.

Limits on intra and cross-media ownership will not fix all problems. The ideological spectrum of the British press will remain narrow, so true plurality will be elusive. The bias towards middle-class concerns will continue, with too much on house prices, the feral underclass, and the horrors of comprehensive education. Foreign affairs will still be seen through the lens of what Britain's reaction should be, as if that actually mattered.

But despite all this, limits would help to keep the hubris of the press in check. The 1992 claim that "It's the Sun wot won it" may have been incorrect, but the fact that they thought they could make it, and that so many politicos were in awe of it, tells you the extent to which Murdoch's baleful influence had already served to corrupt the political space.

1 comment:

  1. I fear you may have nailed it in the first para- Leveson is a lawyer, and naturally thinks in terms of remedies
    for wrongs. Not sure it is realistic or even fair to expect him to sort out the ownership of UK media.