This is a boom time for Murdoch-watchers. On 16 February 2012, the normally sober sub-editors at the Financial Times pronounced the imminent demise of the world’s most notorious media mogul with the headline ‘Gotcha! The Sun Sinks Murdoch’ attached to a Philip Stephens article on the crisis inside News International. A few days later, Rupert Murdoch flew in from New York, showing little of the temporary frailty and forgetfulness that he demonstrated in his appearance seven months earlier before a parliamentary committee and instead announced the launch of a Sun on Sunday for 26 February.
The debate about Murdoch’s survival, however, reflects a broader danger with the way in which the debate on phone-hacking and press ethics has often narrowed: the temptation to become fixated with one man, or at least one company, when there is so much more at stake. Instead of second-guessing the identity of the next CEO of News Corp, and whether that person’s second name is likely to be Murdoch or not, surely it is more productive to ask some bigger questions: what opportunities does the present crisis offer those who want to see a more democratic and representative media system? What does ‘the freedom of the press’ mean in contemporary circumstances and is it really under attack by proponents of a tougher regulatory regime for British newspapers?
My starting point is that there is an assault on press freedom and media independence. The question is whether it is coming from the investigations into phone hacking and illegal payments that have absorbed the Leveson Inquiry and Operation Elveden or from within the culture of a commercial press, parts of which, in a misguided attempt to win readers and influence political agendas, have backed wars, promoted austerity and spied on innocent members of the public. It is misguided not least because, according to a recent poll, only 38 per cent of UK adults actually trust newspapers to tell the truth (YouGov poll 2011).
According to the associate editor of the Sun, Trevor Kavanagh, there is effectively a liberal conspiracy to sanitise and neutralise the press. In a lengthy piece in the Sun on 13 February, he asserts that the Guardian-inspired ‘witch hunt’, which had culminated in the arrest the previous weekend of senior Sun journalists (together with a police officer, an Army major and a MoD employee), ‘has put us behind ex-Soviet states in Press freedom’. Extolling the virtues of his colleagues at the title, Kavanagh argues that ‘in what would at any other time cause uproar in Parliament and among civil liberty and human rights campaigners, its journalists are being treated like members of an organised crime gang.’ The situation is so bad that the UK is now, according to the organisation Reporters without Borders, 28th in the World Press Freedom Index, below even former Soviet states.
Except that what Kavanagh fails to point out is that, in the words of the report, the UK has dropped down the press freedom league table because of two things: ‘its approach to the protection of privacy and its response to the London riots’, neither of them issues in which the Sun can claim to have a proud record.
For example, when Kelvin McKenzie, Sun editor from 1981 to 1994, was quizzed by Lord Justice Leveson on 9 January 2012 about his own approach to questions of privacy, the following exchange took place.
Lord Justice Leveson: Can I ask you, please, first of all in relation to your [written] statement…you say: ‘I didn’t spend too much time pondering the ethics of how a story was gained, nor over-worry about whether to publish or not. If we believed the story to be true and we felt Sun readers should know the facts, we published it and left it to them to decide if we had done the right thing.’ So that encapsulates, does it, your thinking at the time?
Kelvin McKenzie: It does.
Lord Justice Leveson: Did you have any particular or any regard to issues such as privacy?
Kelvin McKenzie: Not really, no.
In relation to the UK riots, perhaps Reporters without Borders were thinking of a Sun headline on 9 August 2011 which actually called on police to ‘NAIL THE TWITTER RIOTERS’ and reported that detectives were attempting ‘to trace the accounts of yobs who use services such as Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger’ to organise their criminal activity. Or maybe RwB were thinking of a Sun editorial on 10 August which declared that:
The Sun demands decisive action. The law on rioting MUST be toughened. Our brave police must be given a free hand to smash the mobs whatever it takes. Wearing masks on the street should be made illegal. Let’s reduce overseas aid and reverse police cuts. The courts must be ruthless. The maximum sentence for riot is ten years. So let’s see it applied. Jailed thugs must serve every day. And no let-off for young rioters.
So that’s it. The riots were nothing do with the withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance, nothing to do with rising unemployment, nothing to do with police harassment, and nothing to do with a growing demand for consumer products so energetically promoted by neoliberal politicians of whom the Sun has been such a strong supporter? It may be argued that this is hardly the stuff of ‘Fourth estate’ investigative journalism…
Kavanagh, however, is understandably furious about the scale of the resources put into the current police investigations and the particularly heavy-handed arrests of upstanding journalists and he asks an important question: ‘Who polices the police?’ Yet the question of who should hold the police to account has hardly been one that has previously preoccupied his newspaper. Indeed, in one of the most high-profile cases in recent years, the police killing in 2008 of Jean Charles de Menezes in Stockwell tube station, the paper equated the murder of an entirely innocent and unarmed young man with the trauma allegedly experienced by his police assailants.
‘The young Brazilian was as much a victim of terror as the 52 civilians who died just three weeks earlier on 7/7. So were the officers who ran him to ground, knowing they could be blown to smithereens in the process. They are the casualties of a conflict which strains the nerves and resources of our finest police force.’ (2 November 2007)
This was precisely the conclusion that the IPCC eventually reached in its own investigation of the incident when it decided not to press charges against any individual police officers or their superiors.
Kavanagh’s comments may be hypocritical but, along with a growing number of commentators inside the press, his concern that the current investigations into press ethics, and any future regulatory solutions, will undermine press freedom ought to be taken seriously.
Advocates of a democratic media need to argue that reforms—such as those proposed by the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform for a right of reply, for a new accountable press body to monitor news organisations and for levies to fund new types of news ventures—will actually enable the press to act more ethically and responsibly than they are able to do under regimes which are committed to serving shareholders more than readers. Far from shackling journalists, robust and democratic regulation that is independent of both government and the news barons will actually empower journalists to do their job.
The corruption that has been revealed in recent events is a structural matter and not one confined to a few ‘bad apples’, much as Murdoch would no doubt like to argue at the moment given News Corp’s sudden willingness to identify ‘wrongdoers’. The recent arrests and the evidence provided to Leveson provide the clearest demonstration yet that phone hacking and illegal payments go far beyond individual journalists and the now deceased News of the World and are instead symptomatic of a top-down corporate news culture.
When culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt went on TV following the arrests of the Sun journalists and praised News Corp for cooperating with the police, he unwittingly made an important point. Senior staff at News Corp have been ‘cooperating’ with the Metropolitan Police—paying them for information and indeed hiring them for News Corp’s public relations office—for far too long. Far from welcoming their cooperation, the government should instead demand an explanation of why it took so long for the company to admit any responsibility for its role in phone hacking and make sure senior executives are held responsible.
It is also the time for Ofcom to launch a full investigation into whether News Corp can be seen as a ‘fit and proper’ organisation to have a controlling stake in BSkyB, the country’s most profitable broadcaster. This needs to be accompanied by a strengthening of the media public interest test and more rigorous ownership thresholds to prevent undue influence over the British media by any single commercial group.
Now, more than ever, power without responsibility—in the shape of proprietors who bully their staff, police who accept cash and favours from news organisations, and politicians who design policies with a view to securing a favourable reception by a powerful media—needs urgently to be checked. The vast majority of the mainstream news media failed to anticipate the economic crisis, failed to hold bankers to account, failed adequately to challenge the justifications for austerity and so have failed democracy. We need something radically different.