A regulator with teeth: are you crazy?

There is no ahistorical code of ‘press ethics’ which can come out of this farrago, writes James Turley (first published in the Weekly Worker)

What is going to replace the Press Complaints Commission?


Talk about a hostage to fortune – as soon as this writer detects a “momentary let-up” in the phone-hacking saga,[1] we get a new crop of developments.

Another senior News International figure, former News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner, has now been taken into police custody. Meanwhile, even with parliament in recess, Ed Miliband continues to needle at the government for full disclosure of its meetings with News International big-wigs, having offered such disclosure on the part of the Labour Party. The political calculation is clear – Murdoch and co will have spent a lot more time over the past couple of years with Cameron and his allies than Labour figures. (Starry-eyed hacks used to suggest Blair had a kind of ‘political alchemy’ – but you cannot get more alchemical than turning the humiliation of media ostracism into a political advantage.)

And after the carnage in Scotland Yard a couple of weeks ago, it is now the turn of another dubious institution to see heads roll. Baroness Buscombe, the odious Tory peer who heads up the Press Complaints Commission, has been pressured into announcing that she will not seek to extend her contract, and in all probability will leave her post in the autumn. The PCC’s role in the phone-hacking affair has been frankly embarrassing: it even went so far as to chide The Guardian for its irresponsible victimisation of the NotW. Let us say that subsequent events have not shown this stance in a very positive light.

A crisis of the PCC is an inevitable result – that it has not already been comprehensively tampered with, or even abolished in favour of statutory regulation, has in part to do with the more spectacular events (the decapitation of the Metropolitan Police, the Murdochs facing cross-examination by parliament) and the Westminster summer holiday. Buscombe may well be the last establishment mediocrity to chair this craven creature of the media barons.

Its obsolescence is highlighted on another front by the vindication in court of Christopher Jefferies, the idiosyncratic landlord repackaged by the gutter press as the psychopathic murderer of architect Joanna Yeates. The press routinely gets away with doing such numbers on the perpetrators of high-profile crimes. The problem in this case was that, er, he did not actually do it. Jefferies has just won libel damages from practically the entire tabloid press – including the Mail and Express. On top of that, The Sun and Daily Mirror were found guilty of contempt of court, and levied (rather pathetic) fines.

There is much to say about this remarkable case – if ever libel law did not act just as a means for the powerful to silence opposition, it was surely here – but, for present purposes, what is of note is that it was the criminal and civil law that stood up to the Fleet Street lynch-mob, and certainly not the PCC. Given that it is controlled by the people who make money out of such stories, how could it? In a sense, poor old Peta Buscombe is to be pitied; she has only administered her institution in the manner in which it has operated since its creation. Alas for her, this cosy arrangement has been shot to pieces by events.

The bottom line of all this chaos is that it has put a question on everyone’s lips: what is the future of press regulation? Numerous answers are proposed – David Cameron and other politicians have called, at one end of the scale, for statutory regulation, by Ofcom or some new body; others propose a new, more muscular model of self-regulation, which would entail a new PCC-type body with the ability to levy fines and otherwise discipline its members. Popular among news organisations is the ‘lope on more or less as before’ strategy, on the basis that it is the least unpalatable of all the choices.

In fact, there are fundamental problems with all the so-called ‘options’ on offer here. Statutory regulation simply hands a great swathe of powers gift-wrapped to the state. The implications are pretty ominous; we need only cast our minds back to the BBC’s battle with Blair over the death of David Kelly, which led to the corporation’s humiliation and exacerbated its tendencies towards cosiness with the establishment. Given all that we have learned about the close personal links between the media barons and the political elite, meanwhile, it is naive to imagine that this will put an end to the power of the former.

The National Union of Journalists leadership seems to favour the second option: a “self-regulatory body [which] should provide for serious penalties for media organisations which broke the code … as well as offering a reliable mechanism to deal with complaints from the public.”[2] NUJ president Donnacha DeLong has expressed admiration for the ‘Irish model’, which broadly conforms to this idea. The union is also keen to push its own members’ code of conduct as the basis for beefed-up ‘self-regulation’.

