Friday, 2 March 2012

Transparency is the new eyewash

This was originally posted to the BBC College of Journalism website in December 2010

Looks like it was my old boss Richard Sambrook who lobbed the old 'transparency is the new objectivity' dud ball back into play.
Not approvingly, you understand; quite the opposite. He's picking a fight with former US newspaper columnist and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Alan Mutter, who wrote at the start of December that:
"It's time to retire the difficult-to-achieve and impossible-to-defend conceit that journalists are now, or ever were, objective.
Let's replace this threadbare notion with a realistic and credible standard of transparency that requires journalists to forthrightly declare their personal predilections, financial entanglements and political allegiances so the public can evaluate the quality of the information it is getting."
Sambrook counters - as he also does in his excellent new paper for the Reuters Institute- that what's required of journalism today is that it become truly, genuinely, honestly, purposefully evidence-led:
"When critics call for greater openness of opinion ('let us know your prejudices and judge for ourselves') they invite a further avalanche of views inadequately supported by the shrinking resources allocated to discovery and verification."
He adds:
"There is no market failure in opinion - we are awash with it. There is market failure in high-quality, verified, evidence-led reporting on which debate can reliably be based. We should focus on the virtues of proof. Which in turn is all about bearing witness."
For the historians out there, it's David Weinberger who's generally credited with coining the 'transparency is the new objectivity' line - though doubtless an earlier reference will turn up, if it hasn't already.
Back in 2009, he wrote:
"What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author's writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position. 
Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to."
It's a seductive idea. Until you think about it. And when you do, it's difficult to be as polite as Richard Sambrook.
That's not to say journalists shouldn't be prepared to account for how they make their decisions: which 'facts' they use, which they leave out; how they frame their story; who to approach and why; whose testimony they accept and whose they reject. Nor that they should be secretive and evasive about themselves or their sources, unless they have to be.
And it's an article of faith - well, my personal faith anyhow - that a journalist should always go back to primary sources and share them as fully as possible with his/her audience.
The real-world problem with 'transparency is the new objectivity' is that neither is possible - so replacing one impossibility with another is ... well, nuts. That's one of the many reasons why here in the UK - and especially at the BBC - we aspire to 'impartiality' which (sorry Jeff Jarvis et al) really isn't the same thing.
Think about it: let's say I'm a reporter at the recent London student fees demo. I see and speak to some peaceful students; some who are less so. I see and chat with some relaxed police; I see the mounted police ride into action, paint thrown etc.
What do you need to know about me? What level of transparency do you need to judge my account?
Where I stood, where I walked and why? Who I didn't speak to and why not? What I didn't see and why not?
Whether I was a student myself? Whether I have kids currently paying fees or about to? Who I voted for at the last election and whether I'm getting the policies I thought I would? Whether I'd have to pay higher taxes if the fee hike was abandoned? Whether I'd mind? Why I just used the word 'hike'?
Whether I've ever had a brush with police? Whether I'd been mugged last week by someone looking just a bit like that chap over there? Am I cold and want to file my copy quickly?
In just the same way as there's no real stopping place for an objective account - or even an impartial one - there's no real stopping place for a journalist's transparency. No end to what could be relevant. 
And such is the nature of these things that even when you - the journalist - might think you've exhausted every possibility, you remain open to the charge that you 'hid' something you thought couldn't possibly be relevant but which someone else thinks is.
There's little or no hope for journalism to make sense of the world, or for journalists to act as trusted guides through the information fog, unless we persuade our audiences that we can be exactly that - trusted. Not because of what we've declared but because of what we do.
Open, yes. Accountable, yes. But the idea that transparency is any more possible than objectivity, or that it's some alternative to an impartial mindset, is eyewash. Worse, it risks equating the value of evidence-based journalism and of bearing witness with that of inchoate scrawlings on a Facebook wall.


The Arab Spring did not take place

This is an extract from my chapter in 'Mirage in the Desert? Reporting the Arab Spring' (Ed. Mair and Keeble)'


Trojan War taking place?
On 21 November 1935, a former diplomat and soldier Jean Giraudoux opened his new play at the Theatre de l’Athenee in Paris. Called La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu (The Trojan War Will Not Take Place), it imagined and created an eve of conflict debate in which the heroes and heroines of the Trojan War argued to avert the coming catastrophe.
It was typical of its era, surreal and absurd at one and the same time. And it worked on a number of levels. 
At its simplest, it was a critique of the politics and diplomacy that had failed to avert the Great War and were failing to contain a resurgent, militant Germany.
