Maria Miller makes a useful point here:
“What we’re concerned about is creating amendable legislation that could in the future give parliament the opportunity of stopping reporting on certain areas.”
I’d be inclined to give our current government greater credit for such thoughts if they cared to apply it to other areas such as the so-called snoopers’ charter – as well as those bill-drafting processes and periods of utterly false consultation which drove the recently-enacted NHS and Legal Aid legislation.
The point, however, whether inconsistently sustained or not, is valid. But it doesn’t go to the heart of the issue here. The heart of the issue is that corporately-sourced decisions as to what to publish and what not to publish are conducted behind closed doors on CCTV-defended, and always high-walled, industrially-scaled communications institutions. There is, as a result, nothing absolutely free about what someone who works for an international media empire does.
Nor, indeed, should we expect it to be otherwise.
Miller is both right and wrong, therefore, when she talks about governments stopping reporting on certain areas. In fact, even with current legislation, too much evidence points to the fact that this is already happening – especially in relation to the BBC and that eternal overarching threat of the licence fee. Nor has it only been this government which has committed the crime of wanting to spin itself into a better place, showing scant disregard for those who would pursue the truth.
But she is wrong to suggest that in our daily existences, public-sector governments are the only form of governance which seriously impinges on what happens to us, our knowledge of our democracy and the future development of our societies. Private sector and corporately-sourced influences over what decisions get taken, that is to say, what taxpayer resources are spent and how, are just as impactful on our lives and our ways of understanding the world as any traditional government out there.
The real power, these days, lies in private wealth. When we wish to increase press freedoms, therefore, we need to accept this reality and conceptualise our regulatory framework in its light. For there do seem to exist a number of terrible contradictions in our publicly-located communications at the moment: in terms of social-media libel and that figure of “malicious” behaviour, for example, the authorities – and even the police – have not been backwards in coming forwards to charge, prosecute, sentence and on occasions imprison individual citizens who have said things which are not entirely reasonable.
Things that the vast majority of social-media users would, in fact, consider beyond the pale.
And yet also an example of a pretty fearsome – and external – regulation of what Emily Bell suggested, the other day, was simply one further aspect of 21st century journalism.
Curiously, however, when we come to what Leveson himself almost defined as “proper journalism”, we have this government saying that 24-hour live and rolling news should not be subjected to such explicit regulation; that corporate speech – with the protection of limited liability behind it – should be trusted implicitly to speak honestly, sincerely and judiciously; and that transnational organisations should be trusted with the due preservation of the freedoms surrounding this island’s ability to communicate publicly and democratically with itself.
So on the one hand we have professionals like Bell arguing, perhaps rightly (I don’t agree myself but plenty do), that the division between mainstream and social media is false – and yet, on the other, we have politicians like Miller and Cameron himself arguing that whilst civil and nationally-sourced social media does need to be externally regulated, even fiercely so (just remember the Coalition’s responses to social-media use during last year’s riots), its corporate – and often transnational – cousin in mainstream-media land should be left to look entirely after its lonesome.
So what have we got then? Ordinary unlimited liability people, engaging in public discourse, will need to suffer the fear of massive libel fines imposed by external bodies on their imperfect and amateur conversations – whilst limited liability companies, also engaging in a parallel but far more nuanced public dialogue, can restrict the vast majority of external actions on their ability to communicate in what will surely end up being another cosy and fairly toothless body of self-regulation.
For if Miller fears – rightly enough – the dangers of “legislation creep” in the context of government control over the press, she should similarly fear the dangers of “behaviour creep” in a self-regulating group of corporate media organisations, under the control of an ultra-rich with clear and explicit policy agendas designed exclusively to benefit their own already deep pockets.
A 21st century governance doesn’t only involve government – it also involves the machinations, whether positive or negative, of private and entirely unelected concentrations of power too.
Which is why we should not only wish to maintain oversight over our publicly-elected representatives – we should also wish to exercise the age-old right to legislate over bodies which have chosen limited liability structures in order to function.
In fact, I think it’s time we crowdsourced our freedoms. Time we used the very tools we’ve been recently lambasted for using in order to help our governance in both private and public sectors to better understand what we, the people, really want out of a free press, our own personal freedom of speech and our very own right to continue communicating conversationally.
Further reading: you can find an interesting post today on the 20-year-old Danish experience of legislating for a free press here. Makes for fascinating reading – perhaps someone should point our own Prime Minister in its direction …