The Press as Victim: it does not wash – Brian Cathcart

13 02 2015

papersHave a look at the website of the Press Gazette, the trade publication. Read the output of some newspaper media columnists. Follow commentary on recent court cases. You will soon see that the press industry in the UK considers itself a victim, relentlessly oppressed by the state, the courts, the rich, the powerful and the politically correct.

In some cases the complaints are justified. For example, in the case of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) there is clearly too much latitude for police to access material revealing journalistic sources and they should be obliged to make a proper case before a judge.

Sometimes, however, the complaints are embarrassingly self-serving. Journalists have been and are being prosecuted for various kinds of alleged law-breaking, and it is preposterous to present this as unfair. Where the complaint comes from those national newspapers noted for their vindictiveness towards anybody else on the receiving end of the criminal justice system, it is also hypocritical.

And sometimes they are brazenly cynical. The cacophony of Leveson-whinging continues, accompanied by routine misrepresentation of the Inquiry, its causes, its recommendations and its consequences. This is an orchestrated campaign by a cartel of wealthy companies seeking to protect what they see as their interests.

While the various complaints may be judged on their individual merits – some sensible and some daft – the overall message of victimhood is more problematic. To put it bluntly, it is hard to believe that there are many British people who feel sorry for journalists and newspapers.

Trust in the newspaper press – it has been demonstrated many times – is extremely low. In a general way, the public is much less inclined to see newspaper journalists as struggling champions of freedom than as bullies and distorters of the truth. This is a great shame because public interest and investigative journalism deserve public support, but it is the inevitable legacy of decades of press unaccountability and the reckless behaviour that accompanies it.

Equally, the press industry is not seen as vulnerable but as extremely powerful. We are, after all, talking mainly about corporations owned and run by men such as Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre, the Barclay brothers and Richard Desmond. Whatever else they may be, they are nobody’s victims.

And it is not just a matter of proprietors. There are many injustices and democratic shortcomings in our society, but there can be few industries, trades or professions better placed to defend their own interests than journalism and the press.

The newspaper industry, when it has a case to make, never struggles for space in newspapers. It never has a problem gaining the support of the editorial writers and cartoonists. Its issues are promptly and inevitably discussed on television and radio. Its networks among the powerful are second to none, indeed it can lobby ministers more or less at will.

How many groups seeking better treatment for social workers, the mentally ill, refugees, the police or victims of road traffic accidents can say the same? They can only dream of having such power and access.

In short, the press in modern Britain is disliked and distrusted while also being obviously privileged and powerful. Against that background, appealing for sympathy or support on the basis that you are beleaguered victims is never likely to have much effect.

None of this is to suggest that this country enjoys perfect journalistic freedom – its 34th-place ranking in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders confirms that it does not. Journalism is a tough job in the best of places, but the life of a working journalist in Britain is often much tougher than it ought to be. For example:

  • “Chilling” is a grave problem. Wealthy individuals and institutions are able to exploit the high cost of our civil justice system to gag investigative reporters. Merely by threatening editors with long and expensive legal actions, they can ensure that their affairs go unreported.
  • We lack diversity in the news marketplace. Too few people, in other words, control too much of our news media, and those few often act as a cartel. One result is that journalists whom they do not favour find it hard to get their work published in outlets with genuine reach.
  • Journalists working for some leading newspaper publishers are not only constrained to follow particular political lines and adopt corporate attitudes, but they are sometime placed under pressure to act unethically.
  • Most journalists outside the senior ranks of the bigger groups are very badly paid and have little or no job security. (In the past five years Rupert Murdoch’s company has paid more to lawyers to defend the corporation than the whole of the entire newspaper industry pays has paid its staff.)
  • Many police services appear to be excessively cautious and secretive – and sometimes even hostile – in their relationships with news media.
  • We have learned recently that state surveillance of British society, including of working journalists, is far more prevalent than had been officially admitted, and on occasion has gone beyond the law.
  • The principal legal bastion of journalistic freedom and source protection in the United Kingdom is Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, yet a leading political party has said it wants to repeal the Act.

That is a worrying list (and there is more), but it cannot seriously be presented as a conspiracy against journalists or newspapers and it is not proof that we are on a slippery slope towards state censorship and authoritarianism.

Strikingly, in several of these cases the chief enemy of journalistic freedom is not the government but the very people who own the newspapers. For example, when the Guardian exposed the scale of state surveillance several leading papers ganged together and urged that it be prosecuted.

Nor is the pressure for repeal of the Human Rights Act really coming from politicians. It comes from a number of newspapers – newspapers which also rejected the offer of a UK-style First Amendment when the Leveson Report recommended it.

Likewise, and perhaps most importantly of all, those same papers rejected the unprecedented protections against chilling offered by Leveson’s proposal for a compulsory cheap arbitration system in libel and privacy cases. They allow their reporters to be gagged by corporate lawyers rather than have their papers become accountable to their readers.

Between journalists and the state there is an eternal conflict of interests and it is right that journalists should chafe and complain. Problems like the RIPA loophole don’t mend themselves and noise needs to be made. (Hacked Off has played a significant part in making it.) And in more general terms, journalists always need to stick up for themselves and defend their interests, not least against editors and proprietors.

But it does the cause of free expression no good to pretend that the British press industry in 2015 is a feeble victim when it so obviously is not true. Nor does the cause benefit if at the same time the extraordinary anti-free-speech stance of many press proprietors is quietly ignored.

And finally, the industry lays itself open to mockery and worse when it suggests that journalists legitimately suspected of hacking phones or otherwise breaking the criminal law are martyrs and that they should not face prosecution. There can be few surer ways of alienating ordinary citizens than to claim that journalists – alone in our society – deserve to be above the law.


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3 responses

13 02 2015
l8in

Reblogged this on L8in.

13 02 2015
Andy J

Thanks for the posting, Professor Cathcart. I agree with virtually everything you write, but to say “[t]he principal legal bastion of journalistic freedom and source protection in the United Kingdom is Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, yet a leading political party has said it wants to repeal the Act” is a bit misleading, because of course the Conservative Party proposal would transpose all of the main Articles of the ECHR into their Act (or Bill of Rights) which would replace the HRA. So in fact the fundamental provisions of Article 10 would remain, even if the UK was no longer bound by the decisions of the ECtHR which re-interpret Art 10. Given the enormous ethical and structural differences in how the press operates in the different states of the Council of Europe membership, I suspect the UK press would be infinitely happier if the UK Supreme Court became the final arbiter of how to interpret Art 10, or indeed the other Articles such as Art 8 which can so often be in opposition to Art 10.

13 02 2015
A6er

Reblogged this on Britain Isn't Eating.

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