At another level, it was a play about fate and inevitability. The ‘Trojan War’ did take place, at least within the minds of the audience and the confines of the mythological universe Giraudoux was drawing on and reflecting on stage. Arguments to avert it were futile. Strong reasoning, compelling alternatives could not turn aside what was inevitable.
It works on yet another level, too. The Trojan War isn’t just any old story about any old war. It might not be as well known today as it was in 1935, but it is one of the defining stories of our culture. The Trojan War, in myth and in reality, one of the defining wars. And as Giraudoux’s audience watched, they were witnessing characters on stage who they ‘knew’ in most cases better than they ‘knew’ the real people around them. Hector and Helen and Priam and Ulysses and the rest. They ‘knew’ them because of the narrative that defined them; a narrative that the characters themselves, paradoxically, created. They weren’t just locked into an inevitable narrative, they were that inevitable narrative. They couldn’t exist without it; it couldn’t exist without them. Irony was folded inside irony. If Hector’s arguments to avoid war had been allowed to prevail, he couldn’t exist as the Hector we ‘know’ because the story he exists within, ‘The Trojan War’, wouldn’t exist.  
Watching Giraudoux’s play, the audience were like time travellers watching our grandparents debate whether or not they should marry.
Existential irony
It was to this existential irony that, nearly sixty years on, the postmodernist writer and academic Jean Baudrillard referred in his 1991 collection of essays, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, essays originally published in Liberation and the Guardian in the winter and spring of 1991. As ‘The Gulf War’ was about to take place, was taking place, and had taken place. Or rather, as Baudrillard argued, as the events that coalition politicians, military and media portrayed as ‘The Gulf War’, was about to take place, was taking place, and had taken place.
Baudrillard turned Giraudoux’s ironies on their head. In his account of a war not taking place, it was the audience that was unwittingly caught in the inevitability authored for them, not the characters on stage.
He didn’t argue that nothing happened or that there was no military action, violence and death in Iraq in the first months of 1991. There self-evidently was. His argument was with what we thought it was. And the violence and deaths were not ‘The Gulf War’, except in the minds of coalition politicians, military and media. And audiences.
Baudrillard’s argument was not as complex as his detractors portray it. For ‘The Gulf War’ to have taken place, there would have to have been real combat between coalition and Iraqi forces. There was no such combat. No war.
Sure, the coalition was bombing and firing missiles from 30,000 feet. And inviting audiences to whoop at the images from the warhead nose-cams. It cycled and re-cycled images of civilians and conscripts consigned to hell. It was all to establish a narrative called ‘The Gulf War’. A narrative we ‘knew’. A narrative nourished by Cent Com and the media in Doha. 
Baudrillard argued this was not ‘The Gulf War’. Coalition and Iraqi forces didn’t actually meet in combat. Each did its belligerent stuff, but each did it as if they were in different universes. Coalition troops were so distant from true combat that fewer died in the ‘war’ than would have died back home in gang-fights, as crime victims or in road accidents. For his part, Saddam didn’t sacrifice troops and civilians to fight ‘The Gulf War’. The 100,000 dead were the price he had to pay to stay in power:
“the final decoy that Saddam will have sacrificed, the blood money paid in forfeit according to a calculated equivalence, in order to conserve his power. ”
And conserve his power he did – for a further twelve years. The ‘victors’ didn’t win and the ‘vanquished’ didn’t lose. Spring 1991 in Iraq may have been an “atrocity”. A bloody series of appalling atrocities – but ‘The Gulf War’ did not take place.
Baudrillard’s essays may appear to be a semioticist’s whimsy – worse, a French semioticist’s whimsy – or a vaguely interesting academic diversion. Rather like Giraudoux’s play may seem, in the end, no more than an intellectually challenging night in the theatre.
Except that … what things are and how we portray them matters hugely to us journalists. And to our audiences.
'Supernarrative' - an ugly trick
We journalists – especially editors in newspaper and broadcasting newsrooms – find ourselves working an ugly trick every day on our audiences. On the one hand, we’re about telling them something new, something salient. Something significant that they don’t already know. Something they didn’t know they don’t know and didn’t know they need or want to know. Dealing in truth, something close to education. On the other, we have to engage them – with tantalising headlines, with facts and observations that sit at the extreme edge of truth. And with stories. Stories that, by virtue of being well written or well told alone, engage their attention and turn it to matters they never knew they needed to know something about. Dealing in impact.
The tool we know that has the most impact of all is the ‘super narrative’. The huge, over-arching narrative that binds other, minor narratives together. That gives them meaning above what they are in themselves, offering the audience what Aristotle called ἀναγνώρισις – ‘recognition’. The means to recognise and empathise with people culturally, emotionally and socially distant from ourselves. The means to link disparate events. To recollect them at a later date. We often give these super narratives snappy, instantly recognisable, memorable titles. Titles we can use in a blazing strap or an over-the shoulder identifier in a TV news bulletin.
