…and whenever I see some curmudgeon at the club cursing at the labour of cutting open his Times and then complaining that there’s no news in the dam’ thing, I think, aye, you should see what goes to the making of these paragraphs that you take for granted, my boy.
– George MacDonald Fraser
Flashman and the Tiger
I’ve known a few good hacks, local and national. In the early 2010s nearly every serious journalist I knew was worried about Leveson. Isn’t it great though, I’d say to them, that the horrible reactionary press conglomerates are finally being scrutinised as well?
‘Not really,’ reporters and free speech campaigners would tell me. ‘Obviously we accept that the big newspapers have done some terrible things, but the basis of this particular inquiry could open the door to statutory press regulation and we are afraid of the repercussions for free expression in this country.’
‘Er…’ I countered, ‘but, like, what about the Daily Mail, eh?’
What I didn’t realise back then – one of many things – was how toxic the relationship between the press and the public would become over this last decade. People don’t think Leveson and Section 40 affects them, because the general public thinks of journalism as an elite profession that is totally closed off to most people.
There is truth in that – getting into the media is very very difficult – but I don’t think we realise how insecure a trade reportage has become. The internet has had an obvious impact on income generation: redundancies are common, and many experienced reporters are leaving the profession, either to teach college journalism or retrain for something entirely different.
All of which is to say that I think public perception of journalists has a little to do with what the Tories used to call ‘the politics of envy’. From the outside, looking in, it can seem like journalism is one long round of expensive lunches and Soho bar crawls. Maybe if you are at the top of the game, it is a bit like that – but in my experience, being a journalist more often means chasing invoices, crap rental accommodation, and live-tweeting council scrutiny meetings at ten in the evening.
Newspapering is a shaky trade – and a measure going through Parliament will make it shakier still. If and when the Crime and Courts Act Section 40 is implemented, it will impose legal costs on any unregulated outlet in the event of a libel claim – regardless of what happens in court. And when I say ‘unregulated’ I mean not regulated by the official Impress regulatory body.
Reporters have fun with Impress because it is, as the Mail says, ‘a regulator with nothing much to regulate’ – only a few dozen outlets have joined, most of them marginal websites or local newspapers (at least one of which has subsequently gone under because it is so difficult to generate sustainable income as a local newspaper). A censor without writers, Impress appears now to be in the bizarre position of bombarding larger outlets with appeals to let it regulate them. Ben Cohen – who runs the first rate London LGBTQ site Pink News – told the Mail that he’d had numerous cold calls and emails from Impress. But Cohen wasn’t keen to sign up:
We have a lot of vexatious complaints from people who don’t like our content, often because they are homophobic […]
They have an issue with the fact that gay people have a place in society and are protected by law. We are the voice of that community.
In the case of this potential Section 40 regulation, if these people were to bring a case against us and we won, we would still have to pay their costs — a ridiculous situation.
The reason we don’t want to go down the official regulation route is that it would give an avenue and encouragement for those kind of people to waste our time and money.
Cohen taps into a curious aspect of English tradition. After duelling was outlawed, the courts became a gentleman’s recourse when his reputation was threatened. Perhaps the most extreme example of this tendency is Sir William Gordon-Cumming who in 1891 sued five people who claimed that Gordon-Cumming had cheated in a baccarat game at a royal weekend in Tranby Croft. He lost his case and withdrew from public life.
Perhaps the ‘gentleman’s recourse’ tradition still remains. The campaign group 89up in their report on Leveson argued that the inquiry was flawed from the outset, because it was too influenced by wealthy gentlemen with reputations to defend.
Not one of the six assessors appointed by the Prime Minister to advise Lord Justice Leveson had any experience of popular newspapers, the publications that would face the inquiry’s most intense scrutiny. The inquiry devoted only one day to the study of local and regional newspapers, the interests of which are profoundly affected by its recommendations. Critics of the press were granted the privilege of core participant status. They included the actor Hugh Grant, who would front the Hacked Off Campaign, and the former Formula One president Max Mosley, whose demand for stricter privacy laws had already been rejected by the European Court of Human Rights.
In contrast, some of the UK’s leading freedom of expression organisations, English PEN and Index on Censorship were not granted core participant status. It is unclear why civil society bodies and non-governmental organisations that spent an extraordinary amount of time dedicated to national and international issues of free speech and media freedom were considered of less relevance than a wealthy and polarised litigant such as Max Mosley. It is arguable that this lack of input meant the report’s findings failed to acknowledge the importance of the right to freedom of expression.
If you’re not a gentleman, the libel courts are no fun at all. I know plenty of people who have been threatened with court action: not media elite journalists, but small time bloggers and authors. The threat itself is scary enough. Despite hard-won reforms, libel law in our country is perilous for defendants. If you threaten to sue someone for defamation, you are basically saying: I will take your house. I will bankrupt you. I stand a good chance of taking your job and destroying your marriage. All that you love, I will take away from you.
It’s a hell of a thing to say to anyone. Hacked Off will tell you, don’t worry: most people can’t afford to sue. But people are vexatious. There are individuals out there who will try and get you fired if they disagree with your opinion on something. People make phony complaints to public authorities, to bring official weight onto their side of a vendetta: considerable public time and money is wasted on these claims. And I am sure there are lawyers who would take up spurious defamation claims on a conditional fee basis. Ministers looking at Section 40 need to consider the life-altering impact of libel claims.
The losers in all this won’t be the Sun and the Mail, owned by wealthy gentlemen who have the money to pay libel costs. The people who will be made bankrupt, will be the small time liberal reporters and authors.
The relationship between the public and the press needs to be redefined, from the starting point that most journalists aren’t evil. Too often, consumers don’t see this. People will read any crazy alt-news site, from Russia Today to InfoWars, as long as it is against the ‘MSM’ – and that leads people to believe some extraordinary things. Media studies professor Gavan Titley recalled watching the fall of Aleppo and the slaughter of Syrian civilians that followed:
And, at the same time, witnessing Leftists I previously had plenty of time for dismissing every report of slaughter as propaganda, every image as fake, every source as embedded, every voice from Aleppo as compromised, and every external expression of helplessness or anguished humanity as the halo polishing of bourgeois moralism. For the sworn, realist enemies of postmodernism, there are simulacra to be found when you really want them.
As Titley also says: ‘systemic distrust of the western ‘MSM’ results in nothing more than displaced fidelity to its ‘alternative’, mirror image.’
One positive in all this is that, even though official journalism is so shaky, the principles of journalism are alive and well. Web news that succeeds, like BuzzFeed and the Daily Beast, have succeeded because they do proper journalism. They pay people for their work, they send people to far-flung countries to report on what’s happening. Ten years ago people thought blogging would supersede journalism entirely. It hasn’t because the best bloggers, became real full time journalists. There are things only journalism can do.
The enemies of a free society know this. 2016 was the year of alt media. Alt media arguably put Trump in the White House. Far right activists use the term ‘lugenpresse’ to describe mainstream journalists – Nazi propaganda, in the original German. While I’m sure Mr Trump wouldn’t go that far, he does admire UK libel law, and has a difficult relationship with the American press, which complicates Mr Trump’s public image by exposing the President-Elect’s misdeeds. Journalists are needed most in authoritarian societies.
A more positive British tradition is that, gentlemen or commoners, we’ve always felt free to speak our minds. It would be tragic if this aspect of our national character were to be chilled by authoritarian laws.