The Many Mythologies of Press Freedom, Part 2, Media Self-Censorship – Julian Petley

11 10 2012

The Sun is far from alone in attacking other media organisations, but newspapers routinely calling for the censorship of other media is a paradoxical and extremely distasteful sight.  It is one which casts a good deal of doubt on the sincerity of their demands before the Leveson Inquiry that press freedom must be protected above all else. Press freedom is but one aspect of media freedom in general, and if newspapers cannot see that there is the starkest of contradictions in calling for their own freedom (self-circumscribed though it is) to be defended whilst bawling for the censorship of other media, then the clock really has struck thirteen.

However, many British newspapers do not simply call for the censorship of other media, they also practice self-censorship to a degree which cannot be explained simply by the workings of conventional ‘news values’ . In Kavanagh’s diatribe quoted at the start of this piece, he expresses the fear that we may be heading for ‘a Press that has been bullied by politicians into delivering what they, not the readers, think fit’. Equally, however, one could argue that it is not politicians but press owners, and the managers and editors appointed by them, who  dictate what is ‘fit’ to appear in their papers – all the while, of course, arguing that they are simply ‘giving the public what it wants’.

In the wake of the revelations in the ITV programme Exposed: the Other Side of Jimmy Savile, broadcast on 3 October 2012, Trevor Kavanagh inveighed against ‘the ugliest scandal in broadcasting history’, called the case ‘a horrific black mark against the Corporation’ and demanded why the BBC did not take action to investigate when the allegations first surfaced years ago. Similarly, an editorial on 5 October, headed ‘BBC Shame’, complained that ‘the picture that emerges is one where BBC bosses looked the other way while paedophile Savile used his celebrity to rape and molest young girls in BBC dressing rooms’.

In the paper’s view, the BBC should apologise ‘for allowing Savile free rein’, and it concluded that: ‘The pious and self-righteous BBC is fond of accusing others of scandal. Here it has its own scandal, and the country awaits an explanation’. That the Sun itself had for years studiously ignored the long-running and well-known allegations about Savile is, of course, conveniently ignored, and only a cynic would suggest that this might very well have been because those who ran paper considered that it might well be financial suicide to launch an attack on a ‘national treasure’ renowned for his fundraising activities for charity.

And what else but self-censorship could account for the truly remarkable press silence which attended the birth and early stages of the phone hacking story, a story whose importance to understanding the contemporary  UK simply cannot be over-estimated?

Nick Davies’ first story on phone hacking appeared in the Guardian in July 2009, and was almost totally ignored by every other newspaper.  Writing in the Observer, 4 April 2010, Peter Oborne noted that Davies’ work ‘has gained no traction at all in the rest of Fleet Street, which operates under a system of omertà so strict that it would secure a nod of approbation from the heads of the big New York crime families’. It was then given added exposure by the New York Times in September 2010.

Research undertaken by Daniel Bennett and Judith Townend at King’s College London and City University respectively, and published in The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial, edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair,  shows that up until the end of 2010, the Guardian had published 237 articles, the Independent 83, the Telegraph 46, The Times 43, the Mail/Mail on Sunday 38, the Sun 17, and the Mirror/Sunday Mirror 11.   And in the seven months following the New York Times  investigation, the Guardian published 299 stories, the Independent 194,  The Times 85, the Telegraph 73,  the Mail 73, the Express 63, the Mirror sixteen and the Sun and News of the World nine between them. And when on 8 April 2011 News International issued a guarded admission that the phone-hacking at the News of the World had been more widespread than at first admitted, the next day’s Independent and Guardian devoted 6,722 words to the story, and the whole of the rest of national press 4,187.

The argument that the Guardian was already covering the story in detail, and that this made it difficult for other papers to do so, simply won’t wash – when the Telegraph exposed the MPs’ expenses scandal in May 2009 it sparked off a feeding frenzy that extended right across the British press for weeks on end. Equally out of the running is the lame excuse that the phone hacking story was simply a piece of navel-gazing of no interest to anyone other than media geeks, since it had firmly entered the political arena as early as 2007 when, as a result of the convictions of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire for phone hacking, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee undertook an investigation into the subject which resulted in the publication of the report Self-regulation of the Press.