‘The Moors Murders’; ‘The Fall of Communism’; ‘Showdown in the Desert’; ‘The Credit Crunch’. 
And, paradoxically, the more that those of us living in digitally hyper-charged cultures are able to know – via the web, social media, 24/7 TV channels – the more we need these super narratives. To tell us: ‘hey … this matters – and here’s why’ or ‘hey… it’s that thing again, the one you were interested in last time’ or. Or even to tell us; ‘hey … you might not think you know anything about this, but it’s a lot like this other thing’. At the same time, those technologies that have increased the quantity of what we can know has decreased what we ‘know’ in common. That, in turn, means that journalism’s super narratives have had to become more reductive, more detached from reality, more resembling what Baudrillard called ‘hyper-reality’. They become illusions. Just like ‘The Gulf War’. They become misleading and unpredictable, too. It’s harder and harder for those of us who create these super narratives to know or predict all that the references will excite in our audiences. What references, precisely, the word ‘Arab’ will generate in the minds of those in the audience. Yet we persist in it.    
It’s easy to see how and why we journalists reached for the super narrative that we called ‘The Arab Spring’. We knew that something was happening and sensed that it was out of the ordinary. People were on the move, politically on the move. For the most part, it was the Arabic speaking countries we were most interested in. And by the time we realised we needed to name it, it was early spring. And spring carries overtones of new life. New growth. Re-birth after a long, dark winter. It was ideal.
Stockholm in the sand
We assumed, probably quite rightly, that few in our audiences would be hugely engaged by a tragic row over property rights in a country most thought of only as a holiday destination. Or in yet another Sunni/Shiite religious squabble in a country that was almost never in the news and to which most people couldn’t point on the map. Or in an elite in the Arab world’s only democracy as it debated the merits and demerits of its confessional constitution.
Create a super-narrative, a hyper-reality called ‘The Arab Spring’ and you might have a chance. Any expression of popular discontent in any Arabic speaking monarchy or despotism was a signifier of ‘The Arab Spring’. It felt real. It felt energetic. It was full of movement. And terrific TV pictures.
But ‘The Arab Spring’ did not take place.
Think back to the event that in most of us in the western media identify as the beginning. December 17, 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street trader in Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire, protesting at the arbitrary exercise of power by the police and local government officials. A petty abuse of authority that prevented him exercising his property rights, his right to trade, his right to earn a living. The police had continually harassed him. Confiscated his  goods, even the barrow from which he sold fruit and vegetables. Officials kept revoking his trading permits, seeking ever bigger bribes. Basboosa, as he was known to family and friends, suffered 90% burns. Within hours of his self-immolation, there were local, then regional then national street protests. He died on 4 January, 2011 and by the end of the same month, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had gone. The revolution had begun.
And that might have been that. The Tunisian January.
Except, Egypt seemed to follow where Tunisia had led. Like Tunisia, it was an Arabic-speaking pseudo-democracy. There were self-immolations. Growing  street protests. And no less a figure than Mohammed el-Baradei, international diplomat and the man who the opposition wanted to challenge President Mubarak, warned that change was “inevitable” in his native, estranged Egypt following revolution in Tunisia.
Egypt was big. Egypt mattered in a away that Tunisia didn’t, so it was time for the super narrative. Finally, the story went,  the Arab world was emerging from its despotism to join the only true political faith; western liberalism. Populations will rise spontaneously, thirsting for freedom and justice. Like Giraudoux, we placed characters we ‘knew’ – the masses in Arabic speaking countries – inside a super narrative that we ‘knew’ – all nations’ remorseless progression to democracy.
And that super narrative, the ‘hyper-reality’ if you like, drove what we looked for and reported. What we headlined. And, just as importantly, what we didn’t. ‘The Arab Spring’ was a ‘domino’ story, we decided. 
One Arabic despotism after another would fall to western ideas of liberal democracy. The people would, at last, build Stockholm in the sand, celebrating plurality, embracing the rule of law.
And before long, we became familiar with the modalities. There would be a ‘Day of Rage’, linked often to Friday prayers – so we made sure the cameras were there. Articulate young men and women would find the TV cameras, or the cameras would find them, and they would speak in polished Harvard English about freedom and democracy and law and the burning desire for justice. And we would show how Facebook and Twitter and SMS were their communication tools of choice.
And because we knew these were Muslims – and we ‘knew’ that story too – we looked for the hidden hand of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the machinations of Islamic fundamentalists elsewhere. We speculated on whether ‘The Arab Spring’ would weaken or strengthen al Qaeda.
