The Leveson Report – Reading between the criticisms

With the publishing of the Leveson Report on Thursday, after seemingly 237 years in the making, those instantly critical or dubious of the conclusions have come out of the woodwork faster than Gary Barlow on a slip-n-slide.

1. With the earnestness of a nun at the Vatican, all of the leading newspaper and TV organisations have dutifully focused on the importance of the report and its wide ranging implications for the future of the press, but no one has really taken a step back and questioned the place of newspapers in our society. With circulation diminishing year on year, it feels like regulating on a new type of stable door after the horse has bolted. There is seemingly little forethought as to how newspapers will operate in a world full of iPads and the Mail Online; if more newspapers reduce their publishing frequency or become a digital only entity, like Newsweek, then the difference between a regulated media outlet and one that is not, will be rather stark and absurd.

Lord Leveson

Lord Leveson with his magic report

2. The new Ofcom style regulatory body that will be established (Ofpap anyone?) will herald the first press law since the 17th Century, and the Conservatives don’t like it. Their main reason for ‘hating on’ Leveson is the ‘mission creep’ fear that politicians today have about their counterparts in the future. Apparently they are creating a vehicle for the future government control of the press, which in turn raises many interlinked points:

  • A ‘vehicle’ that can alter the future sounds like a time machine – is that where George Osborne has been hiding whilst it is being built?
  • When is this expected government takeover of the press likely to take place, as we can keep a look out for it?
  • Do politicians really distrust the future iterations of themselves that much? Though saying that, I suppose they know the wants and desires of politicians better than us mere mortals. Maybe we should take their warning with a greater seriousness than we have so far.

3. The reaction of most of the newspapers is of collective shock at how their industry has been slandered by Leveson. But lest we forget the ‘last chance saloon’ of the 1990s, and to be able to drink in such a salubrious establishment there must have been one or two other bars they were thrown out of because of raucous behaviour. Newspapers are a public entity with a moral duty to upload to society, and that was destroyed with phone hacking, profit maximising, politician entrancing behaviour.

4. People bought the papers out of their own free will. So surely we, the people should accept some share of the blame

There isn’t a magic elixir to solve the ills of press behaviour whilst maintaining the ideal amount of freedom, and I think it is time that that fact was acknowledged a bit more by those in power. Much like a teenager that has misbehaved once too often, the press will have to be grounded until it has learnt it’s lesson and only then will it be allowed to go out by itself again, but hopefully with more wisdom and greater responsibility.

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RUN! The BskyB is falling in!

It was not so long ago that Chicken Little grabbed the front pages of newspapers around the world with the news that ‘the sky is falling’. His later arrest and imprisonment under the ‘Anti-Doomsday Act 2009’ saw him share a cell with the exhumed bones of the century’s dead compilers of William the Conqueror’s tax-grabbing land and property survey, the Domesday Book. It was a hideously lazy piece of legislation from the late-stage New Labour Government, not least because it drew no distinction between two but that was to be expected by the late stage Labour Government.

But the developments over the past few days have seen the likelihood of Chicken Little’s predictions having a ring of truth increase exponentially as News Corp’s planned buyout of the remaining BskyB shares has run into some’ slight’ turbulence. From Jeremy Hunts tacit acceptance of the deal early last week to its indefinite postponement at the end, it has capped off a week that can only be made worse if it was revealed that News Corp lace all their tabloid newspapers with a chemical that acts both as an aphrodisiac and an intelligence suppressor, resulting in a rapidly populating idiot class (The Sun readership).

Regardless of what has happened in the News of the World, it has no real bearing on the decision by Ofcom and the Culture Secretary regarding the takeover. Yes, we have ammo; yes, horrible things have occurred but no, that does not affect that plurality of the media. For that is what it all boils down to in the end, the need to have a variety of voices coming over the airwaves. Much like cricket cannot be played using the Queensbury rules, the decision cannot be undertaken on media ethics but on plurality alone.

Look at the lovely couple

Hold your horses! Before you start typing ‘Fit and Proper Persons Test’, I agree that Murdoch should be sent back to where he came from (that is the States, as he turned his back on Australia when he discovered that being an American could be a business advantage) with a resounding ‘No’ reverberating in his ears. Ofcom and Hunt should have seen the light much earlier, and not been drawn in by a rather obnoxious, decrepit elderly man (however attractive that does sound), but now truth has thrown on to the relationship between the media and politicians and they are backtracking faster than Usain Bolt on rewind.

The already scant levels of media pluralism in the UK have been eroded by successive Government decisions to relax restrictions on cross-media ownership. These safeguards allowed a variety of voices to be heard and prevented the rise of a monolithic media organisation, but this is based on a sufficient separation between the government and the fourth estate and not one where they both enjoy long walks on the beach.

With the entire Murdoch Empire now in the spotlight, the two issues – ethics and plurality – can finally get the attention they deserve but at the same time they should not be confused, however intertwined they might appear. The growing intensity of public opinion will only serve to diminish the flailing media tycoon’s influence over politicians, as they are slowly coming round to the old-fashioned idea that it’s the electorate that hold the true power.

PCC = Pretty Crap Communicators

So the Press Complaints Commission today have raised the flag of independence in the face of attempts by politicians on all sides of the house to throw the body in the pit of obsolescence. Their failure to take the recalcitrant News of the World to task has been highlighted by all three main party leaders and tacitly by the PCC itself.

But the defence is head-scratchingly poor:  “The government cannot simply order the replacement of the PCC, because it is an independent organisation” screamed a statement by the PCC. In PR terms, that is a raspberry to due process and the workings of true regulators like Ofcom and Ofgem. It is the rhetorical equivalent of double jeopardy: both have admitted something is amiss but sidestep any repercussions due to a technicality.

The mildly condescending nature of public figures who, in the wake of the rapid-fire News of the World revelations were desperately slinging turd-shaped balls of blame at one another to see what would stick in the mistaken belief that the public have a limited portion of disdain to dish out. We don’t. My own personal list grows each day. But they also fail to realise that their sins are separate and can’t be tossed like a mountain lion into the unsuspecting arms of the other. The Government (both past and present) were drawn to the light of Murdoch’s empire and found him a comfortable bedfellow (I bet his hugs are AMAZING) blurring the lines between media and politicians. The PCC on the other hand were just crap; whether it was by design or major oversight they still allowed this to happen. The idea that any industry can self-regulate brings a chuckle, but when that industry is responsible for access to information does the giggle turn to spasms of laughter.

So where can the PCC turn now? Well, at the moment, they rely on the support of the constituent members but like the Express Group has shown, any member can leave the Commission by not paying its dues . This can pave the way for the creation of a new regulatory body with more stringent powers and less of a conflict of interest when investigating complaints. So if the newspapers are genuinely serious about learning from the mistakes of this whole debacle then they will have to back their words with actions, which may just be a first.