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OurKingdom forum: The fall of Murdoch - What next?

An ongoing forum in which OurKingdom authors consider why the fall of Rupert Murdoch has taken place, what it tells us about the state of Britain and what the key lesson are for the media and government.
Nick Couldry Ryan Gallagher Julian Sayarer Suzanne Moore James Curran
15 July 2011

Arguably the most influential media group and certainly the continuously most powerful single figure in British politics for thirty years have been broken politically in the UK, if not commercially. The government is now saying that we need to ensure that the kind of influence News International exercised "must never happen again". But we cannot default back to the status quo before Murdoch.

As part of OurKingdom's debate on Power and the Media, we have asked our authors to consider:

  • What should happen now as the judicial inquiry begins?
  • Why has the fall of Rupert Murdoch taken place, what does it tell us about the state of Britain and what is the key lesson for the media and government?

We will be adding responses to this thread as they come in - comments can carry on as normal.

James Curran

Remember the Hutton Inquiry (2003) which awarded a 5-0 score in favour of the Government and against the BBC, to the sceptical astonishment of the public. Perhaps we should not leave everything to the wisdom of a senior judge, and think for ourselves about what should be done about the current press scandal.

It is also worth recalling the failure of past enquiries. Every single major public investigation into its workings of the Press Council - in 1961-2, 1974-7 and 1990 – was utterly scathing about its shortcomings. A cycle became established in which the Press Council expressed a mixture of defiance and misgiving, embraced limited reform, and was found wanting again.  It was then re-branded as the Press Complaints Commission in 1991, and performed less well than its predecessor. So it is worth maintaining public pressure for effective press reform.

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In addition to stronger anti-monopoly legislation limiting the concentration of media power, and the ability to intimidate, we need to re-conceive press regulation. Three obvious corrections are needed. Press self-regulation should be independent of press controllers. It should be funded adequately by a compulsory industrial levy. The new agency should have also sufficient (though limited) power and sanctions that cannot be ignored.

Perhaps, crucially, press self-regulation should also have larger ambitions. At present, its role is largely confined to handling customer complaints (embodied in the title ‘Press Complaints Commission’). Its successor should seek to change the culture of popular journalism by commissioning investigative research into the press, making a positive input to journalism education, honouring great journalists, and publicly naming and shaming bad journalism.  

This way, the professionalizing project of press reform – that has taken root in countries as diverse as Sweden and America – could at last take wing in Britain.

James Curran is director of the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre and author of Media and Democracy (Routledge 2011).

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Nick Couldry

Most people would agree that large societies need journalists: otherwise, how would necessary information be circulated? To be useful, journalists must be, to some degree, trusted, and so must be free to investigate and publish. Those freedoms must be exercised consistently with doing those practices well: 'well', that is, by reference to the point of that practice, whether saving lives or circulating information, and to wider legal and ethical standards. Whether in journalism or medicine, we insist practitioners are free to exercise their practice, but this does not mean licence to do anything at all.

A balance is necessary between protecting journalists' general freedom to work without interference and protecting society, public culture and vulnerable individuals from the bad practices of journalists themselves. This balance has been lost in contemporary Britain. One body charged with monitoring it (the Press Complaints Commission) is toothless and captured by media industry interests. A political generation has reached power knowing that public office means working under the open threat of their private lives being revealed, regardless of their public relevance. Politicians know they can help turn 'the wrath of the tabloid press' onto their opponents, whether professional politicians or not. Key policing institutions, or some of their members, have, it appears, been in financially corrupt relationships with the very press we expect to report on the legal process.

Britain needs an institution, empowered by citizens and free from government interference, that can monitor whether journalists generally do their job well, or at times so badly that democracy is threatened. That institution needs the power to impose sanctions which, in serious cases of the latter sort, can prevent media institutions or particular journalists from practising.

Otherwise, why pretend that Britain is a working democracy? A society where the leaders of government, administration and law enforcement cannot do their job well for fear of what certain journalists will do to them is, as the late Tony Judt once wrote about the USA of George W Bush, not a democracy: it needs another name.

Nick Couldry is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London and author (with Angela Phillips and Des Freedman) of ‘An Ethical Deficit? Accountability, Norms, and the Material Conditions of Contemporary Journalism’  in N. Fenton (ed) New Media Old News (Sage 2009).