Overlooked
Just as Baudrillard argued, the pictures and themes and interviews we selected were all images of the hyper reality we called ‘The Arab Spring’. We collected and shared them as if to confirm to ourselves that what must be taking place really was taking place.  
There was much we overlooked, much that was inconsistent with our super  narrative that declared this was ‘The Arab Spring’ . At the mundane level, the millions in every country who did not become involved in the popular uprisings, either out of fear, lack of interest, distance or because they sustained in themselves a weary cynicism that nothing was changing, nothing would change. We overlooked the images of daily trade and schooling and bureaucracy and traffic and and and … anything that was happening just as before, untouched by our super narrative.
At the symbolic level, we overlooked the near total absence of Arab nationalism in ‘The Arab Spring’. We overlooked the presence of non-Arab actors; the Berbers in Morocco – non-Arabs – Kurds in Iraq. Jews in Tunisia and even Coptic Christians in Egypt.
And we overlooked the role of tribalism, personal fear, vengeance, familial loathing. ‘The Arab Spring’ was a political movement. We could not include non-political dynamics. 
That’s not to say we ignored the complexities. We didn’t. But, with few exceptions, we were oblivious to the obvious. That the causes and characteristics of each uprising were different from any other – and that once we’d listed them all, they became meaningless as signifiers. They were not unique features that identified ‘The Arab Spring’ and only ‘The Arab Spring’.
That list of causes and characteristics – in one constellation or another – would have defined and explained any and every political movement and popular rising throughout history. Here it was poverty and cronyism, there the frustrations of an educated, ambitious middle class. Here there was benevolent monarchy, there cruel dynastic autocracy, there a personal fiefdom of a tribal strong man. Here there was sectarian division, there generational animosities. In some places it was all or most of the causes, in others one or two.
One of the few journalists who ‘got’ this essential truth was the BBC Newsnight Economics Editor Paul Mason. When he tried to account for “what’s going on”, he eschewed the super narrative ‘The Arab Spring’. He found, instead, twenty deep factors that applied as much to the banlieues of Paris and the suburbs of Dublin as it did to any Arabic speaking autocracy. Mason spoke instead about a:
“protest meme … sweeping the world … [that doesn’t] - seek a total overturn [but seeks] a moderation of excesses”.
But those of use who preferred to stick with our super narrative had much to draw on from the lines our narrative’s characters wrote for themselves. Take the ubiquitous slogan, chanted and scrawled on the walls of public buildings: 
الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام‎ (ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-nizām). ‘The people want to end the regime’. 
We heard it first in Tunis. And then in Tahrir Square in Egypt. And in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Beirut and Jordan. It validated our narrative, provided the motivation for our super narrative. Gave us an explanation for thinking the way we did. ‘Ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-nizām’ had the virtue of sounding like the historical inevitability we ‘knew’ was being played out on the Arab street. We ‘knew’ it had only ever been a matter of time before the Arabs succumbed to the inevitable history of liberal democracy and threw off the despots. This was how history progressed. We turned ‘historical’ inevitability into narrative inevitability and ‘ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-nizām’ proved we were right.
Phew. It was ‘The Arab Spring’. 
Yet this slogan, though ubiquitous, meant different things to different people in  different places. In imperfectly democratic Lebanon, it was little to do with despotism or poverty. It was a call for the end of its confessional constitution – a constitution that placed religious and sectarian differences at the heart of the state. Differences that kept the country weak, permanently in thrall to its despotic neighbour, Syria, and a permanent threat to its powerful, polyphiloeisbiazetic southern neighbour, Israel.
In Tunisia, it demanded an end to cronyism, corruption and economic suffocation. In Egypt, it was the susurration of a discontented middle-class – professionals, small businessmen, a bourgeoisie frustrated at the limitations an ageing military ruler placed on their political aspirations.  
While in the Palestinian territories, where the alienation of Hamas and Fatah continued to guarantee the impossibility of a two-state settlement in the region – the slogan was tweaked to الشعب يريد انهاء الانقسام – ‘the people want to end the division’.
Endorsing the super narrative
Arab academics and western students of the Arab world seemed to endorse our choice of super narrative, too. Much as Mohammed el-Baradei had done. We were seeing “a people [moving] as a whole, into spontaneous protests” wrote one. Young Arabs “will no longer tolerate … the contempt and disrespect their governments have shown them” said another, adding that they do not just mean their own “corrupt governments; they also mean the old regime that has prevailed for decades in the entire Arab world, from the Atlantic to the Gulf”. It was a “youthquake”. There was “social cohesion and unity in the project” most agreed. It was ‘The Arab Spring’.
Except it did not take place.
