I can’t imagine how anyone doesn’t want a free press. OK. With the exception of some people who live in places like North Korea – or, alternatively, the occasional British politician. So we all agree on that. But there does seem to exist an awfully deliberate misunderstanding of the choices we have to make if we want to achieve such a beast.
Whenever British politicians have spoken in the past about their relationship with the press, they’ve always gingerly couched their public pronouncements with the sort of mealy-mouthed statements which remind one of barge-poles and devil’s spoons. Today’s speech by David Cameron on the subject of quite a number of things – mainly, it has to be said, Andy Coulson’s “second chance” (for which Cameron may soon find crucifixion the easier option) – also happened to touch on the matter of press freedom. And for once, it clearly led us to understand how dreadfully the Press Complaints Commission had failed in its remit. (If, that is, it actually has a remit to fail. Like many hallowed British institutions, so much of what goes on here seems to have more to do with precedent and who you know than objective checklists and criteria …)
He did mention regulation too – or, at least, I think he did. Now whenever the printed press and its representatives hear that dreaded word, they immediately clamber up onto their barricades and declaim the importance of holding shakers and makers to account. They hardly ever include their own CEOs, it has to be said – but a morality of sorts, even so, can be detected by the more charitable amongst us.
And then what we have got from our mealy-mouthed politicians, looking to cultivate their cosy relationships with powerful print moguls in order that they may “explain their democracy better to the people”, is a lukewarm adherence to the principles of self-regulation.
I have to say that I do actually agree with the latter. And my adherence isn’t lukewarm at all. I’d much prefer a systemic solution to as many important government decisions as possible – than the terrible alternative, which is what we often have now: idiosyncratic, untransparent and – potentially – politically biased decisions made by self-serving politicians looking to winning masses of votes via top-down communication strategies. The conflict of interests couldn’t be greater.
So this is essentially what I feel. If we want a free press, self-regulated and autonomous, we need a far more plural ownership than we currently have. We need the invisible hand of the market-place to ensure that politicians will never fear again the future patronage of a Murdoch or Daily Mail. These units of production need to have a certain size to ensure the kind of investigative journalism carried out by the Guardian recently continues to be carried out for the benefit of all of us – whether professional politicians, amateur voters or self-proclaimed members of the Fifth Estate. But there must also exist automatic measures of breakage which trip into action when a newspaper or media organisation gets bigger than a certain size. As I have suggested a couple of posts ago, this trip switch could be an algorithm or simply a checklist in the hands of specialist personnel, which would ensure no politician would ever find themselves again in the kind of position Jeremy Hunt currently occupies.
A bit like making the Bank of England independent – but in this case in relation to our treasure trove of culture.
The alternative to all the above is, of course, quite simple. If we wish to continue with monopolistic media, we need a much heavier – and, what’s more, external – regime of regulation than we have been used to.
So the choice is clear:
- a free, autonomous, self-regulated press, possibly more digital than anything else; structured in small but sustainable chunks of ownership which allow for useful value-adding content to be created; essentially, a press which no longer has to churn out PR releases under the banner of original journalism but is able to truly inform, explain and investigate democracy on behalf of the rest of us – even as it manages to maintain a competitive plurality able to support and give space to all viewpoints in British society
- a monopolistic press, still mainly based around the printed press, where 20th century publishing models are sustained – and where influence and favours are curried persistently by self-interested parties on both sides; a press, that is, where regulation must inevitably be as heavy as it currently is in TV and radio broadcasting
If you want an autonomous press, then, there is no alternative to the plurality of the true market-place. If you want a monopolistic press, where the invisible hand of multiple offers is slowly but always amputated, there is no alternative to heavy regulation.
It’s as simple as that.