Leveson – 2000 pages for the 19th Century

A couple of weeks ago, I posted:  Selling Off the Fourth Estate Рwhich attempted to outline the momentous problems impacting the print media. These problems centre around the rapid growth of online media, blogs, Twitter and the rest which make for competition in our snap-shot age.

Along comes Leveson and ignores it all! Not just my blog – which as part of the online circus will never get his attention but the whole of the internet. As James Ball writes in the Guardian: quoting Leveson first,

“[T]he internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’,” it reads. “[T]he internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.”

The report then suggests there is a “qualitative difference” between seeing, for example, pictures posted online versus on the front page of a national newspaper, noting “people will not assume that what they read on the internet is trustworthy or that it carries any particular assurance or accuracy”.

So, Leveson seeks to wrap up the online media in statutory rope with Ofcom as the judge and jury while ignoring the fact that the print media is dying an agonising death already at the hands of the internet as he reacts (maybe over-reacts) to the public call for action.

Public reaction in the UK is understandably violent against the phone hacking and over-intrusiveness of the press in key cases such as the McCanns and Christopher Jefferies. The desire to tame the press is not new – it has been the case for centuries. But, the real harm has been done recently by the internet and the freedom to publish on it which has taken much of the business of publishing away from the printed media.

There are many articles written about the likely death of print media and anyone who talks to journalists will know that they now operate in a silo that is getting smaller and smaller. Leveson has missed the opportunity and the UK has missed the argument. Appointing a judge to rule on the press was undoubtedly going to lead to a legal framework rather than any new understanding of what investigative journalism is all about. Leveson is a lawyer and the legal profession (which also makes up so much of our leadership in the UK) does not have the ability to “judge” society’s ills. They make law and judge on whether the law has been broken – lawyers are real dangers when they try to set the standards or try to understand what ails society.

So, the mistake in appointing a lawyer / judge is now apparent. The print media’s death will merely be hastened if a statutory rope is tied around it. The Fourth Estate – the crucial monitor of our executive, legislature and legal processes (as well as of society) – will be hastened towards the unregulated and “wild west” of the internet. This is happening anyway as more of us publish on it and more decide to give up regular reading of newspapers and weeklies. Analysis is being eroded and headline journalism (just one click away) is gaining momentum.

Leveson is completely out of date on this and ignorance is not a virtue. While TV and radio have managed to compete (so far), it has also suffered. Many online visual and audio news facilities exist and the number of options grow daily. But, TV and radio are not highly analytical. Even in a one-hour documentary, they scratch the surface. The cost of TV remains high and the options to this are considerable.

This means that printed media and its funding remain important and its ability to compete with the internet is so important. Leveson (and the government that appointed them) have missed a key point.

What next? This Government has already stated (through Cameron and Hague) that they are less keen to enact the key Leveson requirements (a legally enforceable press act) than others. This is good even if it infuriates public feeling on this, while gaining support from¬† Liberty, PEN and many other press freedom groups. What remains a problem is the notion of “press barons” and the difficulty of too much power in the Fourth Estate being held by too few people or organisations.

This and an understanding of the way that the internet is re-shaping the press and how both influence decision-making (at all levels) are the key questions that the “press” has to face. The law as it stands in this country and our desire for the freedom of the press so that it can rail against hypocrisy and totalitarian doctrines of the centre are at the core of our society. The printed press should work to get its act together – the market it attempts to steal by printing lies and which has resulted in the demise of the News of the World and potential court cases against senior management in the industry is already turning against it and to the internet. Government should focus on the twin issues of print press centralism (too few owners) and funding of the printed press and the rise of onilne media.

The UK deserved better than a blinkered 2,000 page report by Leveson that, despite its huge page count, was prepared to spend one page on the internet – the main reason for the drive for circulation that has driven papers like NotW to scandal and illegality.

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