The Tunisian revolution that followed the demonstrations surprised us – none more so than President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who scuttled away from power in the dead of night. The demonstrations in Tahrir Square were a surprise too and it’s just about possible to forgive our read across from Tunisia to Egypt when President Mubarak was forced to step aside. Except, there will be autumn elections in one, Tunisia, while the army still clings on to power in the other, Egypt.
Much as we wanted, expected and predicted that “The Arab Spring” would follow our super narrative, we now find it did no such thing. Arabic speaking populations have not emerged into the broad, sunlit uplands of western, liberal democracy. The old regimes have made the least possible concessions to respond to political demands. Or have thrown handfuls of petrodollars at those demanding social reform – better healthcare, education, reduced poverty. The political and economic dispensation in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman and Saudi Arabia has shifted not one millimetre.
The civil war in Libya followed a different course, as did the cycle of demonstration and repression in Syria – and in both cases, events slid over into new super narrative – ‘The Libyan Civil War” and “The Syrian Repression”. They were no longer ‘The Arab Spring” and most in our audiences no longer make that association.
For the rest, though, if you were to go out into the streets of Britain a year on from Basboosa’s suicidal protest and ask our readers, listeners and viewers,  ‘what happened in The Arab Spring?’ you’d almost certainly have reflected back to you the super narrative we created for them.
The people speak, spontaneous protests – hurrah. Democracy, justice, freedom – hurrah. An end to repression and corruption – hurrah. Arab dictators forced to listen to their people. The Arab world finally following in the west’s historical footsteps. Hurrah.
Except, ‘The Arab Spring’ did not take place.
There was irony here, too. Just as much as in The Trojan War Will Not Take Place … except that this time it was us, the creators of our hyper-reality who couldn’t see outside our super narrative and were defined by it. Unlike Giraudoux’s characters, the real people of those Arabic speaking states – those on the streets and those in power alike – were able to shape events and were not delimited and defined by our account of those events.
‘The Arab Spring’ did not take place.
Definable shapes
None of this would matter if it weren’t for the simple truth that this model, this creation of super narratives wasn’t increasingly the one we follow, especially in the way we report World News. Believing that we can’t explain and our audiences can’t understand the world without us rendering it subject to a hyper-reality.
It has always been the case, of course, that journalism has had an existential need to create narrative entities outside events themselves. To place on top of reality a story or stories, narrative entities without which it could not exist. There is too much information in the world, too much of the world.
As long ago as 1922, the magazine publisher and author Walter Lippman wrote in Public Opinion that journalism is a limited, reductive activity. It cannot report all of reality and to exist it has to be the product of a “standardized routine” that selects and presents. A routine that makes use of “watchers stationed at certain places” – journalists, reporters – to spot a “manifestation”. Not reality. Not a complex truth. But a “manifestation”, an event that “signalises” that there is a reality, that that there is a truth. And to be news:
“The course of events must assume a certain definable shape, and until it is in a phase where some aspect is an accomplished fact, news does not separate itself from the ocean of possible truth.”
Ninety years on, that “ocean of possible truth” is many times squared greater than anything Lippmann had in mind. The journey from “manifestation: to “definable shape” has to be very much quicker, too, in a world of 24/7 live and continuous news and the instantaneous web. And it is cross cultural and trans global.
Where it was once about merely recognising those “definable” shapes – a news sense, a nose for news – now it is about creating them. Creating those super narratives. Like ‘The Arab Spring’.
And every so often, as Baudrillard argues we did with ‘The Gulf War’ and as we clearly have with ‘The Arab Spring’, we get it so wrong we create an illusion. 
We have to think harder, much harder than we do about how and why we create these super narratives. Something we now do almost instantaneously with events themselves and as a matter of routine. We need to think harder about the kind of super narratives we create, too.
‘The Arab Spring’ bulged with western liberal political assumptions and associations. It was  a narrative certainty. But those certainties were built on ideas which, to those who don’t share the western view of mankind’s inevitable ‘progress’, look like, feel like and are intellectual imperialism.
‘The Arab Spring’ did not take place. Our inevitabilities were not realised and may never be realised. And, in an inversion of Giraudoux’s irony, it is we – the western authors and western audience – who are locked into an inevitable narrative.   
Since 1914, we’ve stroked ourselves with the idea that journalism is the first draft of history. Since 1943, we have conceded it is merely a “rough” draft. But for all its roughness, journalism’s super narratives tend to survive the revisions of time, in part at least and most usually in their titles. Expect to read the winter and spring of 2011 described as ‘The Arab Spring’ in decades to come.
But ‘The Arab Spring’ did not take place. Proof, if any were needed, of Hemingway’s maxim: “The first draft of anything is shit”. 

