Thursday, 29 November 2012

O Frabjous Day

I hereby ordain that from henceforth, 29th November be known as Leveson Day. For on this day, Lord Justice Leveson – or as the Daily Mail has it 'Orthodox Jewish Leveson' because his religion is really relevant – did cause much weeping and gnashing of teeth in the office of cant-purveyors such as Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre and of course David Cameron.

Obviously I have no idea what Leveson's conclusions will be. But I did watch pretty much every minute of the Inquiry and noted his frustration and exasperation whenever a newspaper editor, hack or politician attempted to cloak their disgusting seediness in lofty principle. So I'm pretty certain that Leveson won't be recommending the status quo or anything close to it. And then it will be up to Cameron et al to explain why they might not go for it.

The latest tack is to claim that any legal basis for press regulation is an attack on a tradition of press freedom stretching back to 1695, when the authorities (literally) forgot to renew the press licensing laws.

This is of course what's known in the trade as 'purest bollocks'. Yes, the licensing laws were dropped, but governments found plenty of other ways to block 'subversive' newspapers, as any history of the radical press will tell you (my favourite newspapers were the original and 1968-1972 Black Dwarf).

In particular, massive taxation was the favourite weapon, ensuring that only political parties and very rich organisations could afford to publish one: the 1817-1824 Black Dwarf cost 4-6p, most of a day's wages for a labourer. And then there's the case of the Daily Worker, the Communist Party's newspaper which was banned for most of 1941-42 because opposed WW2 until Stalin out with Hitler (but don't get me started on the CP's craven, cynical and disgusting Stalinism).

Only the Daily Worker was banned, but Churchill tried to do it to the Daily Mirror too. He objected to this cartoon:

The Price of Petrol Has Been Increased By One Penny - Zec

It calls for people to conserve their petrol for the sake of the war effort, but Churchill interpreted it as an attack on the profiteering oil companies (Tory PMs more devoted to Big Oil than the people aren't a new thing) - and perhaps he was right. Certainly the Tories were determined to ensure that the collective war effort didn't undermine Capital and Empire, which is why Churchill was thrown out on his ear in 1945. Press freedom has never encompassed the full range of ideological opinion.

After that, attacks on press freedom moved into the economic and legal spheres. The Oz trial and ensuing prison sentences were a savage attack on the underground press, occasioned by cartoons of Rupert the Bear with a rather engorged procreative organ. The libel laws, especially libel tourism, are a global disgrace: if one reader in the UK has read an article from any newspaper in the world, the British courts will act for the rich and mobile oligarchs and tyrants who want free speech stifled. And then there's the corporate assault on freedom. While my appalling MP Paul Uppal defends something he calls 'corporate freedom of speech', Britain's decision to treat the press as a deregulated free market means that the Murdochs and Maxwells of this world can corner huge swathes of the market and cross-subsidise their loss-making rags with Sky profits. Result: Murdoch ideology everywhere you look, while even puny alternative voices like the Guardian are on the verge of closure.

There's also the D-Notice system: a cosy little arrangement whereby newspaper editors get called in - or receive a briefing - telling them what stories shouldn't be printed for reasons of 'national security', however that's defined.

So when you hear politicians and press barons pontificating about the noble ideals of a free press, remember that it's always been a fiction, and what they really want is the freedom to trample over the rights of the little people, to bring you exclusive pictures of celebrity mammary glands and the harlot's right to dictate public policy to venal, frightened politicians who lack the energy and originality to reach out to us in new ways.

To listen to these people go on, you'd think that Leveson's proposing a little man sitting in Whitehall deciding which articles can and can't be published (like stage plays until 1968!). I don't think this is what anyone's proposing. But we do have a problem. Newspapers are essential to the proper functioning of a democracy. We need rude, raucous, nosy publications which don't let those in power do whatever they want without scrutiny. This is why we need bloggers too, by the way. But newspapers need money. So they fill their pages with vicious reactionary politics and naked women and Richard Littlejohn because they know that the public will buy it - which means that if you want to know who bears the guilt of the Daily Mail, it's you and me. Journalism is expensive. Tits and opinions are cheap. So papers inevitably take shortcuts, safe in the knowledge that most of us would rather read speculation about Jennifer Aniston's haircare routine that what's going on in the Department for Paperclips or over at MegaCorp. Newspapers are incredibly powerful. If they go wrong, the country goes wrong. They have the power to wreck the lives of individuals and whole swathes of people. Imagine being a Gypsy, Roma or traveller in the Mail-reading counties. Then ask yourself why Jimmy Savile's phone was never hacked, or why the Sun didn't pick up on the Trafigura story. Most newspapers don't have morals. They have balance sheets and political ambitions and they're happy to ride roughshod over the rights of any one of us in pursuit of these aims, whether that means hacking the phones of dead girls or accusing odd-looking men of murder.

And that's why we need to treat newspapers as something more than cans of beans in the shop.

Whatever Leveson proposes today, it's going to be better than the existing system.

No comments: