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A democracy of journalists

The stramash over abuse of power and standards at Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp should reinvigorate the idea of journalists’ self-regulation, says Neal Ascherson.

Who should regulate the media? Who should control the press? The commentariat agonises, as if the choice was between state control through some autocratic press law or a new Press Complaints Commission redecorated with false teeth. But there is another way. Let journalists regulate themselves.

Absurd? Wouldn’t this - to borrow Gordon Brown’s image – be inviting the rats to run the sewage industry? Not so. Imagine the News of the World running under a written agreement between staff and management which laid down explicit ethical standards, which banned criminal methods of newsgathering and which guaranteed immunity to journalists who refused to obey orders contrary to those standards and to their consciences. Which gave journalists a right of veto over the appointment and dismissal of editors. Which defined the political stance of the paper, and allowed the staff to defy a proprietor who tried to change it.

Let’s have a little democracy in the media. Even in the Murdoch papers, the number of journalists who are irretrievably lawless and callous is quite small. Most of the disasters at the News of the World happened because its editors treated their staff in the style of Muammar Gaddafi.

Some journalists found that arrogance thrilling (we are the most sceptical of professions, but also one of the most passive). Others balked at what they were expected to do, and were fired. Most saw things which told them that it would all end in tears, but shrugged and carried on with the job. Had that group of men and women been allowed an opinion, a protected right to say No! at critical moments, their paper would still be on the newsagents’ stands.

The Fall of the House of Murdoch is such melodrama – the tumbrils rattling daily to the guillotine, the enquiries and apologies sprouting like morning mushrooms, the politicians gabbling excuses, the pompous police commanders watching their trousers fall about their ankles - that the sheer spectacle makes it hard to plan ahead. But there’s an intense, incoherent feeling that phone-hacking, intimidation and bribery cannot be the best way to give the people the news. “The media can’t go on like this” - that old, familiar cry again. But how should they go on? And if journalism should be reined in, who should hold the reins?

All suggestions seem ridiculous or repellent. A new “regulatory body”? Laws passed by parliament to protect the privacy of the rich and powerful, or criminalising the printing of untruths? At the end of that road waits a chamber of licensed journalists - who can have their licences withdrawn for disrespect or “irresponsibility”. And such proposals assume the existence of a muscular state which can grip the flow of news as firmly if it were an adjustable bath-tap. In the day of the internet, this is belief in fairies.

So what about self-regulation by the hacks themselves - through journalists’ democracy? It may at first sound like a winsome lefty fantasy. But it’s not. It’s been tried and some variants of it have worked.

The right of no

In the 1970s, the Free Communications Group set about encouraging newsroom democracy in the British media. The Times set up an ‘editorial consultative committee’ composed of the editor and his team with twelve members chosen by the journalists. The Guardian agreed to have elected union representatives on the board and on the Scott Trust; the London staff demanded a veto over major editorial appointments (except for the editor). Similar initiatives began to take shape at the Observer, the Sunday Times and the Daily Mirror, and in some BBC news outfits.

Almost none of this survived in Britain. The onward march of Rupert Murdoch into Times Newspapers (1981) and the reign of Margaret Thatcher crushed all such experiments. The Newspaper Proprietors’ Association fought frantically to preserve the divine and absolute sovereignty of editors (qualified, naturally, by their subservience to owners), and covertly threatened the main funder of the Free Communications Group into cutting off its money. (“The FCG is a worse menace to a free press than the print unions“).

But it was in continental Europe that the idea took off. In France, the “Paris May” saw the state broadcaster - ORTF - fall under a high-spirited, short-lived form of “workers’ control”. Le Monde adopted a complicated democratic constitution, fragments of which still survive. There were similar experiments in Italy in the 1970s. But it was West Germany that became the success story for “journalists’ power“. All over the country, newspapers, magazines and some broadcasters established democratic “constitutions” - the so-called Statutenbewegung. The movement went so far that a draft press law - never finally passed - would have required all media to accept “statutes” guaranteeing journalists a set of basic rights and a share in editorial control.

While each model was individual, there was a common pattern. Each publication’s journalist staff would draw up a “statute” and present it to management, backed by the (usually unspoken) threat of industrial action if it was rejected. The staff would then elect an “editorial council” (Redaktionsrat) to represent the journalists in all major editorial and management decisions.