Then, in February 2009, prompted largely by the appalling treatment of the McCann family by the press, the same committee began an inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel. However, with the publication in July by the Guardian of the new phone hacking revelations, it decided to revisit this topic, publishing on 24 February 2010 a 167-page report as a result of the longest, most complex and wide-ranging inquiry which it had ever undertaken.  This notes, right at the start, that

throughout we have repeatedly encountered an unwillingness to provide the detailed information that we sought, claims of ignorance or lack of recall, and deliberate obfuscation. We strongly condemn this behaviour which reinforces the widely held impression that the press generally regard themselves as unaccountable and that News International in particular has sought to conceal the truth about what really occurred’.

The report also strongly suggests that News International executives lied (although it doesn’t use such un-parliamentary language) during their previous appearances before the committee in 2007, and observes that throughout the inquiry ‘we have been struck by the collective amnesia afflicting witnesses from the News of the World’.

Such a story is surely news by any standards. But not, apparently, by those of most British newspapers, including those not owned by Rupert Murdoch. Thus, as Bennett and Townend point out,  in The Times it was reported on p.15, but the main focus of the 570 word article was the committee’s conclusions on privacy and libel laws. Phone hacking wasn’t mentioned at all, although it was covered briefly in a separate 244 word article. Of the 1361 words in the Telegraph article, only 333 concerned phone hacking, but these were taken up by reporting that the Committee had not found any evidence that Andy Coulson was aware of phone hacking whilst editing the News of the World. This was also the subject of the Sun’s 137 words on the report.  The Mail’s 873 words were mainly about MPs being concerned about a ‘crackdown’ on press freedom from privacy and libel laws; the phone hacking findings were mentioned only briefly in a separate box headed ‘Tory Spin Chief Cleared’. The Express took a similar line on press freedom, and didn’t mention hacking at all. The Mirror published nothing.

In this context it’s also worth mentioning that not one single paper, apart from the Guardian, reported that in 2009 a former News of the World journalist was awarded £800,000 for suffering a culture of bullying at the paper, then edited by Andy Coulson, even though this was the largest ever payout of its kind by a British paper. And on 19 September 2011 a comedy routine starring Alex Baldwin, which involved a reference to the phone hacking scandal, was cut from the opening video for the Emmy awards, broadcast from Los Angeles on the Murdoch-owned Fox network.

Of course, where the exercise of editorial judgement ends and the imposition of censorship begins is a grey area, but there are more ways than one in which press organisations can attempt to suppress criticism of themselves. For example, they can try to scare their critics into silence by putting them under surveillance. Thus News International twice hired private investigator Derek Webb to spy on Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris, lawyers acting for the phone hacking victims, as well as on their families and associates, in order to gather evidence for false smears about their private lives. It also tried to injunct Lewis in order to stop him representing the victims, and attempted to persuade one of his former clients to sue him. Another victim of this treatment was News International’s chief critic at Westminster, the Labour MP Tom Watson MP, who was put under surveillance by Webb for a week in 2009.

Then there’s legal intimidation, or what is known in the States as a SLAPP (a strategic lawsuit against public participation). A good example of this kind of behaviour occurred in 2009 when the Guardian ran excerpts of  Chris Atkins’ Starsuckers on its website, ahead of the film’s cinema release. Through secret filming of meetings with journalists, the film demonstrates  all too clearly how remarkably easy it is to plant totally fabricated stories about celebrities in the popular press, stories which also, in some cases, potentially breach both the Data Protection Act and the PCC Code. After the extracts appeared, the Starsuckers team was rapidly contacted by the News of the World’s in-house lawyers who demanded to see the film before release, as well as full copies of the unedited undercover transcripts, and made it clear that they were considering suing for libel. And this in spite of the fact that a few months earlier Colin Myler, the editor of the News of the World, and Tom Crone, the legal manager of News Group Newspapers, had gone before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and loudly denounced the libel laws!  News International’s threats went unreported by both the print and broadcast media. Indeed, Atkins made a short film about the whole affair for Charlie Brooker’s BBC Four Newswipe series, but for reasons which have never been explained, it was never broadcast. Perhaps the BBC didn’t want the News Group flame- thrower turned on it yet again.

What these stories illustrate all too clearly is the truth of A.J. Liebling’s famous quote to the effect that ‘freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one’. This does not of course mean for one single moment that press freedom is not of vital importance and should not be defended to the hilt. What it does mean, however, is that the freedom which most British national newspapers so stoutly and loudly defend is in fact a myth which conceals the reality of their largely captive state, and represents a particularly acute form of Stockholm Syndrome

On 21 February 2012, the Education Secretary Michael Gove, who at various points has been a Times leader writer, comment editor, news editor, Saturday editor and assistant editor,  provided the perfect example of this mythologised notion of press freedom – and indeed of its enemies too. In  a speech to the parliamentary press gallery, which we now know greatly annoyed Lord Leveson, he argued that ‘there is a danger at the moment that what we may see are judges, celebrities and the establishment – all of whom have an interest in taking over from the press as arbiters of what the free press should be – imposing either soft or hard regulation on what should be the maximum of freedom of expression and the maximum of freedom of speech … Journalists should be more assertive in making the case for press freedom, and politicians should recognise that we have nothing to gain and everything to lose from fettering a press which has helped keep us honest in the past and ensured that the standard of debate in this country is higher than in other jurisdictions. The big picture is that there is a chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression which emanates from the debate around Leveson’.

This simply cries out to be demythologised, and I suggest the following reformulation: ‘For a long time now, press barons and the editors and managers who act as their courtiers – all of whom take precedence over the general public as arbiters of what a free press should be – have imposed their own forms of restriction on freedom of expression in the papers which they own and run … The public should be more assertive in making the case for a free press which serves the public interest, and politicians should recognise that that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by ceasing to quail before newspapers determined to bully them into doing their bidding. That way, the standard of public debate in this country might rise to that found in other comparable jurisdictions. The big picture is that there is a chilling atmosphere around attempts to discuss forms of regulation which might lead to changing this situation and encouraging a genuinely free press, and this emanates from cynical attempts by media barons, their hired hands and tame politicians to smear advocates of reform as enemies of free speech who want to impose state regulation on the press in a manner resembling Hungary or Zimbabwe’.

The real point at issue here is that when press barons and their allies defend press freedom they’re not really standing up at all for the noble ideals championed by Milton, Paine, Jefferson, Mill and others, much as they may pretend to be doing so. What they’re essentially defending is their freedom to do with their papers (and their journalists) just as they damn well please. In other words they’re simply defending a property right in the guise of a free speech right.

Underpinning this thoroughly mythologised view of press freedom, either implicitly or explicitly, is the idea that the free market is the prerequisite of a free press. But as writers such as Noam Chomsky, Robert McChesney, Edward Herman, John Keane and many others  have consistently argued, allowing market forces to let rip, in the press as elsewhere, leads not to press freedom but to market censorship of one kind or another: proprietor power, advertiser power, the tyranny of majority tastes, loss of journalism jobs through cost cutting, the privileging of soft news over hard, the decline of investigative journalism, and so on. Indeed, it can convincingly be argued that statutory regulation is necessary to counteract the destructive effects on the media of the so-called free market, effects which are at their most obvious, particularly in Britain, in the ferociously market-driven journalism of the popular press. Regulation can actually be the friend of media freedom if it works in a positive way so as to inject diversity, plurality and accountability into the system. The principles of  public service broadcasting represent one such form of positive regulation – even if those who are supposed to be the guardians of such principles sometimes inspire precious little confidence in their willingness and ability actually to uphold them.

But what the principles of public service broadcasting  embody is the recognition that if a democracy is to function properly, then its citizens must be adequately informed, and that the broadcast media are a key means by which they inform themselves, which is why certain positive obligations are laid upon these media. But given the enormous importance which the press is now (very belatedly, thanks mainly to the vast body of evidence extracted by the  Leveson Inquiry) recognised as playing in setting both the political and the broadcast news agendas, it does seem distinctly anomalous that it should be completely devoid of any informative or democratic obligations whatsoever – apart, that is, from those which more enlightened owners and editors impose upon their papers. To argue that requiring the press to observe certain positive obligations amounts to censorship is quite simply absurd and to invite comparison with Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass, who famously observed that ‘when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less’.

So, press freedom stripped of its mythologised accretions should not be understood as a property right, nor as merely a negative form of freedom, namely freedom from any form of statutory regulation which might interfere with the exercise of that right. Press freedom should also involve freedom from proprietor and advertiser power, and from the ravages of market forces. But it also means the freedom of journalists to produce journalism which is genuinely in the public interest, and the freedom of readers to be able both to access and assess a wide range of trustworthy news sources.  And that’s a freedom which it’s vital to demand and to defend.

Julian Petley is Professor of Screen Media and Journalism at Brunel University, Chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, a member of the advisory board of Index on Censorship and of the editorial board of the British Journalism Review. He has written widely on the press. 

This the second part of a two part study.  Part One:  “Free Speech and the Sun”, was posted on 9 October 2012.

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15 10 2012
Law and Media Round Up – 15 October 2012 « Inforrm's Blog

[...] The Many Mythologies of Press Freedom, Part 2, Media Self-Censorship – Julian Petley [...]

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