Taming the tabloid beast: reining in the press after Hackgate?
Sometimes the public gets what it deserves; other times it gets things like the Levenson Inquiry into phone-hacking. Many people may see the inquiry as a positive step toward cleaning up the practices of newspapers that they don’t read, but the whole process, although carried out in public and in the name of the public, is re-purposing itself toward a backward scrutiny of journalism.
In a civil form of mission-creep, this tedious round of testimony and counter-testimony is expanding day-by-day. The list of interested parties in this quasi-legal roasting first comprised politicians, media industry people, real victims of invasion of privacy and some ‘Hacked Off’ celebrities. Yet Judge Leveson is being called on from all sides to include more witnesses. Transatlantic legal actions and the possibility that 9/11 victims were hacked may internationalise the scandal and see the inquiry spread further.
How did we get here from there? By there, I mean from the revelation that a murder victim’s mobile account was hacked. Humbled Rupert Murdoch shut down a newspaper and paid a reported £3 million to the family. Isn’t that enough? Of course not.
Phone-hacking has been recast as an aggravated invasion of individual privacy. The previous, ineffectual inquiries have been recast as the casualties of huge, dirty conspiracies of silence. Unfortunately, this pursuit of concerns about Murdoch’s companies is going to take lumps out of all of journalism. Like Larkin’s parents, it may not mean to, but it will.
It is an unavoidable consequence of this kind of inquiry that the journalistic practices come under a new and sinister judicial-political scrutiny. The Guardian revealed the Dowler hacking by using a police source, so the police tried to find that source by invoking Official Secrets legislation. That the clumsy Met attempt to force disclosure was stepped on from above in no way precludes more sophisticated and successful attempts to expose sources in future.
Hacking is already illegal. People have gone to jail and more will follow if prosecutions are brought. Why go about this process with a huge and frame-less inquiry? It is as if, in response to a public outrage, a sort of War on media Terror has been launched. Step back from the ins and outs of who said what to whom and when, and the public sympathy for the Dowlers has been repackaged with other issues into a public mandate to re-regulate British journalism.
Everyone involved says that they believe in a free press; then many call for a new law, regulation or independent public body. The Dowlers’ suffering has been exploited by the coalition and as a consequence it has raised the profile of many concerns about news-gathering that the public itself doesn’t care about. If you are applauding this whole process, don’t be surprised if it starts to point in your direction. For example, the size and influence of Rupert Murdoch’s stake within news media may well be warped into an examination of the far larger, far more influential and not particularly accountable BBC.
I do not much like Murdoch or his clan. But many people, in or outside of the media, are encouraging the phone-hacking inquiry and others like it because of the illegal practices of one small part of the most high-profile area of British journalism. This leads to a climate where the logical outcome is an Ivan Lewis-style call for the licensing of journalists. We risk drastically mutilating the political, legal and regulatory landscape under which journalism has functioned relatively well in Britain.
Big business, the police, politicians and the judicial system are all things that demand investigation. However imperfectly, one of the most effective tools to scrutinise these institutions historically was the tabloid press. It has now come under popular investigation by the very forces it challenged.
This is not a Guardian scoop any more. It’s a runaway super-scandal in which the public interest has been invoked to make the press safer; not safer for ordinary people like the Dowlers or the McCanns; not even safer for celebrities. This inquiry assumes an institutional threat from a poorly regulated news industry and its eventual recommendations will surely make it safer for those whose secrets are really worth uncovering.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Sean Bell is secretary of the Brighton Salon. He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas satellite debate Taming the tabloid beast: reining in the press post-Hackgate? on Tuesday 18 October.Tagged in: guardian, hacking, journalism, Levenson Inquiry, news, news international, news of the world, opinion, phone hacking, Rebekah Brooks, rupert murdoch, tabloid
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