In reality, this is a miserable compromise. We should not forget that the PCC itself was the result of a previous attempt to give self-regulation of the press some bite; the Irish Press Council itself is a somewhat more nightmarish version, with equal representation given to various establishment notables – former ambassadors, political bureaucrats, lawyers and the like – and the industry itself (with one poxy seat for the unions). If the PCC had had equivalent power in the last five years, remember, it would not have punished Murdoch, but the investigators into phone-hacking!

That leaves the favoured option of the barons – ‘keep calm and carry on’. In fact, ironically enough, this is truly the least worst of the possibilities – no further power is accrued to the state. Seeing as the PCC is obviously little more than a mechanism for the press money-men to, as the vernacular puts it, cover their asses, it is in fact preferable that it should not have any real power to discipline dissenting journalism – which, as The Guardian investigation has shown, is the closest the press gets to self-regulation anyway.

Yet the status quo ante is utterly discredited for good reason. On the left, we should not be satisfied with a ‘return to normalcy’ in any form, which would mean the return to the cosy lash-up between the political, bureaucratic and media elites that has subverted what passes for democracy for generations.

The reason these answers fall short is that they are answers to the wrong question. When the bourgeois establishment asks what to do about press regulation, it is in reality asking how it can manage this crisis in a way that does not threaten – or, ideally, strengthens – the ruling class’s ideological hegemony. By adopting the given form of the debate, the NUJ – and, implicitly, those organised left forces in the NUJ which have manifestly failed to challenge that form – is in fact absorbed into a fundamentally bourgeois discourse, which is rigged in favour of bourgeois outcomes.

Our question is the inverse of the bourgeois one – how can we make sure that the ruling class does end up the weaker for all this? What is the working class approach towards the press? Clearly, the NUJ – despite its political naivety – has a role to play here. While its argument that a strong NUJ chapel in Wapping might have prevented the disastrous abuses of the Wade-Coulson era is quite overblown, there is nonetheless the potential for a conscious collective life among journalists that could set the terms of the trade in its professional form. That the union has at least ‘seized the day’ and made itself a real presence in the phone-hacking affair is an encouraging start.

Yet to truly weaken the hold of the bourgeoisie on the press and media more generally, it is necessary both to attack politically that hold at its root and to build up the political presence of our own side. The former means breaking up the media oligopolies and destroying the advertising cartels that prop them up; the latter means having our own media and journalistic practice completely separate from that of the bourgeoisie.

Posed by both tasks is the party question – we need a political organisation that can fight for fundamental change in the state and economy in order to challenge the Murdochs of this world in a fundamental way. We also need an organised political division of labour in order to develop our own press into something of a genuinely mass scale and readership. The labour movement in this country once had the Daily Herald – European social democracy in its highest phase published in almost every language to many millions of readers. The Herald was the largest-circulation paper in the world at its peak. In the dissemination of ideas, and the development of a distinct cultural life, the organised working class has potential power without equal.

Codes of conduct of the NUJ-style 10 commandments variety are ultimately of limited use here. We communists have no problem with hacking David Cameron’s phone – provided that something politically useful results from this ‘crime’, rather than cheap tittle-tattle. Trotsky put it best in Their morals and ours – the ends justify the means, as long as the ends are themselves justified. Let the masses judge whether their press fulfils this maxim – not judges, bureaucrats or the flunkies of bourgeois press barons.

Put another way, there is no ahistorical code of ‘press ethics’ which can come out of this farrago – but there is a communist ethic, of unflinching and ruthless war on exploitation and oppression, which has quite as many applications in the newsroom as on the barricades. We are not out to restore the honour of the press, or faith in parliament, but to transform both institutions beyond recognition.

james.turley@weeklyworker.org.uk

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Notes

  1. ‘Politics of press freedom’ Weekly Worker July 28.
  2. www.nujppr.org.uk/site/page.php?category=news&id=5125&msg=NEWS&finds=0
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