Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Why the Tories are opposing the Leveson report

After many months of delving into the murky world of the UK press (phone hacking, corruption, bribes, invasion of privacy, criminality, misrepresentations, lack of accountability, political interference, hate campaigns and other abuses) Brian Henry Leveson finally published his report on press standards.

The two headline proposals from Leveson's mammoth 1,987 page report should have been these:
1. The creation of an independent press regulator, free from interference from media owners and politicians alike.

2. The creation of a legal duty on the government to protect the freedom of the press.
However, if you hadn't bothered to read the report and just relied upon the right wing press and political shills like David Cameron and William Hague to [mis]interpret Leveson's proposals for you, you would be left with the impression that Leveson is proposing unprecedented government interference in the media and an outright attack on freedom of the press, a position that relies on maintaining the fictional narrative that the Leveson proposals are precisely the opposite of what they actually are.

It is quite easy to see why the tabloid press would be opposed to the introduction of an independent press regulator to replace the cosy and ineffective media controlled Press Complaints Commission. The phone hacking scandal and the Metropolitan Police bribery scandal are just two of the myriad examples of how the PCC voluntary self-regulation regime has utterly failed to maintain anything approaching decent press standards, and that is why the tabloid press oppose change. They want to keep their voluntary, media dominated talking shop, without the means or the will to inflict punishment on severe transgressions. They don't want an independent regulatory regime with the means and the obligation to punish severe press transgressions. By opposing Leveson they are simply expressing their own self-interest, nobody would expect anything else from the Murdoch press and the Daily Mail.

The Tory position, of briefing against Leveson before the report was even published, and then attacking, all guns blazing once the report came out is a little harder to fathom. I mean the opinion polls show that, of those that care about such things, the majority of voters would like to see independent statutory regulation of the press, rather than the continuation of the farcical PCC & PressBoF voluntary regulation regime, via a simple rebranding process.

Taking the side of the powerful press barons that oversaw the hacking of a dead teenager's mobile phone and the bribery of police officers and medical staff, rather than taking the side of the victims doesn't look like a particularly intelligent strategic play. However, even if the Tory attempt to crash the Leveson proposals fails, David Cameron must be banking on this demonstration of loyalty to the corporate press in the hope that the favour will be repaid in the run-up to the 2015 General Election, where his desperately unpopular party will need as much help from the corporate press as possible.

Another factor to consider in the Tory opposition to the Leveson proposals is that implementation would actually diminish Tory control over the press. Remember Leveson's proposal that the new independent press regulator should be "free of interference from the government", well that would end the situation where a Tory peer gets to choose someone from within the Tory party to run the press regulator, as is the case now! The man in charge of the PCC is the unelected Tory peer David Hunt, who was selected as head of the PCC by the unelected Tory peer Guy Black in his role of Chairman of the Press Standards Board of Finance, a man who also happens to be the Executive Director of the Telegraph Group of newspapers. The third key role in the voluntary shambles of a regulatory regime is Paul Dacre, who is editor of the Daily Mail. It is inconceivable that any of these three would be able to keep their positions within the regulatory authorities if the Leveson recommendations are adopted.

It is hardly surprising that the Conservative party that has their members in two of the three most important regulatory roles under the current system oppose the creation of a new regulatory body that explicitly forbids political interference.

Hunt and Black attempted to torpedo the Leveson report by drawing up an alternative "reform" to preempt Leveson, in which the current self-regulatory regime is simply rebranded with new names, allowing the powerful media interests and Tory party peers to keep their roles at the heart of the press regulatory regime. They have also devised a number of other reforms which, upon closer inspection turn out to be nothing more than outright attacks on press freedom, including mandatory Press Cards, to be distributed by the (corporate media and Tory party controlled) regulatory regime, without which, journalists would be forbidden from interviewing politicians, civil servants, the police, health workers and the like.

Another of Hunt and Black's proposed alternative reforms is a crackdown on Internet journalism; on bloggers like me. It is quite extraordinary that these opportunists are trying to use a vast corruption scandal in the mainstream corporate press, to crack down on the independent press. Let me be clear, I have never hacked a telephone, intercepted private messages, bribed the police, formed cosy inappropriate relationships with politicians, deliberately misrepresented people's statements, committed perjury or falsified evidence. However, because the corporate media have done these things, the Tory peers and corporate media representatives that run the press regulatory system are planning to use these crimes as an excuse to crack down on me!

Here is a damning critique of the Hunt/Black proposals from the Media Standards Trust.

So it is absolutely clear that the corporate media organisations and the Conservative party are opposed to Leveson because it would strip them of their ability to interfere in the press regulatory regime. What makes this stance so shocking is that the Tories and the corporate media are dressing up their defence of their own vested interests as a defence of "the freedom of the press". Take Tory Foreign Secretary William Hague's statement that the introduction of the Leveson reforms would be an attack on the freedom of the press which would "undermine Britain" on the World stage. It seems that the Tory definition of "freedom of the press" is wildly divergent from what most people would recognise. The average person might accept the definition of a "free press" to be a press free from government control, or control by an oligopoly of "press barons", whilst the definition David Cameron and William Hague seem to be defending is freedom of the Tory party and powerful corporate interests to dominate regulation of the press.

In fact, the Tory stance, as so often is the case these days, relies on a near complete reversal of reality. They falsely characterise the Leveson proposals as attacks on the freedom of the press, whilst the actual proposal looks more like an attack on Tory subversion of the press. If the Leveson reforms are passed, then the placement of two Tory peers in the two most high-profile regulatory positions would be absolutely inconceivable. Aside from defending vested corporate interests in the hope of some much needed pre-election propaganda, the Tories are also playing a desperate defence of their position of influence over the press regulation regime.