Late reflections on Coulson-gate

This is my first independent post on Paperback Rioter or indeed any blog, so please bear with any formatting hiccups.

Here at Paperback Rioter we’ve had cause to discuss politicians behaving badly, the press behaving badly and the police behaving badly, now we have the ignoble trifecta of politicians, the press and police all behaving badly at the same time.

Some weeks ago the New York Times concluded an investigation into the mass hacking of voicemail messages by News of the World employees. Much of what was revealed wasn’t new to anyone who remembers the original story from 2007. I doubt there are many who believed the then NotW editor Andy Coulson’s claims that he was completely unaware of what his reporters were doing, often whilst incurring substantial expenses for the newspaper. No, I’d imagine that most people who have been paying attention to the affair have worked out by now that some very dubious information-gathering tactics were endemic in at the NotW in particular and, seemingly, British journalism in general.

What’s new and shocking from the NYT article is the extent to which the police spared the News of the World adequate scrutiny. The investigation was restricted to the eavesdropping of members of the royal family by two private investigators and one journalist, despite evidence of much more extensive criminality, with police withholding vital evidence from prosecutors and failing even to inform potential victims, effectively shielding News International from mass civil action.

Most disturbing is the suggestion that this was a deliberate policy motivated by a desire to maintain a close working relationship with News International. One anonymous investigator even recounts being approached by the Metropolitan Police’s press officer, Chris Webb, asking for restraint. The news of a special relationship between News International and the police, perhaps, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as its papers have a history of publishing leaked information from investigations in order to cover up the police’s latest embarrassment. What I hadn’t previously realised was that News International might gain a quid pro quo from this arrangement in the form of a blind eye turned to its illegal activities. It’s also worth noting that Andy Hayman, who lead the Met’s investigation into the hacking, is now employed by the Times, also a News International, publication, and has used this platform to defend the handling of the investigation. Andy Coulson, of course, is now communications director for the Prime Minister.

That special relationship.

This incestuous relationship between the Government, police and Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers raises fundamental questions about the role of the Press in British society. In a representative democracy public opinion has the highest possible value to those who seek political office, and with the news media acting as the gatekeepers to public opinion, it’s no wonder that successive governments have sought to manage and control it. This gives enormous power to those who work for, and particularly those who own or run media outlets. It makes perfect sense that David Cameron would want to bring the representative of the most toxic section of the press into his inner circle as he wants to harness that power rather than risk bringing its full destructive force down on his head.

This isn’t something that has really been deconstructed much by traditional liberalism, which has never really dealt well with non-state power. Government power is frequently critiqued, both by right-wing free-marketeers and left-wing civil libertarians, and the police, who are the shop-front workers of state power, are rarely free from scrutiny. The media, on the other hand is often overlooked. This is partly because the media itself is the main vehicle for public scrutiny of those in power. The public is remarkably pliant in its outrage: some truly despicable government behaviour has gone largely unnoticed, except for by current affairs nerds who read Private Eye, whereas the Telegraph was able to spin out the MPs expense fiddling scandal over several months and harpoon several political careers in the process. Even then the damage to reputations didn’t always correlate with the extent of the bad behaviour, relating more to whom the news organisations chose to shine the spotlight on. Besides being deeply unhealthy for democracy – leaving all but the saintliest of public figures as potential hostages to the media – this leaves the media itself without anything but self-scrutiny.

The fourth estate.

The second reason is that liberal philosophy has traditionally identified power almost entirely with legal authority. Where it is privately owned, the press has not really been seen as an existential threat to personal freedom. The debate with regard to the media has always been how to shield it from government interference. In the USA this is codified in the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press. In the UK no such formal protection exists, but the concept of the free press still dominates public discussion surrounding, for example, the discussion of the reform of Libel Law, which is often said to be too “plaintiff friendly.”

In fact it’s probably more accurate to say that UK libel laws are overly rich-person friendly, with rich individuals and organisations able to intimidate critics with the threat of costly legal action, and poor and ordinary citizens lacking the means to seek redress and protection from press harassment and defamation. This is the consequence of leaving civil law as the main regulator of the press. It relies on those wronged having the resources to fund civil court cases when, for people without significant financial means, the criminal law, enforced by the State, is the only accessible means of justice.

Recognising that the influence of the media is a source of great power in a democratic society requires that press ownership be regulated to prevent cross-ownership and preserve a plurality of voices. It also requires that publicly-owned media organizations, such as the BBC, are protected, to counterbalance the commercial media outlets, resisting self-serving corporate demands to hand them over to the rule of the free-market. Greater oversight is also needed to prevent the press from violating individuals’ rights to privacy and security.

Whilst I appreciate that it is not desirable to give the government the right to censor the media, we really need a body, independent of government, with real clout to ensure appropriate behaviour from journalistic organisations, and to fund civil cases for ordinary people and groups who suffer libel or press harassment. Unfortunately this is exactly what’s not going to happen with a very delicate balance of power in parliament and all parties very vulnerable to slight sways in public opinion. This might have been possible ten years ago, with a landslide Labour majority, but Blair preferred to indulge the corporate media in order to protect its position, and now we’re in the position of the unelected and often foreign press owners pulling the strings of our elected representatives and apparently unencumbered by the law.

This entry was posted in Hannah, Journalism, Legal mumbo jumbo, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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