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Ryan Gallagher 

The fall of Rupert Murdoch has taken place not because of government ministers, the police, or other such figures in authority positions. It resulted as a consequence, quite astonishingly, of relentless muckraking on the part of excellent journalists who smelled a rat and followed its trail.

It is a truly fascinating moment – a watershed of some kind. We are now witnessing the same politicians who have cowered in Murdoch’s dark shadow for decades clamber over eachother to fire criticism in his direction. There is an undeniable stench about it – and perhaps just as the rotten core of News International has been exposed, so too has the spinelessness of the Westminster establishment.

No matter how it happened, however, the important thing is that it has happened. No longer will Murdoch be able to wield his all-pervasive influence on British politics. There will be no more backdoor meetings, friendly lunches and lavish parties: those days are over.

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So the key question is now, where next? The investigation in to the full extent of the phone hacking – and its culture – could take months, more likely years. Over 3000 suspected victims have still to be contacted and there can be no doubt some of the worst revelations are yet to come.

Though amid the heightened climate of hysteria, it is important to keep a cool head. There must be a reasoned debate about how journalism, particularly tabloid journalism, can move forward after this ugly chapter. George Monbiot’s proposed introduction of a Hippocratic Oath for Journalists is a strong starting point.

There is a definite danger that politicians – with the broad support of the wider public – will attempt to impose new regulatory powers upon the press. This is a cause for concern. It is not in dispute that the self-regulating Press Complaints Commission (PCC) failed spectacularly on a number of levels throughout the duration of the hacking saga. (In a 2009 report, for instance, the PCC found "no new evidence to suggest that the practice of phone message tapping was undertaken by others beyond Goodman and Mulcaire" and dismissed the Guardian's coverage as "dramatic".) But it is not a given that the PCC should be scrapped altogether, as many, including prime minister David Cameron, have suggested.

Wholesale statutory regulation would dangerously inhibit freedom of the press, and we must remember that the print media is already bound by many laws (the Data Protection Act, the Human Rights Act, Defamation law etc.). It was a toxic, profit-crazed, scoop-obsessed culture at the News of the World that resulted in endemic phone hacking – not a lack of strong legislation.

This is where the discussion should begin. It is a bonus that after so many years there now seems to be, suddenly and without precedent, a broad consensus on the need for some kind of media reform. Every party and almost every politician is for once in agreement: as Murdoch’s empire crashes to the ground, it's time to build something new from the rubble.

Ryan Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in London.

Suzanne Moore

Please forgive me for mentioning that post-marxist Louis Althusser  (yes I know  he was mental  and killed his wife)  but  he understood what is key now: ideology is material. Murdoch knows this. What has happened is that the repressive apparatus of the state (the police) have been working with the ideological apparatus of the state (the media) in a deal brokered by politicians.

The answer is not regulation by the state or a little tidy up then. It is this. Bust open journalistic practice. Break the lobby system by which politicians keep feral hacks domesticated. Stop spin. Stop free stuff. Yes that’s you fashion editors, free holiday travel people. Yes that’s the end of that industry made of nothingness: PR.

Stop politics being about what can be sold. Then journalists won’t have to sell it? The press has enough to contend with now with Wikileaks and the blogosphere.  What matters now is the public and there is no reason why ethics and entertainment are mutually exclusive. We do want to be titillated yes and there is nothing wrong with that. But with the truth. That truth is that the predators have invaded the state itself and it has pretended to control them but it clearly hasn’t: Financiers, the press, the police, and its own politicians.

Opposition to the failure of neo-liberal policy was always going to come from the least expected place and this it. Now.

Suzanne Moore is a columnist with the Guardian and the Mail on Sunday. You can read her full column on the News International scandal for the Guardian here.

Julian Sayarer

‘Regulation’ has been the most prominent word in the political response to the tumult engulfing News International. Given that the press has supposedly been regulated by the Press Complaints Commission since 1991, and throughout the phone-hacking episode, it is unnerving to witness such fixation on a mechanism that already appears to have failed us once. Doubtless we will see a loyal prefixing of ‘tougher’ to the word ‘regulation’, and yet ‘tougher’ really should be a word too subjective to satisfy anyone with genuine concerns for solving the problem at hand.

