Leveson – 2000 pages for the 19th Century

A couple of weeks ago, I posted:  Selling Off the Fourth Estate – which 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.

Do we care? Ethics in the 21st Century.

To corrupt: cause to act dishonestly in return for money or personal gain

(Oxford Dictionary)

 

Dishonest: behaving or prone to behave in an untrustworthy, deceitful, or insincere way

(Oxford Dictionary)

It should not be too hard for the world of politics, economics and our society to focus at least occasionally on the ethical foundations on which we have to operate to survive. In order to live with each other and prosper together, there are written and unwritten laws which lead us to reduce dishonesty to a minimum and rid ourselves of corruption.

Society as a concept is one in which all participants should have respect for each other even if we disagree with each other’s beliefs.

The central core of society is that we should not be dishonest or act dishonestly.

Underlying the way society works is the split between the various sections of that society – and, in a well ordered state, the division and co-operation between legislature, executive and judiciary (as marked out in the USA, and less clearly in the UK). Making law, executing the law and ruling on the law are fundamental to any just society – but, the debate (that we hear and see through all the media) is about the mechanisms that rule society more than the ethical under-pinning.

In the UK and the USA (and many other nations), the law (its formation, its implementation and the rulings on it) seems to be the pervasive elements that dominate everything we do.

The debate is constant – no government feels it has done anything without changes in the law on a constant scale. The legal apparatus has overtaken so much of what we do and think. Even though the number of lawyers in parliaments may have diminished in many countries (viz statistics from Dawn Oliver and Gavin Drewry, The Law and Parliament, 1998) the debates in legislatures (which formulate laws, of course) are based on the premise that a range of laws exist and need to be tampered with regularly.

In the UK the situation is made worse by the fact that the Executive (those whose remit is to implement the laws) are also part of the legislature – where they are seen by the public most often.

Ethics in the Centre

Tinkering with laws – whether social issues or economic – represents the norm in many societies where the rule of law has been in place for some time and where the division between the three branches of the system operate. Of course, elsewhere, the attempt is made to copy the tenets of those countries’ already established procedures. This is basic and proper in many cases if it correctly enshrines the ethical basis of a society.

Recently, the new country of South Sudan was formed after many years of extreme strife (and continuing strife with Sudan). South Sudan has recently formulated laws that attempt to take into account the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) divisions in society between regions, tribes and religions but the society is based on a legal system and laws. The ethical basis of that society in its various legal charters is subsumed within the economic struggle to survive – which is leading to grotesque corruption.

In the same way, many other nations are set up with detailed legal systems (as was the U.S.S.R. under Stalin – which did not stop millions being executed and many more sent to the gulags) but where the law is not enacted as the ethical underpinning does not exist.

It is not just a legal system, which has to underpin society – it is an ethical stance that is the grounding for that legal system and for society in general that has to be formed and around which society has to operate. People do not stop killing each other because of the law except where terror rules (although many in parliament believe that is the only thing that stops us) but because an ethical process and system exist within which cultural norms apply.

Ethics – the moral principles which guide our behaviour may well change over time and geographically. A continuing debate about our ethical grounding is key and often lost in the debate over which tax is being increased or reduced. Often laws overtake the ethical consideration; often economic decisions (many short-term) discard ethical consideration; often politicians have no ethical stance or forget it.

Forgetting ethics

Recently, many examples come to mind (some minor, some major), which highlight a forgotten set of ethics. Here are some but I bet we can all see many more every day:

Example 1: George Osborne slaps a limit on tax deductions by the wealthy when making charitable donations – a tax decision, an economic decision but completely bereft of any apparent ethical standards.

Example 2: the death of Neil Hayward in China highlights the completely different ethical basis on which Chinese politics rests. The hushing up of the death because Bo Xilai’s wife may have been involved is reminiscent of 18th Century ethics in the UK. How do we deal with this? One way is proposed by Martin Davidson, the CEO of the British Council – see: http://blog.britishcouncil.org/2012/04/we-must-engage-with-china-through-culture/

who proposes continuous normalization of relations.

Example 3: Transparency International produces its annual corruption perceptions index. Corruption (see above) is a key indicator of ethics (or lack of) in a society. The index is seen by many yet is not generally held to be a decisive indicator of action by those in power – to whom practical issues like exports are far more important.

Example 4: the death of Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian jail (as highlighted by Bill Browder – a hedge fund owner for whom Magnitsky worked) while investigations were under way over corruption making Browder appear to be guilty of fraud shows a manipulation of the legal system and power in Russia and an ethical framework, which is defunct.

Example 5: care homes in the UK are filmed by the BBC showing mistreatment of patients.

Example 6: reports show elderly patients in hospitals in the UK are malnourished and allowed to die as efficiency statistics become more important than patient care.

We can multiply these examples by millions…….

So What?

Society in the 21st Century moves on. Developed countries are saturated with products so that economic discussion is more about the next iPad or its equivalent. Elsewhere, the production processes are ramped up to meet the rising demands of increasingly developing nations such as China, Brazil, India and, maybe, Africa. Worldwide, short-term economic issues are central to all decision-making.

Other issues are sidelined in the pursuit of short-term economic growth. Externalities (like resource depletion) are sidelined and economic growth, the measure of success, is the politician’s mantra.

So, society becomes focused on a prospective nightmare. We may well now be at a critical point in the world’s history – a point where economics by numbers cannot be the central objective of mankind, where a resurrection of ethical considerations should begin – not just in universities but also throughout all we do. The basic tenet of how we live has to be that we weigh whatever we do against crucial ethical norms.

So what? Well, it becomes essential that our politics, our economics, our legal systems, our strategic decision-making and the way we operate in the world be ethically based. In the 19th Century and before, the ethical basis was religious and formed the backdrop to Empire-building; in the 20th Century, economics and totalitarianism were the backdrops to communism and fascism as human ethics disappeared down the throat of centrist power building.

Today, economic short-termism and a blindness and inability to act on what is right provides societies worldwide with real risks. It is not just climate change that can impact our society in the future (although it will in ways we don’t yet fully comprehend). Just as great is the risk that we have developed simply into short-term, economic robots, where real society-driven ethics are lost.

As John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in “The Affluent Society” in 1958:

“To furnish a barren room is one thing. To continue to crowd in furniture until the foundation buckles is quite another. To have failed to solve the problem of producing goods would have been to continue man in his oldest and most grievous misfortune. But to fail to see that we have solved it and to fail to proceed thence to the next task would be fully as tragic.”

The next task is the re-establishment after hundreds of years of conflict over land and resources of a global set of ethics which should form the bedrock of our societies: an ethics system that swings us away from the corruption-centred economic system so prevalent that we can think that reducing charity income is some sort of solution, that the elderly are a burden, that special needs are wasteful of resources, that we support unethical regimes in order for Formula One racing to continue.

We show every day that we have limited ethical bedrock and that decisions and actions are undertaken in its absence – not after real consideration. Listen to David Cameron on F1 in Bahrain?

“It’s important that peaceful protests are allowed to go ahead. Bahrain is not Syria, there is a process of reform under way and this government backs that reform and wants to help promote that reform,” Mr Cameron said.

We run the risk of self-corruption.

So what?