By Sara McConnell
“And to you, the press, I say, shame, shame on all of you”. The words of the coroner at the recent inquest into the suicide of transsexual primary school teacher Lucy Meadows sum up what many people clearly feel about this country’s press. They could become a useful motto for the lobby group Hacked Off, or even a subtitle for the Leveson report itself.
But these words are easy to say. Much more damaging are the potential consequences of the attitudes which underlie them and the danger to one of this country’s most precious assets – its free press.
In the case of Lucy Meadows, Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn made some typically vile remarks about Ms Meadows’ suitability to be a primary school teacher after her gender re-assignment. This is the Daily Mail, this is Richard Littlejohn. Vile remarks are his stock-in-trade. But this is the point of having a free press. We may hate his attitudes but he should have the right to express them, within the boundaries of the law. His legal defence would be that he is making an honest comment, honestly held, which has its basis in fact and which is in the public interest.
Of course his piece was unethical. He attacked in print a woman who was not in the public eye and who was just getting on with her job, with no regard for the consequences of his actions. The consequence was the suicide of Lucy Meadows. In ethical terms, the public interest argument is very difficult, if not impossible to sustain. There can be no moral right either in the motives for writing the piece or in the consequences that flowed from it.
But it is hard to see how this tragedy would have been prevented by implementing the Leveson recommendations in full as the coroner at Lucy Meadows’ inquest was urging. Changes in regulation won’t change the newsroom culture at the Mail. If the recommendations had been in place, what would have happened after the piece was published? Meadows could have taken the Daily Mail to a newly created arbitration service, to avoid having to take it to court for libel. But the piece would still have been published and the damage done. The existing PCC upheld a complaint and forced the Mail to take the piece down from its website in the same way that an independent regulator presumably would. The Mail might have had to pay a fine, which would be pocket money for that profitable title. Clumsy and misguided attempts to force editors to inform people in advance that they were going to write something damaging were rightly consigned to the spike in the aftermath of Leveson so there would be no new powers to give people more ammunition to stop publication.
The idea that tighter regulation is necessarily the right remedy for most of what is wrong with the British press is a mistake. Yes, the existing PCC needs overhauling and reconstituting. But not through what is actually statutory regulation by another name, however much politicians and campaigners may resort to Royal Charters and talk of mere “dabs of regulation”.
Some of the campaigning by groups like Hacked Off appears driven by thinly veiled snobbery about “the tabloids”, as if so-called serious newspapers never beefed up stories or faked quotes or bent to the will of their proprietor. All newspapers manufacture news and all news is an imperfect and incomplete version of events shaped by deadlines, editorial pressures, commercial pressures and reader demand. Proposals for more onerous statutory regulation outlined by Leveson and pressed for by Hacked-Off are presented as being a universal solution but underlying them is a desire to tighten the screw on the tabloids. And the danger of this is that it threatens the whole of our anarchic but still free press.
Many broadsheet journalists have never written for the tabloids and recoil from what they see as sensationalist coverage, either of irrelevant celebrities or, more dangerously, of stories about minority groups such as asylum seekers or gays which may contain a grain of truth but which are liable to stir up hatred. These may be despicable but tabloid editors will maintain that they are responding to the interests of their readers. This seems incomprehensible to many broadsheet journalists but it is easy for them to be horrified at the actions of tabloids when they haven’t experienced a newsroom culture very different from that of journalists at the Times or the Independent. The pressure to do the story as the editor says or quit, is intense, as journalists like former Daily Star reporter Richard Peppiatt can testify. This newsroom culture won’t be changed through tighter regulation.
It is important for journalists (and academics) who like to think of themselves as serious and ethical in their work to remember that millions of people read tabloids. No-one is making them do this – it is their free choice. And far fewer people choose to read the Independent or the Guardian or the Times, however much journalists consider these “real” papers containing the sort of news that people ought to read. There is a danger in scorning the tastes of millions, however perverse they may seem.
Similarly, it is dangerous to put all tabloids and their journalists into the same bracket, as a bunch of phone hackers and sharks, paying for stories, running stories without checking them. As the ongoing police enquiries suggest, there is plenty of this and it went on for far too long without being exposed. But these actions are not universal among tabloid journalists.
The Leveson enquiry exposed many unethical practices in the press, not just phone-hacking. But it also exposed some of the many fault-lines in the journalistic profession, between tabloid and broadsheet journalists, between print and online journalists, between amateur and professional. Leveson hardly even attempted to tackle the issue of what appears online, in blogs and on websites away from the mainstream press. His focus (and his recommendations) were almost totally focused on the mainstream nationals.
Fallout from Leveson is continuing. More than six months after the report was published, the government and the press are still fighting over what, if anything, of Leveson to implement. But it would be more useful to act on Leveson’s findings to apply the laws and criminal sanctions which already exist to restrain press excesses. A Royal Charter and an arbitration service will be small compensation if the result is a reduction in press freedom.
Sara McConnell is Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Kingston University and PhD student in the Journalism Studies department at the University of Sheffield