Lord Justice Leveson’s report into the culture, practices and ethics of the press doesn’t go far enough. The central issue that needs to be addressed when it comes to the press in Britain in 2012 is not how the press currently operates and regulates itself. The central issue is the concentration of press ownership and the corruption to the democratic process that has resulted from the status quo and will inevitably continue unless the current rules governing ownership are reformed.
Despite the exertions of the assorted Cassandras – made up of the various newspaper editors, journalists, and politicians who’ve filled the TV news studios and newspapers columns in the wake of the eagerly awaited 1,987-page Leveson Report – warning us of the dangers to press freedom if the statutory independent regulatory body recommended in the report is introduced, we should not allow ourselves to be fooled. We don’t have a free press in this country. What we have is a press controlled by a tiny clutch of plutocrats, whose political influence lay at the root of the culture of criminality and impunity that had pervaded a large section of the industry prior to the phone hacking scandal breaking at the beginning of 2011.
The sense of entitlement and overweening power revealed in the culture of corruption, bribery, intimidation, and flagrant disrespect for the law that had permeated the newsrooms of the nation’s tabloids in particular was consequent on the overweening power enjoyed by its owners. Prime among those is Rupert Murdoch, a man whose respect for democratic accountability is about the same as his respect for the politicians and prime ministers he became accustomed to carrying around in his pocket like spare change.
In light of the crimes that were rampant among his staff it is unconscionable that this man is still allowed to retain ownership of as much as a village newspaper in this country, never mind the 40 percent of the industry he does. It should not be forgotten that Murdoch came within a hairsbreadth of securing ownership of BSkyB with the collusion and support of the government. The result would have been the hegemony of right wing propaganda masquerading as news coverage in the mainstream discourse. For anyone who wonders what this would have looked like just cast your eyes across the ocean to the United States, where Murdoch-owned Fox News makes a mockery of the very concept of a free press.
Breaking the power of Murdoch in Britain is absolutely necessary in the interests of democracy. The revelations surrounding David Cameron’s cosy relationship with Rebecca Brooks, the former chief executive of News International currently facing prosecution for her alleged involvement in phone hacking and related criminal activity, could not have been more damaging. When added to the fact that the prime minister had hired former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who is also currently facing prosecution, as his press advisor and continued to defend him when allegations of his knowledge of phone hacking during his tenure at the News of the World were at their height, the office of prime minister has suffered irreparable discredit. Indeed, the prime minister’s blanket rejection of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations and with it the exhaustive process that went into devising them, consisting of £6 million of taxpayers money, months of testimony from victims of press intrusion, journalists, politicians, and others connected to the issue, should be considered in this light.
But Cameron is not the only one with dirty hands when it comes to Murdoch. Before him Gordon Brown and Tony Blair had likewise extended themselves in winning his favour, while Alex Salmond is revealed to have been courting Murdoch at a time when every other politician in the land was doing their utmost to distance themselves. It confirms that the fallout from this scandal has engulfed the entire political establishment, not to mention Scotland Yard, where corruption had become the norm with regard to the relationship between various high level police officers and tabloid journalists.
This why the efforts of the press to lobby against even the relatively tame recommendations contained in the Leveson Report must be seen for what they are: the shameless efforts of a discredited industry to defend its freedom to destroy the lives of innocent people with the objective of selling newspapers. The sight of these individuals portraying themselves as champions of a free press is truly cringeworthy. They are anything but.
Instead of listening to those siren voices, we should never forget the cruel treatment meted out to the family of Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl whose mobile phone was hacked, leading her distraught parents to believe she might still be alive when she was dead. Nor should we ever forget that the phones of the families and loved ones of soldiers killed in Afghanistan were hacked with the intention of listening in on their grieving. These were the completely innocent and powerless victims of a culture of criminality that was and is inextricably linked to the current rules surrounding press ownership. It is why the most significant aspect of Lord Leveson’s mammoth report on the culture and ethics of the press in Britain is the part that is missing.
Press ownership in Britain is the very antithesis of press freedom.