But what comes after?

This is an article originally published in "The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial" Ed Richard Keble and John Mair


‘We were just ordinary people.’
At the end of November 2011, a steady stream of ‘ordinary people’ whose lives and reputations the tabloid press had trashed gave their accounts to the Leveson inquiry. Bob and Sally Dowler – who were just ‘ordinary people’ until someone murdered their daughter. Gerry and Kate McCann – who were just ‘ordinary people’ until their daughter Madeleine disappeared in Portugal. Or Jim and Margaret Watson – who were just ‘ordinary people’ until their daughter was murdered and their son, Alan, committed suicide.
Or even the father of footballer Garry Flitcroft – ‘collateral damage’ in the tabloids’ revenge on his son who dared to try to protect his privacy. Flitcroft’s father could not be at the inquiry. He killed himself, unable through depression to watch his son on the football field.
It was impossible to listen to these accounts without a sense of profound sadness mingled with downright rage. Impossible, too, not to wonder what it takes for someone calling himself a journalist or an investigator assisting a journalist to find himself so distant from common human decency. Leveson has become subtitled ‘the phone hacking inquiry’. It’s very much more than that. Phone-hacking is just one small part of something that’s become very, very sick in our culture and our society.
A tabloid press whose business model had become so dependent on trashing the reputations of ‘ordinary people’ – as well as celebrities, politicians, people in public life – that it is now nothing other than a machine to convert harassment, intrusion, misery, sneering and mockery into cash.
Anger and vindictiveness are its default settings. Papers sell on the depths of their inhumanity. Columnists are judged by the frequency and inventiveness of the offence they cause.
No Defence
By the end of just one week of these accounts to the Leveson Inquiry, it was clear the game was up. Almost no-one was prepared to defend the way the tabloids use their immense power. And while it may still be far from clear how the world will change for them, change it will.
Few tabloid editors, even, are prepared to take the stand to defend what they do. And listening to one that did, the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, you can understand why. True, Dacre was prepared to break cover and deserves some credit for that. But there the credit ends. And though he was speaking to the Leveson Inquiry before that long queue of ‘just ordinary people’ gave their accounts, he misjudged the public mood catastrophically.
Claiming what he and fellow editors did – and, presumably, how they did it – was in the public interest. Asserting his and his fellow editors’ absolute and unqualified freedom of expression. Standing on their right to expose corruption and hold power to account. This is hypocrisy of the most snivelling sort. Worse, it pollutes the arguments we need to protect the best in journalism by trying to justify the worst.
Yes, it’s vital that we protect our freedom of expression. Yes, it’s vital that no-one can be silenced when they call power to account or root out corruption or ruthlessly examine and embarrass powerful institutions. Yes, it’s vital that we insist power is exercised transparently and that we can hold it to account. And it’s vital that we protect the right of the press to do all of these. But the truth is, that’s not what the tabloids do.
For every MPs’ expenses exclusive – not a tabloid exclusive incidentally – there are thousands of “ordinary people” harassed, vilified, libelled. For every court battle that lifts injunctions to expose evil corporations – not something the tabloids have ever indulged in – there are dozens to assert the tabloids’ right to report that yet another dog has bitten yet another man. Or rather, another premiership footballer has been caught with his shorts off. Defending the tabloids’ right to do what they want to who they want how they want is nothing to do with protecting free speech. Or protecting the press.
Powerful Institutions
The fact is that tabloid newspapers are mightily powerful institutions themselves. And amongst the least accountable and transparent, defending that lack of accountability and transparency in the name of ‘protecting sources’. Actually, it’s about hiding the yobbish behaviour and lazy omissions that go into their vindictive journalism. Or to cover up the fact that a story was planted by a PR agency. Or bought from someone who, at the sight of hard cash, would say whatever a journalist asked them to.
These powerful opaque institutions care nothing about your or my freedom of expression. In fact, they suppress it if your freedom of expression in telling the truth lessens their potential to make money with a lie. As a society, we have the right and the duty to expect of this powerful institution exactly what we demand of others. To determine how they should exercise that power. To impose on it responsibilities. To insist they’re accountable to us for the way they use their power.
We demand it of our police, our hospitals, our politicians. We cry foul when institutions far less powerful than the press seem out of reach of our insistence that they behave in our interests rather than theirs – the bonus grabbers in the City or bond dealers, for example. So it is with the press. The phone-hacking scandal has done no more than bring to a head the boil we know had been festering for years.
People Not Like Us
After hearing account after account of harassment and distortion at the Leveson Inquiry, it began to seem that the tabloid press is peopled by beings who are not like us. Or perhaps and more likely, people who started off like us but have been transformed by the mean minded, mean spirited, macho culture in every tabloid newsroom. 
