No quick fixes for the British press

After months of investigation, hearings and analysis, a comprehensive report from the Leveson inquiry has recommended that the British press have a new self-regulation body backed by legislation. Prime Minister David Cameron’s reluctance to follow through on the proposal has provoked a fresh round of controversy and started a heated debate between those who believe the British press is long overdue for stricter oversight and those who fear regulation will not curb the sensational tabloid culture that has fuelled the abuses, but could easily scare the press away from compelling public interest stories that risk legal action.

Despite Lord Justice Leveson’s deliberate and repeated emphases on the role that “all of the press” have played in serving the public interest in the United Kingdom, there can be little doubt that the more popular British tabloids – the so-called ‘red-tops’ – have lost their way in recent years. The culture revealed by the Leveson testimonies was one of routine lawbreaking and surveillance, and its contempt for individual privacy would not have been out of place in Stalinist Russia. Just as troubling, perhaps was the general indifference in most newsrooms to pursuing weightier matters. Few papers even tried to produce the sort of tenacious investigative journalism that routinely affects national debate in countries like the United States.

The writer Kenan Malik has shrewdly argued that any government interference with the press risks making a weak press culture even worse. Countering the idea that since other professions are subject to regulatory oversight, the press should be too, he notes that “[t]he relationship between journalists and the public is very different from that between a doctor and a patient or a lawyer and a client. It is not experts or the state who are the ultimate judges of whether a piece of journalism is good, or a journalist ethical, but the public itself.” Malik also writes that the British press “is not only weaker than before, it has also become less willing and able to play its traditional role of ‘speaking truth to power’, happier to chase celebrities than hold the powerful to account, desperate to pass off gossip as news.” He is careful to point out that this development can hardly be separated from the wider culture that produced it, a culture that constantly blurs ‘the line between the public and the private.’ He emphasizes that “The spewing out of the private into the public is not just a tabloid but a much broader cultural phenomenon.” Malik calls the Leveson recommendations ‘the wrong solution to the wrong problem.’

There is certainly proof that stricter privacy laws and the “exemplary damages” that Lord Leveson proposes will not make a difference by themselves. Consider the case of the United States, in which the government is constitutionally bound to ‘make no law abridging the freedom of the press.‘ This sharp limit on government interference has produced a diverse media landscape with more than enough muckraking mavericks who show no respect for political authority in their search for  the truth. In France, however, strict privacy laws have done little to dampen the prurient tabloid culture (one need only recall the high speed paparazzi chases that led to Princess Diana’s death, or the recent topless photos of Kate Middleton). Yet the French press is a far tamer beast in political reportage than its American counterpart. Malik worries that hasty regulation in Britain could result in a press that shirks its larger responsibilities to the public interest, while pandering to the appetite for celebrity scandal and other infotainment.

While it is hard to argue with the fact that the British press has been allowed to harass too many innocent people for too long, there is a real danger in moving too suddenly in the other direction. It is always tempting to believe that broad cultural failings – such as racism or xenophobia – can be swept away with new laws, but this has rarely proved to be the case. Britain’s debased media culture will only improve when the wider society reforms itself and stops indulging the shrill, accusatory reporting that has become the default style of the tabloids, and when the general public stops indulging its appetite for the relentless harassment and intrusive surveillance of public figures and celebrities.

Institutions have to be sustained by the culture that produces them. It is pointless to inveigh against the immorality of Fleet Street when millions of British citizens routinely pay to enjoy its worst excesses. Notwithstanding the depth of the Leveson analysis and its thoughtful and far-reaching conclusions, there needs to be a broader acknowledgement that most places end up with the media cultures they deserve, not least because they have actively shaped them. Britain is no exception to this rule and it should avoid scapegoating the press rather than facing up to the wider cultural problems that its media have pandered to for fun and profit.

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