1 December 2012

Part of the Solution to Part of the Problem (Why unregulated markets can’t provide the news we need.)

Kenan Malik has written a fascinating and thoughtful article criticising the Leveson report that I profoundly disagree with.

He says he regards “the US First Amendment as the touchstone of free expression and of a free press … Congress, it states, ‘shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press’, a very different approach to that taken by Leveson and his supporters.”

What happens though when freedom of speech and freedom of the press are in conflict? To take it to an absurd extreme, imagine a media company that grew so dominant that it held a total monopoly on all communication. In other words if you wanted to express yourself in any way other than handwriting, you would need the permission of the company. Would congress be prohibited from intervening? Surely not, and such a situation would not be allowed to develop. But at what point should congress take action?  

Malik describes a division between First Amendment (American) and European ‘civil libertarians’ (one might better describe the Europeans as ‘civil liberals’, as Nick Clegg almost did) and quotes several appalled Americans, who perhaps have a simplistic view because the level of media concentration in the US is far below that in the UK.  I suspect it might be a different story if half the American media was owned by, say, a French tycoon.

Like many people, Malik jumps to the conclusion that the regulator must have total power over every individual journalist. It wouldn’t though, it is essentially about dismantling the business model that works against the public interest. He quotes Index on Censorship’s Padraig Reidy:

“You may be able to sack her, but what if she starts to blog, to Twitter, to produce her own paper?”

But so what if she does? It is very unlikely that she will be financially incentivised to tweet a lot of libel or set up her own muckraker. This is not about regulating freedom of expression, it is about powerful corporations.

Malik continues:

“Journalism, in Reidy’s words,  is not simply a profession but ‘one way in which people can exercise their right to free expression’. The question of journalistic ethics is vitally important and needs to be
tackled. But it cannot be tackled by pretending that journalism is like any other profession, or through greater regulation, especially regulation underpinned by the state.”

The difference between a trade and a profession is not that a profession requires more training. Stradivarius was a tradesman.  The difference is that the quality of the service they provide is not evident to the customer.  Doctors and Lawyers need to be trusted as a group, not just individually, and when we go to a doctor or a lawyer, in the UK, we rarely even consider that they might be on commission from a drug company, or working both sides of the case. 

In fact though it is easy to imagine a libertarian system in which we would simply pay a premium to see a doctor or lawyer from reputable practice, and those without means would have to take a chance and make their own assessment of a freelancer.

This is the system we have in newspapers.  If we care about the ethics and integrity of what we read, we can pay a premium for a broadsheet.  

There are two key differences though, which mean that if anything we should care more about the standard of journalists as a whole than those of doctors or lawyers. The first is that it is not the customer who suffers the damage. It is the Christopher Jefferies’ who suffer.  The second, and even more important difference is that unlike doctors (if not lawyers), journalists play a critical role in our democracy. We don’t just care that we ourselves are well informed, we care that the people who elect the people who govern us are well informed. In fact I care more about how informed the average voter is than how informed I am myself.

As customers of newspapers, we buy them only because they are interesting, but we should care about the quality of journalism even when we don’t buy it.  This is a classic public good in the economic sense that it cannot be bottled and sold, but only freely shared. There is no profit in it, so it cannot be left to the invisible hand of the market. (more on this in previous posts).

Malik goes on to describe what a pussycat Rupert Murdoch is in comparison to the Beaverbrookes and Rothermeres of old who flagrantly interfered in politics:

“What is different today is not that the media has become more powerful, but that political institutions have become far weaker. The authority of politicians has plummeted in recent years and the public has become increasingly disengaged from politics. The role of the media has expanded to fill the gap left by the hollowing-out of public and political life. In the past, the political class spoke from a position of strength. Its social authority was unquestioned and it possessed immense self-confidence in its ability to rule. Today, the weakness of the political class, the erosion of its self-confidence, the bankruptcy of its ideas – all ensure the greater influence of a figure like Murdoch. The media has assumed its position of unprecedented influence by default.”

This is all true, but upside down. Murdoch does meddle much less than Beaverbrook and Rothermere. The authority of politicians has plummeted, and political institutions are weaker, and as he says, ‘The media, as much as the public, have become disengaged from the political sphere’, and the media has as a result assumed a position of unprecedented influence.  However, this may not be by design, but it is not as he claims ‘by default’. 

Perversely, the reason all this has happened is precisely because Murdoch has mostly resisted the temptation to meddle.  To quote from an earlier post:

In the past, news magnates like Hearst, Beaverbrook and Northcliffe did have ideological agendas.  They were often willing to lose money because their newspapers served their other interests. This is why so many newspapers survive while making a loss.  Their real value is not in their own business models, but in how they can serve other economic or political interests. The Scott Trust for example, which owns the loss-making Guardian has a stipulated political objective, to promote the ‘liberal interest’. 

However, the free market did its job, and by and large those who were distracted by ideology lost out to those who focused on profit. Rupert Murdoch was the clear winner because he had no other purpose than to make money.  Ideology carries a cost that makes it uncompetitive.

It is precisely because Murdoch did not waste money on trying to influence people, but only on getting their 50p and the advertising revenue attached to it, that the public has become disengaged from politics. Murdoch doesn’t care what people think, or whether they are informed.  (After all, he doesn’t even live here). He only cares what people think in so much as it affects his own profits. So he flogs us celebrity sex scandals and gossip (and I lap them up as much as the next person), because that is what we will pay for. It is not that the ideas of the political class are bankrupt, it is that they can’t communicate them. Most of us don’t want to waste our own time worrying about politics. But we do want everyone else to!

It is not true that the press is less powerful today than it has been for a century because of the internet. The internet is the press. Twitter, as far as politics is concerned is almost entirely journalists who earn a living on newspapers.  The Mail and the Guardian have gigantic online reach. Yes there is a lot of comment, and people like me talking to no-one, but very few investigative journalists make a living from the web. Even Wikileaks was filtered through the press.

Malik says “the tabloids have coarsened our culture largely because an increasingly coarse culture has provided new opportunities for the tabloids  – and not just for the tabloids. Tackling the issue of press ethics, in other words, restraining gross intrusion into people’s privacy, means far more than simply reining in the newspapers; it means transforming the culture within which they operate.”

The opportunities for the tabloids are not new. We only have to watch Shakespeare to see that we have always been coarse. Perhaps Shakespeare used coarseness to pull us in to the Globe, but having appealed to our base instincts, he also had something to appeal to our better nature. Murdoch just wants us in the theatre. 

If we want to transform the culture, where else would you start but with the media? I don’t expect Leveson’s proposals to solve the problem at a stroke, but we do need journalism to be elevated to the status of a profession, if only so that all journalists recognise that they all have a responsibility to more than just the bottom line. I think it will be liberating for them.


Chumbly on the Mediocracy