The lack of the most basic, human, decent regard for the family of a murdered girl is simply the worst excess in an ethic that has no regard for anyone. Celebrity or ‘ordinary person’. Victim or villain. Powerful or powerless. A total refusal even to consider the effects and consequences of what they are doing. The rest of us know it’s not just about phone hacking. The rest of us know that the game is up. The rest of us know we can’t go on with this powerful interest group – the press – behaving like the Stasi, restrained by nothing. We can’t even assume any more that common human decency will restrain them.
The American journalist Janet Malcolm began a book she wrote in 1990 called The Journalist and the Murderer like this: ‘Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.’ People were prepared to argue with her then. Only tabloid editors would argue with her today. As the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre did in a performance before Leveson that was defiant, disingenuous and in denial.
‘No-one Died’
He could only just bring himself to condemn phone hacking and bribing police officers – even though both are illegal. Neither are such a big deal, he insisted – showing contempt for Mrs Dowler’s tears and her husband’s gnawing fear. Britain’s cities weren’t looted because of phone hacking, nor did the banks collapse because of it. ‘No-one died,’ he sneers. Actually, that’s only just true. Charlotte Church’s mother attempted suicide after the News of the World hacked into the singer’s phone. And I wonder how much any tabloid editor would have cared if someone had died. It was a chilling insight into a warped mindset.
In his speech to Leveson, Dacre claims that the public’s revulsion over phone-hacking derives only from ‘hypocrisy and revenge’ in the political class – i.e. MPs – because the papers ‘dared to expose their greed and corruption’. Nothing to do with the years of harassment, thieving, blagging, distortion, lies, deception, monstering. Nothing to do with the tabloids’ default assumption that reputations – big and small – are there only for his power and business to trash.
Nothing to do with every tabloid editor’s usurpation of the right to decide who is evil. To decide who must be pursued and vilified – based only on which victim will yield the best financial return on the outlay. The issue isn’t that newspapers must be free to tell it how it is. It’s that we’re fed up with them using that freedom to tell it how it isn’t. To harass, distort and lie in the name of profit.
Tabloid editors defend what their papers and their journalists do in their name because, as Dacre has argued at both the Society of Editors and before Leveson, they have to ‘leaven their papers with sensation, exclusive pictures, scandal, celebrity gossip and dramatic human stories’ in order to cover serious news, politics and campaigns. On the face of it, that’s not just reasonable. It’s self-evidently true. For the tabloids to stay in business, they have to appeal to their readers’ less lofty instincts. And so long as they’re in business, they can bolt onto that titillation and sensation and gossip some serious news, scrutiny, reporting, opinion, campaigning. In other words, serve some useful purpose.
Beyond Useful Purpose
That used to be true – but as everyone now knows, we’ve gone way, way beyond that. What used to be the ‘leavening’ is now the purpose of most tabloids. The sole content of some. And instead of serving any useful purpose, it poisons our view of ourselves and corrodes our culture and our society.
Dacre is fond of quoting two former senior judges – judges, incidentally, he would in most other circumstances revile as the people who really run the country. Lord Woolf, who a decade ago when he was Lord Chief Justice, put it like this:
 "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."
 While Baroness Hale, now a Supreme Court Judge said:
"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."
Both judges were talking, there, about a balance that no longer exists – a balance that everyone in the country, apart from tabloid editors, knows no longer exists. We have, instead, what one hacking victim called ‘sociopathic’ fixation with intrusion and scandal. The sociopathic fixation of a powerful institution that has the unbridled power to ruin the lives of those it and it alone decides deserve it. But let’s assume just for a moment that tabloid editors such as Paul Dacre are right. And that we need the papers to stay in business, however that can be achieved, because if they were to disappear that would ‘diminish our democracy’.
True, of course. And we have seen some of this in the carnage in the local press. As local papers fold, Dacre tells us: ‘Courts go uncovered. Councils aren't held to account. And the corrupt go unchallenged. That is a democratic deficit that in itself is worthy of an inquiry.’ It would be impossible to disagree with that. So let’s take a closer look at the Daily Mail’s attitude to the courts and the processes of justice.
Remember the case of what the Mail called ‘The Strange Mr Jeffries’? The retired schoolteacher who had the misfortune to be Joanna Yeates’ landlord. Who, though entirely innocent, was briefly arrested and questioned. How did the Mail and the other tabloids report the inquiry? With respect for the courts and for the innocence of any suspect until proven guilty?