A statute would usually begin with a wordy definition of what the publication was about: “independent … progressive liberal principles… an open democratic society“. Then there would follow a vital clause. This one comes from the Stern magazine agreement: “No staff member or contributor shall be obliged to do, write or be responsible for anything contrary to his (sic) own convictions. He shall suffer no disadvantages from a refusal“.

Then came matters of control. Most of them were negative: rights of veto. Publishers and proprietors could nominate an editor, but no appointment or dismissal would be valid if two-thirds of the journalists voted against it. Much the same usually applied to senior editorial appointments.

Almost all statutes insisted that the editorial council must be informed and consulted before any change of ownership took place - but stopped short of demanding a veto. There were better ways, in those radical years, of resisting a noxious takeover. In 1969, a proposal to sell Stern to a German equivalent of Richard Desmond collapsed when the entire staff signed a resolution stating that they would resign of the deal went through. Le Monde’s journalists, in contrast, protected their paper by securing half the voting shares in the company for an “employees’ cooperative“. Their example was soon followed by other French publications.

Admittedly, these bold schemes happened in a time of political energy, imagination and optimism which now seems impossibly distant. Journalists back then were worried about changes in the structure of their industry, which seemed to threaten not only their jobs but their independence and their freedom to publish what they knew.

New “multimedia concerns” were bursting into the market - international conglomerates combining print journalism, radio and television, publishing and perhaps hotel chains and nickel mines as well. These giants were taking over smaller, more traditional companies whose single interest had been their newspapers. But the new owners, preoccupied with so many diverse activities, cared about corporate profit at the expense of journalistic quality. The traditional “sovereignty” of editors was already becoming a bad joke, as proprietors forced them to take their titles downmarket. So, if an editor was becoming the captive of management, wasn’t it the duty of the journalists to march in and reinforce his or her independence?

But they didn’t win. That is why we are in this crisis now. In the 1980s, the concentration of media ownership plunged ahead. The new proprietors - Robert Maxwell, Conrad Black, Rupert Murdoch - imposed a tyrannical editorial culture, operated by mafia-like enforcers who demanded obedience or death. The National Union of Journalists, always dubious about “newsroom democracy” ideas, fought bravely against closures, sacking and victimisations, but could not halt or reverse these changes. A few upmarket newspapers kept out of the hands of the tycoons. The rest saw their standards slide.

The rats and the Rat

The Murdoch crisis is a revelation, but not a revolution. It shows with horrible clarity how corrupted public authority has become in Britain. But it may well change nothing. In a few years, politicians will be finding another media empire to cower before; the market in illegal information will pick up merrily; the British public will resume its bad habit of reading rubbish papers which are far less intelligent than their readers.

And yet the Murdochs’ fall leaves a hole, a chance. “Something must be done to regulate the media”. New laws to limit cross-media ownership could be one good outcome. But another, more imaginative, would be to promote self-regulation by the journalists themselves.

Don’t leave regulation to home secretaries, interior ministers, policemen or multimedia billionaire owners. That would produce a press corps of white mice. As the great reporter Nicholas Tomalin said, journalists need “rat-like cunning” to do their job. But rats are intelligent animals. And, given a chance, they can organise themselves to keep society clean.

About the author

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. For many years he was foreign correspondent and then columnist for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1963; Granta, 1999); The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988); Black Sea (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1996); and Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003)

More On

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. For many years he was foreign correspondent and then columnist for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1963; Granta, 1999); The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988); Black Sea (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1996); and Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003)

Also by Neal Ascherson in openDemocracy:

"Pope John Paul II and democracy" (1 April 2005)

"Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005)

"The victory and defeat of Solidarność" (6 September 2005)

"Victory's lost sister - the wreck of the Implacable" (21 October 2005)

"A carnival of stupidity" (6 February 2006)

"Torture: from regress to redress" (1 March 2006)

"Catholic Poland's anguish" (11 January 2007)

"Ryszard Kapuscinski: from Poland to the world" (25 January 2007)

"Who needs a constitution?" (22 May 2007)

"The Polish March: students, workers, and 1968" (1 February 2008)

"After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

"Conor Cruise O'Brien: the irascible angel" (22 December 2008)

"1989: how it ended" (4 November 2009)

"Charles de Gaulle remembered" (18 June 2009)

"Abkhazia and the Caucasus: the west's choice" (6 August 2010)


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