Saturday, 17 September 2011

Tectonic movements in the British media

Official inquiries as a result of the phone hacking scandal are rocking the British media landscape [REUTERS]

Tectonic movements in the British media

The phone hacking scandal that rocked News of the World to its core is still causing uneasiness in the British media.

Can the media industry in Britain restore public trust, which is ebbing away in the wake of the scandal over phone-hacking by employees of the Murdoch-owned News International? The grand institutions of British media are taking a long hard look at themselves and their media ethics following the public outcry over the News of the World hacking scandal, clearly anxious over what inquiries into this will reveal.

On September 6, James Murdoch was recalled to a Parliamentary Select Committee on the Media for further questioning: at the same time, across town, a list of high powered media figures gathered at a Westminster Media Forum conference titled “News Now”.

“Everybody here I would hope is in favour of a free press: it’s the life blood of democracy,” Mark Lewis, lawyer for the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, told the conference. Dowler’s voice mail had been hacked by the News of the World staff, who deleted her phone messages, giving false hope to the Dowler family that Milly was alive.

“We talk about the risk of state regulation, of state control of the press,” Lewis said. “We talk about Stalinism but we have a problem if we go the other way and have corporate control of the press, that’s corporate Stalinism, and if we have too great a control by any corporation then we lose sight of democracy.”

Lord Inglewood, chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, led the Media Forum discussion, which centred on the failure of checks and balances that permitted such corporate erosion of democracy in the UK by the Murdoch empire. The revelations of July 2011 showed the extent of phone-hacking and the News of the World executives’ powerful influence over the British police and politicians, including a succession of Prime Ministers. Tony Blair, it was recently revealed, was godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch’s children.

Current Prime Minister David Cameron’s appointment of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his press officer, after Coulson had been sacked in 2007 in connection with phone hacking, also demonstrates the unhealthy influence of the Murdochs over democratic governance.

“Some have called this a shift to a ‘public-relations democracy’,” said Professor Natalie Fenton, co-director at Goldsmith’s Leverhulme research centre, University of London. “Politicians are at the mercy of hungry journalists who can make or break their career. Politicians put PR before sound policy-making and journalists intimidate policy-makers with threats of media campaigns that will make them unelectable”.

The phone hacking scandal caused a major shock for News Corp[GALLO/GETTY]

At the launch of the Hacked Off campaign by the victims of phone-hacking, Fenton had “sensed the palpable fear of the MPs in the room – and a very explicit understanding of the courage it had taken to speak out against the Murdoch Empire.”

That kind of media activity “isn’t about speaking truth to power,” she said, “it’s about conducting character assassinations of people who irritate certain people and secret meetings with those in ministerial office where acceptable terms of media policy may be laid down”.

Mary Hockaday, head of the newsroom at the publicly-funded BBC, said that when we all look back on 2011 what will stand out about the news industry will be the sheer number of news stories and the breadth of the news agenda - from the Arab Spring to the summer riots… but after that, of course, hacking. “This has been a year when this slow-burning story finally begun unravelling at speed and sucked media police and politicians right into it,” she said.

The Select Committee was asking Murdoch and other newspaper representatives whether they had misled Parliament at earlier hearings. Those led to a formal inquiry by Lord Justice Leveson into the standards of the press, looking at the relationship between the press and the police and the press and politics.

Its brief is to inquire into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press, looking at the contacts and the relationships between national newspapers and politicians and police, the extent to which the current policy and regulatory framework has failed including in relation to data protection; and the extent to which there was a failure to act on previous warnings about media misconduct.

There are also moves to reform the regulation of the media in Britain, to support the integrity and freedom of the press, with the plurality of the media, and its independence, including from government, while encouraging the highest ethical and professional standards. Regulation, however, worries media managers.

Tom Kent is deputy managing editor and Standards Editor at Associated Press. He would prefer that media organisations remained self-policing and practised a code of ethics “integral to the culture of their particular organisations”.

Professor Natalie Fenton responded that this approach has failed to protect media in the interests of the public: “Regulation of the press has always been seen as tantamount to authoritarian rule… It’s seen as deliberate interference with the inner vision and the freedom of the press and it’s been profoundly anti democratic.”

“Yet we have to now face up to the fact that this approach has actually done precious little to protect the public interest in the provision of news and its contribution to democratic life,” Fenton continued: “maybe it has done quite a lot to encourage commercial news vandalism.”

Public-service broadcasting is regulated by law in the UK and, Fenton said, there “we see some of the very best in investigative journalism. It’s not perfect, but it does expose the nonsense that imposing standards on a news industry inevitably leads to anti-democratic practise and diminishes journalistic integrity.”

If we accept that there is a connection between news and democracy, that news provides the vital resources of information gathering, deliberation, and analysis – then surely,” Fenton concluded, “it’s not unreasonable to accept that it’s any government’s democratic responsibility to ensure the conditions are in place to promote democratic practise.

