The unlovable press
Tabloid newspapers are a vital force for democracy, argues an American academic. What about the British case, asks Julian Petley?
“Democracies require an unlovable press. They need journalists who get in the face of power.” So says Michael Schudson, one of America’s foremost media scholars, in his new book, and most people, and certainly most journalists, would agree. After all, the idea of the press as a Fourth Estate or watchdog over the powerful has a long and noble pedigree, stretching as far back as the origin of newspapers themselves. It is also an integral part of journalism’s own cherished self-image. But what does unlovable really mean, and how well does the British press measure up to the task of using its unlovability to hold power to account?
Certainly Britain’s press is not greatly loved. For example, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has recently launched a new inquiry into the press (its second in two years) which asks some key questions: does the fact that every single popular British newspaper has faced libel actions arising from the Madeleine McCann case indicate a serious weakness with the self-regulatory regime run by the Press Complaints Commission? Should financial penalties for libel or invasion of privacy be exemplary rather than merely compensatory? Is press reporting of police investigations and court trials infringing the contempt of court laws?
Of course, some might argue that if the press is annoying government into investigating its actions, it must be doing something right. However, it also appears to be unloved by much of the general public as well. A report published in February by the Media Standards Trust, A More Accountable Press, shows that according to a YouGov survey 75 per cent of people questioned agreed with the statement that “newspapers frequently publish stories they know are inaccurate”, and only seven per cent thought that national newspapers behaved responsibly – making the press even less trusted than the banks. More specifically, only 43 per cent of those questioned trusted journalists on the up-market papers, falling to 18 per cent in the case of the mid-market tabloids and 15 per cent when it comes to the redtops. But for those concerned with press freedom, the worrying aspect of this survey is that lack of public trust in the press goes hand in hand with support for government intervention. Thus the YouGov research shows that 60 per cent of respondents wanted the government to intervene to protect privacy, and 73 per cent would like it to become involved in correcting inaccuracies.
So, if the press has become unlovable in such a way that large numbers of those whose interests it is supposed to represent want to see it muzzled by government, does this suggest that many people simply see it as no longer playing a democratic role? Has British newspapers’ longstanding love affair with celebrity, tittle-tattle, scandal and prurience finally reached such a pitch that most people regard it as simply no longer interested in “getting in the face of power” (if indeed it ever was)?
In a speech to the Society of Editors last November, in the wake of the Max Mosley affair, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre partially addressed this question when he argued: “If mass-circulation newspapers, which, of course, also devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs, don’t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process … If the News of the World can’t carry such stories as the Mosley orgy, then it, and its political reportage and analysis, will eventually probably die.” This was a view also expressed by Lord Woolf in a 2002 Appeal Court judgment which found against Blackburn Rovers captain Garry Flitcroft, who was trying to stop the People revealing his affairs with a lap dancer and a nurse. Woolf argued that “The courts must not ignore the fact that if newspapers do not publish information which the public are interested in, then there will be fewer newspapers published, which will not be in the public interest.” A similar line was taken by Baroness Hale when the Naomi Campbell case came before the Law Lords in 2004: “One reason why freedom of the press is so important is that we need newspapers to sell in order to ensure that we still have newspapers at all. It may be said that newspapers should be allowed considerable latitude in the intrusions into private grief so that they can maintain circulation and the rest of us can continue to enjoy the variety of newspapers and other mass media which are available in this country.”
However, this argument – namely, that newspapers need to “subsidise” stories which are genuinely in the public interest by means of stories which certain sections of the public find merely interesting – has not generally found favour with the judiciary, and is in fact seriously flawed.
Firstly, the extent to which papers such as the News of the World and other such tabloids carry serious political reportage and analysis is actually pretty minimal. Second, while it may indeed be the case that the middle-market tabloids do carry a certain amount of journalism of this kind, this is frequently so coloured by those papers’ editorial lines that it is quite impossible to tell fact from comment (and indeed from fiction) and thus cannot really be counted as serious journalism, or what we might call public interest journalism.
Finally, Dacre’s argument is contradicted by the fact that up-market newspapers do actually manage (for the most part) to publish a good deal of public interest journalism without resorting to the “subsidy” mechanism. The real problem, however, is that the intrusive and sensationalist antics of the popular press have, over the years, so antagonised many people that they increasingly regard the notion of press freedom as largely self-serving and hypocritical and have come to support the statutory regulation of newspapers. This could as well curtail serious journalism, as the more egregious forms of popular journalism, quite apart from the fact that such a degree of popular disaffection from the press is surely not a sign of a healthy democratic spirit.
