Thursday, 29 November 2012

Pressing the Issue..

So the Leveson Report has seen the day and, to no one's surprise, it has recommended greater regulation of the press. Equally, to no one's surprise, the backlash has started in the written media. This morning's Sun contained a four-page exhortation not to shackle the media and wheeled out any and every hack journalist, celebrity, fourth-rate politician and "member of the public" in support of its special pleading.

Needless to say, the political posturing and points-scoring has been in full flow with the anti-Coalition Conservatives joining in supporting the Sun and the other Murdoch papers (joined by the usual suspects such as City AM's Allister Heath). Part of this posturing has been the accusation that those seeking to implement Leveson are interested only in State control of the media and of course go on to make any and every apocalyptic summation of the death of freedom etc, etc.

As a Liberal Democrat, I start from the premise of John Stuart Mill that if we silence an opinion, we may be silencing the truth and I would be opposed to Government-sponsored regulation of the Press. That said, I'm not in favour of either self-regulation which has manifestly failed or a complete free-for-all so where is the way forward?

The problem is the preoccupation with the notion of "free" speech as distinct from "fair" speech or "responsible" speech. The restricted ownership of the printed press has also restricted the ebb and flow of opinion. There is no longer the plurality of opinion which characterises a genuinely free press - instead, a broadly right-wing agenda is followed and far more newspapers support or endorse the Conservative Party than Labour, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP or the Greens. Indeed, these other parties are, more often than not, ridiculed or generally portrayed negatively.

Together with the absence of plurality comes the abundance of trivialisation or worse. The appalling activities surrounding the Milly Dowler case showed just how corrupt elements of the media appeared to have become. This is however the exception. The norm is trivialisation or the continuing coverage of celebrity and the blanket coverage known as "celebrity gossip" in which the slightest peccadillo of footballers and pop stars is covered ad nauseam.

The necessary change of culture within the newspaper industry won't happen quickly but it does need to happen otherwise the attraction of legislation and State control will be irrresistible. It's not just about plurality or trivialisation either - it's about making the media truly accountable to all individuals not just the wealthiest. While the laws of defamation and libel exist, pursuing newspapers through the courts isn't an option for the majority. There has to be a mechanism whereby ordinary people can seek proper and adequate redress for mis-reporting and mis-information.

Providing a proper structure for individuals to get adequate recompense from an overweaning printed media, ensuring plurality of opinion and comment exists within the printed media and reducing the emphasis on trivialisation and celebrity would be my three steps forward for the free British press.

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