An excessively liberalised press has failed to provide the freedom to practise independent journalism in the public interest.”

Solicitor Mark Lewis said that the scandal did not start in 2011, “it didn’t start with Milly Dowler’s family when that was exposed”. That revelation simply broke the “wall of silence” about what the Murdoch press - and other newspaper groups - had been doing. Lewis has had “phone calls from other groups’ lawyers who said ‘if you mention us, we’re going to sue you’.”

All the newspaper groups say their journalists follow the Press Complaints Commission Code of conduct and abide by the criminal law “but what they don’t say is whether they did all the time, and whether they have looked at past actions by individual reporters," Lewis said.

Investigating properly is “something that’s worth while doing, it helps democracy,” Lewis concluded, “but actions which don’t do that which, break the law for no purpose at all, other than to feed a story which isn’t in the public interest, or to create a story – that’s not worth while at all.”

Society is bigger than government

Words and images ©Pennie Quinton 2011
Society is bigger than Government

I had been out of London when the riots began, having a genteel Sunday afternoon in Stratford-on-Avon. My mobile rang as I was standing in a queue at the Royal Shakespeare company: the ringtone blared from my handset generating a severe frown from the one woman taking forever dealing with enquiries at the counter. I quickly stifled it.

“Where are you?” growled the voice down the phone of a friend – a campaigner for Kurdish rights from north London.

“Oh, I am in Leamington Spa visiting my sister and we are trying to see something at the RSC!”

“I thought you would be out in the middle of it all, photographing.” She said.

“Photographing what; in the middle of all what?” I asked, puzzled.

“Oh the police have shot another man dead, and the demonstration against his death turned into a riot, but the organisers of the protest have condemned the riot, people have been made homeless because their apartment block has been burned down. It is chaos!”

“Riots in London why?” I asked, inwardly cursing my bad timing for leaving the city.

More ferocious stares from the grey haired woman manning the counter…

“Er, well I am at the theatre; I can’t really talk, will be back later on tonight.”

I had already been fourth place in the queue for over ten minutes, which grew ever longer as the attendant fumbled and fussed. I wondered if queuing, an oft-observed cliché about English life, like much else in Stratford-on-Avon, was deliberately being overdone for the American tourist market. I doubted queues were much of a feature of Elizabethan life, although rioting was probably more common in Shakespeare’s time and after my visit to the town of the great man’s birth I could see why he could not wait to get to London to join in with all that violence and debauchery, just as I could not wait to return to photograph the debauchery of the second Elizabethan age.

The last decade of Elizabeth Tudor’s reign has been recognized by historians as an exceptionally volatile period, characterized by “high prices, food shortages, heavy taxation" and major wars against Spain and Ireland.

As I walked around the RSC souvenir shop, I could see the staff discreetly nudging each other and pointing at me as if I was going to steal something: they must have heard me discuss the news of the riot with my sister and thought we were a mini looting team, day-tripping from London.

London is the city in which I grew up and I always feel a sense of relief on my return – not least after being in Stratford-on-Avon. As news came through that Hackney was kicking off, I felt I had to get out and see what was happening.

I have filmed and photographed demonstrations all over the world since completing my Masters in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins, which was where my work began to focus on mass movements, insurrection and protest. Discontent and unfairness bug me and keep me awake at night. I have to work out why these things happen; this motivating factor regularly drives me into the streets and even into conflict zones with my cameras to see, to understand. The media is mediated; I need to see for myself to know why people suddenly express rage and frustration. I’m left wondering why they don’t express rage and frustration all the time. Why riots in London now and not following the police shooting of Charles de Menezes in Stockwell in 2005?

And now London is in shock about the rioting, with many expressing outrage feeling their sense of security violated. BBC News Anchors’ first response to any understanding expressed concerning the possible causes underlying the riots is a pithy but loaded: ‘But surely you don't condone this?’ Right now, people are venting and expressing their hurt, but simply venting will not solve the problems that have instigated these riots.

In Elizabethan London a fabulously wealthy elite lived cheek-by-jowl with a thoroughly destitute majority. Even when gainfully employed, workers in handicrafts earned not much more than subsistence wages: for example, a 1589 proclamation prescribes wages for London linen weavers of 6d a day with meat and drink, or 10d a day without meat and drink. Given this polarization, it is not surprising that the 1590s were especially marked by social disorder and protest.

The public spending cuts this year meant many of the youth summer schemes in London did not run. These riots suggest boredom – and inarticulate rage. The youth are smashing and grabbing the things society tells them to want. The coalition government's austerity measures have hit this generation hard. There will be no higher education for those who cannot take on burdensome debt. The chance of ever being able to afford to buy a home in London seems remote – except for those whose wealthier parents can provide the deposit for a home loan. A generation of young people have been left behind by this coalition’s policies and the policies of previous governments. How can these young people see that they have anything invested in British society that will enable them to become fulfilled and successful adults?

Pennie Quinton is a freelance journalist based in East London. You can read more of her writings on her website