A front-page lead (‘Lib Dems seek US-style first amendment‘) and on the same day a leading article (‘Press attacks on Labour are not new. . .‘): in this election the media themselves are clearly part of the debate.
Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that one of the most important choices we face on 7 May is between a freer, better press, fit for a modern democracy, and one that continues to be dragged down by corruption and dishonesty.
Talk to most politicians, of course, and they will insist it’s ‘not a doorstep issue’ – their way of saying they would rather not discuss it. No doubt it’s true that voters on doorsteps don’t often mention it as a vital point of concern, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter or that the public doesn’t care.
Politicians of all parties – and who can blame them? – are frightened of the big newspaper companies. At any moment the proprietors and editors can unleash the dogs and a frontbencher or party leader can spend days fighting for his or her reputation when they would rather be promoting policies. And the truth often has nothing to do with it.
Perhaps most egregious in recent years was the Daily Mail assault on Ed Miliband that accused his father of hating Britain – followed swiftly by the Mail on Sunday‘s intrusion into a Miliband family funeral. Remember too the Mail‘s desperate slurs on Nick Clegg during the 2010 election.
But it’s not just the Mail and it’s not just Miliband and Clegg. All politicians are vulnerable to a kind of assault and battery which they would rather avoid.
And yet if they duck the big media issues at this election they will be letting the whole country down. Political failure would ensure that the people of Britain do not get the press and the media they deserve, but are instead continue to be lumbered with the cruel, casually inaccurate and sometimes criminal journalism that has blighted this country for many years.
So what are the choices ahead? One dominates: will the politicians we elect next month see through the promises made by all the big parties when the Leveson Inquiry reported in 2012? That is the path to a press that is both freer to practise journalism and less likely, in the words of the Leveson Report, to ‘wreak havoc in the lives of innocent people’.
In what way freer? The dishonest papers never mention this, but Leveson proposed a whole range of measures to protect journalists from political interference (of which the ‘first amendment’ law embraced by the Liberal Democrats is just one). He also offered an unprecedented shield for investigative journalists against legal bullying by wealthy individuals and institutions.
As things stand, the big press companies have rejected all of this because for them press freedom is not about unfettered reporting in the public interest; it is about the freedom to intimidate, harass and lie.
Above all else, those companies – notably those owned by Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, Richard Desmond, the Barclay brothers and Trinity Mirror – are desperate to avoid the modest levels of accountability proposed in the Leveson Report. They are happy to have a code of practice requiring accuracy, fairness and respect for private grief, but only so long as they themselves can ensure it is hardly ever enforced.
If we are to have any hope of the independent, effective press self-regulation that Leveson recommended and the political leaders all endorsed in 2012, we need to see it talked about in this election. Otherwise the risk greatly increases that, for want of democratic political will, we expose thousands more British citizens to the kind of treatment dished out to people like the McCanns, Christopher Jefferies and the victims of hacking and blagging.
More than that, we accept that our most important public debates will continue to be skewed by wilfully inaccurate reporting of the kind that so often surrounds health care, education, social work, immigration, defence, race, benefits, tax – indeed all the ‘doorstep issues’ that the politicians are struggling with in this election.
There is a strong argument that, far from being a fringe issue in the campaign, the behaviour of the press is the key to all the others. If newspapers had to answer (strictly after publication) to a self-regulator that was entirely independent of their own owners and of all political parties for the accuracy of the information they put on their front pages, they would surely be more likely to check their facts. And would that not make it easier for our democratic processes to produce rational, fact-based policies?
Yet too many politicians hesitate. They would rather not raise these issues. They would rather not poke a press bear that might bite back in a way no ordinary voter can.
They irony of this is that they are missing a brilliant political opportunity, because they fail to see how popular this cause is. Ed Miliband, for example, has never had a surge of popularity to compare with the one he experienced when, in the summer of 2011, he led the demands for a public inquiry into phone hacking.
A long sequence of opinion polls also demonstrates that the public overwhelmingly wants change and that it does not trust the big newspaper companies to regulate themselves.
And then there is history. Few today quote Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative leader and prime minister in the 1920s and 1930s. But when they do it is almost always a remark he made in 1931 when leading newspapers, employing personal smears, were trying to force him to quit:
‘What the proprietorship of these newspapers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.’
Baldwin’s lesson for today’s politicians is that by publicly confronting the proprietors he defeated them. The public respects a politician who stands up to a bully.
This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post and is reproduced with the permission of the author