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Life after Leveson: teaching Auntie how to suck eggs

Leveson has illuminated deep democratic problems at the heart of the British media. Far from immune to this culture, the BBC needs to learn from the inquiry and actively assert its independence. 

Natalie Fenton
4 September 2012

As a public sector broadcaster you would be forgiven for thinking that the BBC have nothing to be worried about in life post-Leveson. After all, the public service broadcasting of the BBC is far removed from the journalism of the commercial press, right?  Wrong.

The Leveson inquiry has lessons for all news media. The crime of phone hacking laid bare the brutality of invasions of privacy, the press as perpetrators of cultural injustices that regularly ruined lives. We have seen the lies and the deceit of senior newspaper figures intent on protecting their ability to increase sales in the name of press freedom. Then there was the sordidness of ever more entangled and extensive associations of media and political elites alongside a highly politicised and corrupt police force. In short, if you ever believed the press had a role to play in a democracy then the only conclusion you could reach as the inquiry played out was that ours is a deeply impoverished one.

So why was phone hacking allowed to happen? It was clearly not just because those who did it knew they could get away with it and editors thought on balance it was a business risk worth taking. The problem is much broader and deeper than any slippage in ethical practice would seem to suggest and rests not with the individual journalists but with the system of news production they were part of.  The reasons phone hacking took place involve the increasing entanglement of political and media elites as news coverage has taken on an ever more important role in policy making and elections; the failure of the Press Complaints Commission (the newspaper industry watchdog) to uphold ethical standards and enable adequate self-regulation of journalists; alongside the broken business model of newspapers with plummeting circulation and readership figures and the migration of classified advertising to online sites.

Of course, public service news broadcasting is regulated for due impartiality and amount of coverage, and has a financial model in the licence fee that seems to function very well (which is part of the reason it has avoided the crisis of its distant news cousins in parts of the commercial tabloid press). Nevertheless, the lessons for all journalistic endeavours, including the BBC, are worth further consideration: journalistic independence is paramount. Independence from proprietors hell bent on power or shareholder returns is as important as independence from state interference. In a media saturated age when the news matters so much to policy makers and politicians the BBC must ensure it is fully independent and does not kowtow to any government over any issue. For the BBC in particular, independence is often seen to go hand in hand with impartiality. But impartiality, due prudence over ensuring all angles have been interrogated and reported on, should not be confused with timidity to report the findings of an investigation that may point the finger in the direction of a particular political party.  Injustices and wrongdoings are rarely fair and impartial.

Similarly, plurality is crucial and that means plurality in content as well as plurality in types of news media and organizations. It is often too easy to go to authoritative knowers, credible sources with elite standing than less well known civil society actors and individuals who don’t have the resources to make themselves heard nor the cultural capital to be easily understood. With the contemporary pressures of journalism to deliver news with ever more speed to fill ever more platforms with fewer and fewer journalists, the temptation to stick to tried and tested sources can quickly turn into an elite club that circulates largely around the Westminster village, professional lobbyists and institutional press offices. Closed circles of elite practices are more likely to fall foul of corruption, be less transparent and less accountable.

Ownership matters – the BBC is effectively owned by the people who pay its licence fee (willingly) but it’s the politicians who call the tune. They need to find better ways of interpreting what is in the public interest and engaging the public in the decisions that they make rather than running scared of politicians who threaten to cut their funding. Finding a means to listen more carefully to the public pulse, engage in public deliberation and be more responsive to it (both in terms of mistakes made and strategic decisions regarding future planning) will better fulfill their need to serve the public interest and also protect them against political attack.

Plus they need to develop a bit of grit. The reason people trust the BBC more than other news platforms is linked to their well established brand which gives people confidence that the news they produce follows strict codes of practice and as a result is reasonably reliable and untarnished by pursuit of profit or political gain. As newspapers continue to struggle it is likely that the BBC will increasingly gain viewers and readers particularly of their online service. This popularity must be rewarded by an ever fiercer commitment to public interest journalism that avoids the competitive push from a thoroughly marketised media to an ever more populist journalism that furrows shallower and faster producing more shoddy news that relies on greater use of rewrites of press agency or public relations material and more examples of ‘cutting and pasting’ stories from a range of sources as well as the temptation to use any methods possible in pursuit of an ‘exclusive’. The BBC is not immune from these pressures. It should recognize them and seek to bolster news by emphatically placing journalistic integrity at the very centre of its practice. Maybe then the BBC would be more willing to stand up for itself than be endlessly apologetic for its existence.

And standing for itself will become increasingly important. The attack on the BBC pre-Leveson, often bolstered by claims of unfair competition by the likes of James Murdoch came from a neo-liberal agenda that premises all policy decisions on economic growth and productivity as the route to progress. The BBC, even with its diktat to outsource at least a certain percentage of content production and even with its commitment to inject twenty five million pounds into Jeremy Hunt’s plans for local television, and its limited budget in comparison to that of the Murdoch empire is still considered by many to be a huge money sucking monolith that, due to its global success, prevents other mighty yet commercial global media corporations from making even more money. The debate over plurality in the news landscape runs the risk of being diverted by the powerful corporate lobby who would happily see the BBC greatly diminished so they could rush in and gain even greater corporate dominance of the media landscape. They claim the BBC stymies growth and innovation, what they really mean is that it stops them making yet more profit by churning out yet more of the same format-heavy, easily exportable, cheaply produced content.

Unless Leveson is brave enough to tackle the financial crisis in news; unless he is clever enough to understand that quality news media in the digital age is unlikely to survive without subsidy, the BBC will come under constant pressure to reduce the licence fee and be less competitive – in other words to take up less of the market and free up the space for business to thrive.  Just as the 20th century state is being eroded with the relentless privatisation of the NHS and public Universities; so, the BBC will continue to be under fire as it defies a market logic and doggedly pursues the public interest over private gain.

But it could box clever. If Leveson recommends (as many of us think he should) a system of levies (for example, 1% on advertising generated from Internet Service Providers) to create a fund that could be used to start up new not-for profit news ventures to increase plurality in the world of news, then the BBC could offer facilities, expertise and even share or cross-promote content to ensure such ventures are sustainable. It needs to get more creative with its mission to serve the public interest and be more inclusive. It needs to involve actors who currently feel excluded from the mainstream mediated conversations and actively seek to increase media plurality. Establishing a more collaborative relationship between other not-for-profit news organizations, individuals and civil society should be encouraged in order to enable participation, increase effective engagement, expand the public sphere, and enhance democracy. And it needs to extend its reputation for providing the conditions for a journalism of integrity to thrive by investing in more journalists and being bolder in its mission to hold power to account. Anything less will leave the BBC vulnerable, and rightly so. 

This article is cross posted with kind permission from Red Pepper

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