David Cameron has already mooted the idea of a PCC redrawn along the lines of the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), which has powers to refer misleading adverts to the Office of Fair Trading, who can then issue fines. Liberal Democrat MPs, led by Simon Hughes, have called for reappraisal of the criteria by which people are judged ‘fit and proper’ to own newspapers in the UK, and Nick Clegg has already suggested financial penalties for breaches of journalistic codes of conduct, prison sentences (rather than fines) for those found guilty of selling confidential information, and monitoring media plurality regardless of whether or not mergers and takeovers might be underway.

The proposals are all as well-meaning as they are belated, yet their most striking feature is a general lack of imagination, a bias towards strengthening the mechanisms by which complaints are dealt with, rather than aspiring to deal with the culture responsible for the complaints. It is, in short, a politician’s fix, regulation for the regulators, new statutes and consultations, and no serious endeavour to engage philosophically with media in the twenty-first century.

It’s interesting that the ASA has been brought forward as an early example for what the PCC might come to resemble. In the ASA we have an implicit acceptance that people be subjected to constant attempts to turn sovereign heads into a commercial space. Boundaries of taste are occasionally pushed too far, a handful of concerned citizens voice dismay, and the ASA begins a lengthy process deliberating whether or not their concerns are well-founded. Come the point at which the advert is removed, if it is removed at all, then it has already spent months successfully glorifying idiocy, objectifying women, and sexualising children. Likewise in the case of the PCC (in either its present or envisaged form), by the time some modicum of restraint has been imposed, Muslims have launched jihad, 90 million swine flu vaccinations have arrived, and an eccentric man with long-hair and a fondness for poetry is likely to have murdered his neighbour. The efficacy of any changes will require politicians to talk, not just about the ASA as an example, but about the role of advertising in newspapers themselves.

Research from the Reuters Institute for Journalism (RISJ), released in 2010, pointed to dependency on advertising revenue, rather than the rise of the internet, as the main reason for struggling newspapers in the UK. As companies reduce their advertising spend in line with economic forecasts, national dailies have seen a diminishing value in the 41% of their funding that is derived from adverts. The problem is even more acute in local newspapers, where the figure is 65%, and it is in this reliance that we find a primary cause of much morally reckless media. If funding depends on advertising, and advertising depends on circulation, an incentive is placed on cheap and sensationalist journalism at the expense of serious reporting of public issues. David Cameron went so far as to implicitly condone as much in his recent press conference, giving equal weighting to the ideal of a press ‘that investigates and entertains’. What needs to be addressed most urgently, however, is the danger of a medium that has been given the social mandate to inform, and yet must provide populist entertainment in order to fulfil its business functions. The conflict of interest between supermarkets as lucrative advertising clients, and a genuine discussion about the power of supermarkets, is one example in which the relationship is already threatening media credibility. At the online version of The Times, imposition of its fee-charging Paywall is an implicit recognition that informing the public plays second-fiddle to monetary requirements.

The alternative, no less unsightly, is the prospect of a subsidy to newspapers, although it takes a strong stomach to advocate the idea of journalism by government. The reality, in practice, is perhaps not quite so alarming, the British experience of the BBC provides a generally palatable example of publicly-funded broadcasting on our own doorstep. In print media, the RISJ findings cite Germany and Finland as states in which publicly-supported newspapers have returned stable performances throughout the recession, with neither country posing any strong likeness to totalitarianism. Italian and Austrian governments also subsidise newspapers, and a 10% tax on all advertising in Sweden is used to support newspapers that represent conservative views in predominantly liberal regions, and liberal views in conservative regions. The tax yields a surplus for the state, whilst the subsidy is targeted directly towards maintaining the diversity of public opinion.

Government involvement with the media will always generate probing questions, it would be an unhealthy scenario were it not to do so. What recent events at News International have demonstrated, however, is that the free market can represent a sponsor no less sinister than the state, a poor instrument for determining the value of truth. We must hope that our politicians can be sufficiently outraged, and sufficiently ambitious, to tame the beast, and not just chop off its head. 

Julian Sayarer writes at thisisnotforcharity.com.

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