Three-D Issue 20: The Fleet Street dinosaurs

Tim Gopsill, Free Press

At one of the innumerable gatherings in London on this Leveson business I met a journalist friend I hold in some respect. “Which way do you swing on this?” I asked. “Against you, I am afraid,” she replied. (Clue: I was handing out copies of Free Press, the Campaign for Press Freedom journal). She added: “I don’t like the company that puts me in but there you are.”

From the other side of the fence I know how she feels. This is someone I know to have a similar journalistic outlook to my own, yet here we are in opposite camps. Her remark did not signify distaste for individuals so much as resentment at being corralled by circumstances into uncomfortable alliances.

We have to join one of two factions: on the one hand the supposed agents of the state, set on destroying media freedom in Britain for ever. These are the Levesonistas, symbolised by Hacked Off! with its anguished celebrities, who also include MPs, the Media Reform Coalition, the NUJ, the CPBF … oh and the clear majority of the public in responses to opinion polls.

On the other hand you have the press freedom fundamentalists, belligerently refusing to acknowledge anybody’s interest but their own. Mostly they are journalists with the addition of the largely London-based press freedom industry – Index on Censorship, Article 19, Writers PEN, Reporters Sans Frontieres, the Committee to Protect Journalists and so on.

This is the matrix we all have to be squeezed into. So where do those journalists go who want to see an honest profession, working free of the deadly grip of the big media companies, treating readers and subjects fairly and with respect?

The Fleet Street dinosaurs: how cartoonist Tim Sanders drew them for the CPBF magazine Free Press

The Fleet Street dinosaurs: how cartoonist Tim Sanders drew them for the CPBF magazine Free Press

One problem is that the division is over the wrong questions, relating to the constitutional basis of a self-regulatory system that looks otherwise alarmingly similar to the status quo. Royal Charter or Act of Parliament? Pretty damn hot to call, that one.

It’s obviously not the real dispute, which is a straightforward power struggle as the owners battle to defend the excessive media power that was the cause of Leveson being set up in the first place.

For what it’s worth, though, the Royal Charter would be the better option for bosses because it is determined by ministers, and it is easier to bribe or bully ministers than Parliament. But for the moment the owners and editors appear to have convinced themselves that they can wreck the whole thing by refusing to co-operate.

They have seen off the liberal and sensible broadsheet editors who had threatened to strike a deal with the government, and are gathering the wagons in a circle.

There is a siege mentality. Journalists on national newspapers are told every day that they are doomed. The papers have no future and one by one they will all lose their jobs. On top of the advertising slump and the unfair competition from the internet, now the Leveson injuns are circling them.

Peering out from wagons they see not just Lord Leveson and Hugh Grant sharpening their spears but hordes of MPs — all the LibDem and Labour and nearly all the Tories: the Commons vote that added the exemplary damages clause to the Crime and Courts Bill in March was 530-13. Over there on the hill, the lily-livered media reformers, with the turncoats Rusbridger and Blackhurst, and the NUJ, their own supposed union.

Any weapons that come to hand will do. They’ve hurled indiscriminate abuse at critics and doubters, accusing them of totalitarianism on a Stalinist scale, but that old blunderbuss can’t hit anybody. They tried getting foreigners to say that Britain’s much-vaunted reputation for press freedom would be destroyed, but everyone could see that, given the lies the editors were telling them, it would be surprisingly if they didn’t.

They even tried the Human Rights Act, that target of their perpetual abuse. They got lawyers to say their rights to freedom of expression and a fair trial were being breached. Levesonistas gasped at the effrontery, but really this was nothing new. National papers are two-faced by definition, and editors are entirely unconscious of how they appear to people.

You can see why being stuck on this stationary bandwagon is awkward for open-minded journalists. Like the rest of us they can see that the sound and fury from the editors does indeed signify nothing, and that Leveson’s recommendations on regulation were as newspaper-friendly as he could possibly make them.

The broadsheet editors so brutally pushed aside could see that too; so could David Cameron; even the Downing Street cat could see that agreement on the midnight terms negotiated there in March would have been entirely benign for the press.

They would have retained self-regulation, a system that was being written off only a year ago, with only cosmetic changes from the PCC. With a few changed faces they would have retained effective control.

They would have avoided the exemplary damages, which are really bad in principle, for all that the likely effects are, like everything else, being wildly exaggerated.

There would still be other bad things in Leveson, concerning data and source protection, relations with police and so on, but in a constructive atmosphere they would not have been hard to deal with.

Constructive, however, is one thing that newspaper owners don’t do. The way they are carrying on, they will end up with something imposed on them. It might serve them right, but it won’t help anyone.

The editors’ behaviour is a symptom of the sickness Leveson was hired to cure: the abuse of market power exploited by the big media companies to break the law and to bribe and bully government, police and anyone else they fancied.

Part of Leveson’s brief was actually to come up with stricter rules on media ownership. Bending over backwards to appease the industry, as he did on regulation – why can’t they SEE it? – he tut-tutted a bit but came up with no answer.

In whatever way the regulation question is settled, the problem will remain the same as long as News Corporation, the Daily Mail group, Sky TV, Google and the rest hold the media and political power they do.

Likewise unchanged will remain the position of working journalists, still at the mercy of these mobsters. Another of the missed opportunities in the affair has been the introduction of an element of workplace justice for them, through the long-sought “conscience clause”.

The NUJ submitted the proposal to Leveson – for a clause in contracts of employment allowing them to decline to carry out work in breach of the code of practice without losing their jobs – and it was well received. Even the editors initially appeared to endorse it. But since they reversed the line it has disappeared.

Sadly, too many journalists are spending their energy rooting for their owners and editors rather than challenging them. In this sense the stand-off suits the bosses well: with backs to the wall the troops can be kept in line.

Tim Gopsill is editor of Free Press, the journal of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (www.cpbf.org.uk). From 1988 to 2009 he was editor of the NUJ magazine the Journalist.

Posted by Einar Thorsen