This is hardly a case of journalism getting in the face of power. Indeed, it’s more a matter of journalism turning its face away from power and, moreover, running the risk of making life even more difficult for those who still believe that the task of serious journalism is to engage with and speak truth to power. British journalism is indeed unlovable in many ways – but not, for the most part, in the ways identified by Schudson.
In his analysis of what makes the US press unlovable, Schudson argues that many critics of US journalism “have attacked just those features of the press that, for all their defects, best protect robust public discussion and promote democracy.” These include a focus on events as opposed to trends and structures, a fixation on conflict and a scepticism towards politics and politicians. In his view, however, “These are precisely the features that most regularly enable the press to maintain a capacity for subverting established power”. Thus, as he sees it, events are important for journalists because they cannot be anticipated and easily managed by those in power, conflict likewise “provides a recurrent resource for embarrassing the powerful”, and a sceptical attitude towards politics and politicians has enabled journalists to report not only on the “show and the dazzle that the politician wants foregrounded, but the efforts that go into the show and the calculations behind them” – in other words, to unmask “spin”.
These features are, of course, observable in the British press too, but what makes it extremely difficult to apply Schudson’s analysis wholesale to our newspapers is that it is rooted in a very American concept of press journalism which sees news as a “professional balanced resource for an informed citizenry”, as progressive and liberal, as a source of “fair and full information so citizens can make sound political choices”, as providing “coherent frameworks of interpretation to help citizens comprehend a complex world”, and as a means of telling people about “others in their society and their world so that they can come to appreciate the viewpoints and lives of other people, especially those less advantaged than themselves.” Schudson quotes approvingly Herbert Gans’ suggestion that the ideal model of press journalism is the “rural town meeting – or rather … a romanticised version of it”, and also adds that one of journalism’s key functions should be publicising representative democracy: journalism should be democratic but not populist, respect constitutional and liberal virtues, and champion a strong role for the protection of minority rights.
These are most emphatically not the values of the bulk of British newspapers (although they are not far removed from those underlying public service broadcasting, and for that matter those of the Guardian, Observer and Independent, which constitute Britain’s rump liberal press). While many American newspapers strive to be objective, the entirety of the British popular press is stridently partisan. While American newspapers rigorously check facts (much to the derision of most British editors), across most of the British press the distinction between fact and comment has largely collapsed. If liberalism is the hallmark of much of the American press, its British counterpart is defined largely by its thoroughgoing illiberalism (from a seemingly endless list, take, for example, its predominant attitudes to penal policy, human rights, refugees, asylum seekers, ethnic minorities, drugs and sex education). If American papers attempt to educate and enlighten, most British ones tell their readers what they think they want to hear and make a particular specialism of appealing to their prejudices (coverage of what the papers habitually refer to as “Europe” furnishing a particularly glaring example). Where American papers at least try to uphold democratic values, most British newspapers represent populism writ large; if the model of American press journalism is the rural town meeting, that of much of the British press is the lynch mob – think paedophiles, social workers and bankers.
This, emphatically, is not the kind of unlovable press which a democracy needs. Indeed, it is one which is fundamentally destructive of liberal democratic values. But there is also a fair amount of evidence (not least Private Eye’s “Street of Shame” page) that it is not one which accurately reflects journalists’ own values. So what would I recommend to the DCMS Select Committee? I’d start remodelling the Press Complaints Commission along the lines of the Advertising Standards Authority, a respected self-regulatory body with teeth. Make it far more than the customer relations department of the British press, whose sole function is reactive, namely dealing with complaints. Ensure that its workings are transparent and accountable. Staff the committee which oversees compliance with its code of practice with experienced journalists, not, as at present, with the very editors who bear such a large part of the blame for the present state of the British press. Establish a conscience clause in journalists’ employment contracts. Create a statutory right of reply (as exists in Denmark, France, Germany and numerous other countries) and empower the new body to administer it. The most effective antidote to inaccuracy and character assassination is not censorship but the provision of the truth. And reform the libel laws, which are such a brake on serious investigative journalism.
Admittedly these are not going to solve the underlying problems of the British press, which are structural and have to do with too many papers owned by too few people chasing a declining readership and a shrinking advertising base. But they would go a considerable way to ameliorating some of their worst effects, and could help to make the British press rather more unlovable in Schudson’s sense. Who knows – they might even sell more copies.