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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Press Liberties

The UK prides itself on its liberties – with freedom of speech and of the press being at the top of the list. But whose liberties have these really been? A few billionaires own most of the newspapers and journals - and famous figures (and governments) have been able to get judicial judgements muzzling coverage of certain issues which would be embarrassing to them. But when – thanks to the perseverance of a few people associated with The Guardian newspaper – the scale of phone-tapping by journalists of tabloids (the gutter press) was revealed (as well as questionable police behaviour), the government felt obliged to take the route all governments under pressure take – set up a commission of inquiry. In this case a judicial one. Lord Justice Leveson was asked to investigate and report on the 'culture, practices and ethics of the press'. For 17 months a variety of people (editors, journalists, police, politicians, those affected by press hounding) have appeared as witnesses - in public and under oath - and told their stories.
Such inquiries are a very British thing – it is a sign of firm action but gives the government a breathing space. And the issue can also be defused by writing the terms of reference in ways which exclude dangerous territory and/or by careful appointment of the chairman and members of the inquiry. By the time an inquiry issues its report, the issue may be forgotten. But in this case the public nature of the inquiry – with active television coverage – ensured that the issue remained a riveting one for the public – “did they or didn’t they (lie)??”
The Leveson report on press behaviour and ethics in the UK has just been issued. It’s a good (if long) read (a short version is here) and recommends that the present self-regulatory system of the press which has so patently failed be replaced by one with real teeth to enforce better practices. The judge is quite savage in his comments about the numerous opportunities editors and owners have been given to clean up their act. This, after all, is the seventh report on the subject in 70 years – one a decade! But the Government is resisting the idea of a statutory body with powers of fining. And some reputable people agree with him - Peter Preston, Simon Jenkins and Craig Murray. 
Murray’s post is perhaps the most interesting of the three contributions since he argues that Leveson was answering the wrong question -
British mainstream politicians are still more repulsive and self-seeking than the British mainstream media, and state regulation of the media, however modulated, is not good.
But Leveson was answering the wrong question.
The real problem is the ownership structure of UK mainstream media. Newspapers and broadcasters function as the propaganda tool of vast and intertwined corporate interests, shaping public opinion to the benefit of those corporate interests and ensuring popular support for politicians prepared to be complicit with those interests.
The only answer to this is to break up the corporate structure of the UK mainstream media. The legislative framework to do this is not difficult. What needs to be changed are the criteria. I would propose something like this; no organisation, state or private, should be allowed effective control of more than 20% of the national or regional newspaper market or the television market, or more than 15% of those combined markets.
The extraordinary thing is that Leveson specifically states that plurality issues do fall within his terms of reference, and that he must address them. He then completely fails to address them. At pages 29-30 of the executive summary of his report, he acknowledges that the current situation is unsatisfactory but makes no recommendations for change, only urging “Greater transparency on decision making on mergers”.
Leveson has provided us with the distraction of an argument about a regulatory body to look primarily at invasion of privacy abuse. The important factor for Leveson is not what Cameron or Clegg think of that idea. It is what Murdoch and the media corporations think of it, and the truth is that they could live with it, after huffing and puffing, because it would have zero effect on their financial bottom line.
But what Leveson has totally failed to do – and doubtless never had the slightest intention of doing – was anything that hurts the corporate financial interests. Leveson’s failure seriously to address the question of media ownership and its use in the nexus of commercial and political interests is itself an appalling act of establishment collusion. Very successfully so – in all the “debate” going on about the regulatory body, the media ownership question has completely vanished. Brilliant.
And this post gives some good examples of how the British press is no longer reporting the news
.....The fiasco of hypocrisy played out between Brussels, Berlin and Athens during 2009-11 soon stopped being a story about unbridled banking corruption, Greeks being groomed to lie about debt by Wall Street, and cynical bondholders buying debt purely in the hope of triggering default insurance. Within weeks it turned into Greek Crisis Live, endless meetings, men inside cars being driven about, new dawns being proclaimed, and complete bollocks about Greece being on the road to recovery.
About thirteen months ago, a tale of insanity about braindead German austerity economics and dodgy arms deals with Greeks quietly shifted scenes, and became Will Greece Be Kicked Out of the eurozone. Briefly six months ago, reality surfaced in the shape of respected debt dealers and economists saying Greek debt was unrepayable, and it was an obscenity to pauperise innocent Greek citizens while the bad guys got off scot-free. But within days that was pushed offstage in favour of yet more shuttle diplomacy, more all-night meetings in Brussels, more calls for Greece to face its responsibilities, north European politicians with their own unassailable debt mountains calling for yet more austerity, and a fantasy Fiskalunion being depicted as the Promised Land.
Today, the EU story is very obviously one about the eurozone being doomed, France being hopelessly exposed to Greek debt, Germany et al being hopelessly exposed to Spanish debt, the entire zone’s economy heading for the sewers, Greek politics becoming extreme, and the need for a total rethink on political Union between European nations.
But for the UK press, it has become a surreal saga about David Cameron ‘getting tough’ with Brussels, and his Party Rightists being jolly delighted about that. The media has been gone over with a fine tooth-comb by Justice Leveson in recent months. This bloke has now produced a 2,000 page report – does it really take that amount of verbiage to deal with the issues to hand? – but nowhere in his conclusions does it say that unelected media proprietors avoiding UK taxes wield enormous and unaccountable power to pervert the course of justice, policy, Cabinet responsibility, civic ethics, and our police forces............
Andrew Rawnsley is an astute observer of the processes of (rather than commentator on the substance of) British politics and put the reaction to the report in a very appropriate perspective -
Imagine we were talking about a 16-month, £5m, government-commissioned inquiry into abuses perpetrated by doctors or lawyers or members of the armed forces. Imagine that this inquiry had catalogued repeated illegality, systematic breaches of the profession's codes, the corruption of public officials, the compromising of political integrity and outrageous misconduct that had maimed innocent lives. Imagine that the report had arrived at the verdict that, while this profession mostly "serves the country well", significant elements of it were "exercising unaccountable power".
Imagine the prime minister who had set up that inquiry then responded that it was all very interesting, with much in it to commend, but he was going to park this report on the same dusty shelf that already groans with seven previous inquiries and allow this disgraced bunch one more chance to regulate themselves. We know what would be happening now. The newspapers would be monstering the prime minister as the most feeble creature ever to darken the door of Number 10. But since this is about the newspapers themselves, David Cameron has received some of the most adulatory headlines of his seven years as Tory leader. "Cam backs a free press," cheers the Mirror, for once in full agreement with the Daily Mail, which salutes as "Cameron leads the fight for liberty", and the Daily Telegraph, which hails "Cameron's Stand For Freedom" and the Sun, which stands to "applaud David Cameron's courage in resisting Lord Leveson". The prime minister's staffers are chuckling that he has generated some of his most glowing headlines by rejecting the cornerstone recommendation of his own inquiry.
If you can briefly suspend your cynicism about the whole thing and block your ears to the sound and fury that has accompanied the publication of Leveson, you'll see a fairly broad consensus about what needs to be done. Across the political parties and in much of the press there is considerable agreement that the report's principles are generally sound and many of the proposed remedies are sensible. The stark division is over whether it needs law – "statutory underpinning" in the rather hideous jargon – to put those principles into practice. As the Deputy Prime Minister rightly observed to MPs, it is an argument about "means" rather than "ends". The battle is no less fierce for that. And no less infected with some base motivation, among both politicians and the press, about what best serves their interests. 

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