Mr Cameron, please don’t hurt our Free Press

Journalists up and down the country are probably feeling worried — even the ones with a clean conscience and an aversion to rummaging in Kerry Katona’s bins. After all, the demise of a scandal-addled News of the World is set to bear much wider implications for British journalism than most of us, blinded by our white-hot rage against the tabloids, are able to foresee. Bowing to national pressure, David Cameron has now announced that a public inquiry into the “ethics and culture of the press” will be conducted, along with a shake-up of its current self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission. Embarrassingly, he finds himself reiterating Ed Miliband’s words, whose open criticism of the Murdoch press reeks of a revolutionised Labour party that won’t be trying to regain the media mogul’s friendship. Still, as much as I admire Miliband’s courage in this respect, I fear that the collateral damage of this stringent ethical cleansing will be far too extensive.

I predict a momentary triumph for anti-Murdochites followed by a heavy, long-enduring loss for journalism as the PCC is replaced by some hulking pseudo-political authority, which proceeds to give the Free Press a serious pounding. More than just hacks hacking phones (excuse the alliteration), this inquiry will probably dredge up even seedier goings-on behind the closed doors of certain British newspapers. A minority of journalists which looks like a majority to myopic Joe Public will be filing for moral bankruptcy, and the result: ‘untrustworthy journalist’ stereotypes will abound, leading to some poofy-wigged judge declaring the press no longer fit to fully regulate itself. Amid tougher restrictions and strict governance, the journalists who don’t descend on celebrity wheelie bins like a plague of hungry locusts and who don’t mistake public interest for downright perversion might find it harder to do their job.

The problem is that Britain has been in love with middle-market tabloids for far too long. Apparently, it’s the scandalous trysts of the rich and famous that the great British readership wants to know about, not the heinous war-crimes of some power-hungry despot in the Middle-east. Invasion of privacy is now almost synonymous with journalism, and it is undoubtedly the nation’s insatiable need for more that has led to this newfangled culture of criminality flourishing within the offices of certain national newspapers. It appears that when it comes to getting that world exclusive, the ends justify whatever means. Ironically, within the same year that the News of the World gleans the coveted Scoop of the Year Award for unearthing the Pakistani cricket match fix, this newspaper has been shut down at the cost of more than 200 abrupt redundancies.

Forecasts for the future of the British media look even bleaker as the Murdoch empire continues to encroach on our TVs and newspapers. So far, in spite of widespread criticism and new phone-hacking allegations seemingly being made per hour, News Corporations’ plans to buy the rest of British Sky Broadcasting have only been slowed down, not reversed. Then, there are rumours that News International’s flagship title, The Sun, could be expanded into a seven-day paper or perhaps spawn a Sunday spin-off of sorts. The inevitable outcome appears to be that an even bigger chunk of this nation’s present and future journalists will end up on Murdoch’s payroll, a harrowing thought for British journalism which thrives on the plurality and political independence of the press. Our media might not be as much in Murdoch’s neo-conservative stranglehold as its American equivalent (think Fox News) but that might change once, as sole proprietor of BSkyB, the media tycoon is allowed to usher his army of Glenn Beck types and other such ultras onto our TVs.

More regulations and more of Murdoch spells serious trouble for the best of the British press. I suggest that before David Cameron launches his public inquiry into the standards of the press, he should first command a proper inquiry into the business practices of News Corp. Surely, if said company intends to become as integral to British culture as the BBC, it would only be reasonable for the PM to demand that this company be given a thorough once-over before he considers granting it full visitation rights into our homes.

With more than 100, 000 having signed the petition to block the BSkyB takeover, the public outcry against the Murdoch empire is only growing louder. Journalism shouldn’t take the fall when most of the blame lies so squarely on Murdoch’s territory, but I fear that Cameron is in it too deep to take as critical a stance as Ed Miliband. The public inquiry will probably go ahead, whether we like it or not, and it will probably mean an even more restricted press in a nation where gagging orders are becoming the norm. As more details of this ominous public inquiry trickle out into the open, I’ll be playing the waiting game, hoping for the least worst case scenario.

Eric John


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2 Comments on this post.
  • SteveDOF
    12 July 2011 at 19:14
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    I think it is extremely naive to claim that the U.K. has a “free press”. We have known for years that the majority of the press has been bought and paid for. It serves, largely, as a propaganda instrument for the owners, who tend to be rich, right-wing men.

    I really doubt much will change. There is a chance Murdoch can be squeezed out of newspaper ownership in the U.K., no bad thing, but any changes to watchdogs will be mostly cosmetic and business as usual will return soon enough.

  • Joseph
    26 July 2011 at 14:42
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    I take issue with both your predictions.

    The conclusion that Murdoch will increase his hegemonic control of the british media based upon rumours of an expansion of the Sun and a delay rather than block of the bskyb bid seems misinformed.

    The NoW audience have already changed their subscriptions, moved papers and increased media plurality (albiet in the direction of papers such as The Mail) – a ‘Sunday Sun’ would have no excess readership to lap up. Furthermore NoW was one of the Murdochs most profitable titles, the loss of which is heavily symbolic at worst.

    Then there is the fact that both the Murdochs and Rebekkah Brookes have come under immense security, from both the press, public and now parliamentary select committees. James has been found today to have misled that select committee and there is a large feeling that allegations, charges and possibly convictions could trickle a long way up.

    And if you believe the loss of senior executives and the millions of former NoW readers won’t hinder News Corps British expansion; surely you will agree that Murdoch’s comments of moving investment overseas because of a ‘bad climate’ here will.

    On the bSkyb bid; the delay is effectively a block. It means no bid can be placed whilst the criminal investigation is ongoing (for at least two years) and even if the investigation comes up with nothing to damage the Murdoch empire further (which seems so very unlikely) – the time taken to prepare such a bid, wrangle shareholders and go through all the formalities is a long one.

    Finally, you have nothing to fear for our press. No one in parliament, liberal tory or labour, have suggested anything but an ‘independent regultary body’. No one is pushing state based statuary regulation. TV broadcasting has been regulated independently for years and it is considered to work very well; we still get programmes such as dispatches etc – why not the same for the press?

    Many journalists try to dress up defence of self regulation as something innate and incredibly important; yet is nothing but self interested. To think that a sector of society that has so much influence on both public opinion and government action should not be regulated in the slightest is wrong, and now the politicians are free from the grip of such publications, and able to speak out against them, hopefully they can legislate too.

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