Britain is in a terrible and worsening mess, and it can never really change for the better – that is to say that no politician or party, no matter how well intentioned, will be able to set it firmly on the path to recovery – without media reform.
That doesn’t mean tinkering at the edges. It means wide-ranging measures that go to the heart of the problem and can make a serious difference. This is at least as important as any other reforms that are being promised or contemplated by opposition parties.
The dire state of our news media is not just a symptom of our problems – it is a principal cause of them. They have been dragging us down for years.
Led by a handful of national newspapers owned by people too rich to pay their taxes, they played a leading role in driving the UK out of the European Union on the basis of lies, and have since helped deliver a sequence of catastrophic governments that have brought shame and ruin on the country. And those are only the most obvious signs of their damaging influence.
It is thanks to the false, cruel ‘scroungers’ agenda propagated by these papers that we can’t have a humane welfare system. Thanks to them that governments can get away with destroying by stealth the national treasure that is the NHS. Thanks to them that our teachers are underpaid and our education system is creaking at the seams. Thanks to them that ministers are able to treat desperate refugees as criminals. And thanks to them that we have a tax system that enriches the rich.
But it’s even worse than that. For many years, politicians have been unable even to propose policies that could make this a better, kinder, more prosperous place because they fear the response of the press. Rational, evidence-based public discussion is often impossible, as if we were all guests at a dinner party where one person insisted on shouting continuously through a megaphone.
The effects can be seen in the state of British policies on climate change, policing, crime, justice, race, immigration, defence, drugs, poverty, unemployment, transport and more.
Proprietors, editors, reporters and columnists may not be the only ones responsible for putting the UK on the path to becoming a failed state, but we delude ourselves if we refuse to see how central their role is. We need to break out of this, and it is possible if our politicians accept the need for – and the potential of – media reform.
What would this look like?
There is nothing wild-eyed or extreme about it, nor should it be expensive. Some key ideas come from government-sponsored, publicly-funded studies, the proposals of which have been unfortunately buried by ministers too frightened or too corrupt to act on them. Others involve little more than applying the Nolan Principles on ethics in public life and the principle of political independence more effectively to public service broadcasters and their regulators, and to the manner in which resources are distributed across journalism.
Here are five measures that, applied together, would make a dramatic difference – not only to the UK news media but also to British life and the country’s prospects.
The BBC is the country’s most followed and most trusted news provider, yet recent years have seen the Government asserting political control over it to an unprecedented degree. That affects what the BBC covers and how it is reported.
Bad though this is, it is only a worse version of something that has been happening for decades, so we need to remove politicians from any involvement in BBC appointments and ensure that those in charge of the corporation are independently and transparently selected, on merit.
So long as the BBC is funded by the public, it must continue to be democratically accountable, but that can be achieved without letting ministers pack its management with cronies. Equally, measures should be put in place to ensure that the periodic BBC Charter renewals require cross-party consensus and so cannot be used to advance partisan political objectives.
There must also be an end to ministerial influence over appointments at Ofcom, the body which regulates journalism at the BBC.
Many would welcome these changes as a means of putting more spine into the BBC’s journalism, so often criticised now for its timidity in challenging government and its feeble acceptance of the news agenda of the corporate press.
2. Invest in the Future and in Regional and Local News
Like so much else in life, the way news is delivered and received is changing rapidly, with the 2019 Cairncross Review concluding that, to protect the interests of the public and of journalism, this was not something that could just be left to the market.
Cairncross suggested creating a powerful national body (similar in scale to the Arts Council) that would oversee new investment in news media, directing it in ways most likely to serve the public.
What investment? Two principal sources suggest themselves at the moment, though others are likely to emerge. One is levies on big tech – companies such as Google and Facebook that make unimaginable sums from trafficking in news. Steps are already under way to claw some of this money back and we need to ensure the cash is used for the service of everyone and not to line the pockets of billionaires.
The other source is the public purse. As a society, we need to accept that a good news supply is a public service for which, as with other public services, we must be prepared to pay. This is particularly relevant to the supply of regional and local news, which is vital for democracy and for which no other viable business model seems to exist.
As with the BBC, so the Cairncross-style body must be rigorously independent of party-political influence. There can be no question of enabling future ministers to channel resources to crony news organisations.
3. Independent, Effective Press Regulation
The mission of the 2011-12 Leveson Inquiry into press ethics was to design a form of press regulation – including regulation of what news publishers disseminated online – that would both uphold journalistic standards and protect members of the public from cruel and abusive treatment.
The Leveson recommendations on this were approved overwhelmingly by both Houses of Parliament and the structures were then put in place. A functioning regulator, Impress, has been in existence since 2013. But Conservative Governments let the big national papers off the hook.
The result is rampant inaccuracy, discrimination, intrusion into grief and other abuses, which relentlessly poison our national debates and cause untold harm to individuals and groups.
An essential part of media reform will be to make participation in a Leveson-standard regulator mandatory for news publishers.
This is not censorship, nor would it inhibit decent journalism that served the public interest. The Leveson model is rigorously independent of government and of the industry. Ending the hypocrisy of ‘self-regulation’ – under which papers write their own code of conduct and then refuse to enforce it – can move our press towards greater accuracy and higher ethical standards, to the benefit of all.
Moreover, because it includes measures relating to privacy and libel law, the Leveson system has the potential to extend journalistic freedom, liberating investigative journalism from unfair constraints imposed when wealthy individuals and organisations tie them up in expensive litigation.
4. Reform of News Media Ownership
The domination of our national and regional press by large corporations, several of them owned by extremely wealthy individuals or families with no particular attachment to this country, is unhealthy for our democracy and indefensible.
It is perfectly possible to legislate to break up these monopolistic organisations, just as it is possible to introduce ownership tests that are more likely to accord with the interests of the public. Again, this is not censorship – these would be reasonable measures in the national interest, defending democracy and free speech against billionaires with megaphones.
5. Leveson 2
At the behest of the big newspaper companies, the Conservatives cancelled the second phase of the Leveson Inquiry, which was supposed to investigate proven criminality in several of those same companies for which there has been no proper accountability. Leveson 2 is an essential element of news media reform.
Only a thorough public inquiry can clean the stables, holding to account those individuals and companies that broke the law. Only a thorough public inquiry can give us any assurance that criminal activities are not still happening and that proper measures are in place to prevent them. Only a thorough public inquiry can enable the news industry to start rebuilding trust – and trust in print news in the UK is disastrously low.
If it is included in an election manifesto, this programme of reform will undoubtedly lead to outrage and hysteria in the national press, the views of which are likely to be echoed in much of our weakened broadcast media. This furious cacophony of complaint is likely to also be accompanied by vicious personal assaults on those who propose it. But would that really make a difference?
Whatever our opposition parties propose or don’t propose at the next election, they are bound to face frenzied hostility from most of the press (again, meekly echoed in much broadcast reporting).
The real question here is not whether the press will oppose media reform but whether politicians currently in opposition really want to be able to govern if they win power – whether they really want to introduce the rational, evidence-based policies that can make Britain a better, healthier country.
If they fail to tackle news media reform as a priority that is properly signalled in their manifestos, then whoever wins the next election will condemn themselves, at best, to a few years in government in which they will only be able to fiddle at the margins of what is wrong with the country while the corrupt old media system closes down their options and chews away at their authority.
So long as the billionaire-owned legacy media retain its power to drown out voices of reason and experience, to distort the facts, to promote fear and panic, and to mount dishonest and hypocritical personal attacks on those who get in their way, nothing will really change. Politicians who allow that to happen might as well not be in office.
Reform will not silence the hysterical voices – it is not meant to, because censorship is not the objective. Instead, it will allow us all to see them for what they really are: destructive fringe opinions promoted by billionaires whose interests are routinely at odds with those of the British public. Sensible democracies protect themselves and their citizens against such forces.
Brian Cathcart is a journalist, author, academic and media campaigner. He was a founder in 2011 of the group ‘Hacked Off’, which campaigns for a free and accountable press
This post originally appeared in the Byline Times and is reproduced with permission and thanks
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