We all know the answer. The Daily Mail and other tabloids spared no effort in portraying Mr Jeffries as a weirdo. After all, he was a bachelor and had funny hair that he once dyed purple. Subtext? We all know the message the tabloids were screaming at us. He had campaigned for a ‘gun range and prayer books’. Subtext? How weird is that? Shades of gun-toting Christian fundamentalism. And had a fixation for Christina Rossetti, a poet obsessed with death.
It’s true, the Mail wasn’t the worst – but it was in the pack, securing its place in that pack, making money from trashing Christopher Jeffries. Turning contempt for him and for the proper process of justice into profit. Respect for the courts? Or for Mr Jeffries right to have the truth told about him? Free speech? Protecting the press’s right to report the facts fearlessly? It was none of these. It was a naked, calculated commercial risk – that any financial cost would be outweighed by the income it brought in. And when it came to acknowledging its part in trashing Mr Jeffries, the Mail was as surly and grudging as an adolescent caught shoplifting:
Eight newspapers apologised to Mr Christopher Jefferies in the High Court yesterday. Reports of the investigation into the death of Joanna Yeates had wrongly suggested that Mr Jefferies, who was arrested but released without charge, was suspected of killing Ms Yeates, may have had links to a convicted paedophile and an unresolved murder. It was also wrongly alleged that the former school master had acted inappropriately to pupils. The newspapers, including the Daily Mail, agreed to pay Mr Jefferies substantial damages and legal costs.
The Mail could not even bring itself to say – ‘We’re sorry.’ When it was totally, completely, 100 per cent banged to rights in its race to the bottom as tabloid outdid tabloid in contempt and defamation all in pursuit of market position and profit?
Balancing the Financial Cost of Lies
We saw something similar in the way that Richard Desmond’s papers – the Daily Express and Daily Star – libelled the McCanns and Robert Murat week in, week out – over 100 times. As Leveson heard in that week of tabloid shame at the end of November, these libels weren’t slight things. Ambiguities dressed up as sensationally as possible. ‘Maddy “sold” by hard-up McCanns’ . was one. Allegations that they had stored her body in a freezer, another. Did they run these stories because their newshounds were fearlessly tracking down the facts? Holding the Portuguese police’s feet to the fire, keeping them up to the mark with their insistent scrutiny?
No. These ‘journalists’ were sitting in a bar in Portugal, filing the latest odious rumour so that back in London, editors could make a simple calculation. What’s the financial risk if we run this lie? If we’re sued, will we have made more through lying than we stand to lose in court?
There’s even a myth that the tabloids are better behaved and disciplined than they were in the seventies. Then, as Paul Dacre told the Leveson inquiry, reporters would steal photographs from homes; blatant subterfuge was common; invasion of privacy was unrestrained; harassment was the rule. And he sketched a typical scene in a typical tabloid newsroom. A scene where editors and executives stroked their chins in careful contemplation of the editors’ code. A scene that is as touching as it is fantasy:
"When a photograph is presented, the question is immediately asked: Did the subject of the picture have a reasonable expectation of privacy? In stories, executives question whether the privacy of the person’s family or health is being invaded and whether their children are being protected. Were we harassing people?"
Now I find this very difficult to reconcile with Hugh Grant’s account of Mail and other tabloid journalists’ behaviour towards Tinglan, the mother of his child. A woman and baby, the tabloids decided, who needed a bit of harassment and a sound trashing.
How Tabloid Photographers Really Behave
Take this. Grant’s description of arriving home one evening to find reporters and photographers besieging Tinglan and her baby:
"I asked them if there was anything I could do or say to make them leave a new and frightened young mother in peace. They said show us the baby. I refused. I asked them if they thought it was acceptable for grown men to be harassing and frightening a mother and baby for commercial profit. They just shrugged and took more pictures."
Does a mother in her own home with her baby have a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’? Clearly not, as far as journalists acting in Paul Dacre’s name are concerned. It makes you wonder what that ‘reasonable expectation’ might ever amount to in the tabloid mind.
Perhaps, though, we should cut the tabloid greybeards some slack as, back in the newsroom, they carefully weigh whether or not to run these pictures and these stories. Perhaps they won’t make the cut once the editor knows how the photographers and journalists behaved? Think again. In his evidence to Leveson, Grant named the Mail journalist leading the charge:
"He is also the person behind most of the texting and phoning of Tinglan since the birth…Some of the pictures that are printed of Tinglan when pregnant, taken either covertly…or openly and expressly against her will, are the ones used in the News of the World article back in April. The Mail appears therefore to be picking up where the disgraced News of the World left off." 
And it’s not just young mothers and their babies in their own homes that the tabloids now consider appropriate victims of their thuggish harassment. Here’s more of Hugh Grant’s statement:
"Tinglan's mother, a lady of 61, started to take photos of one photographer parked outside. He immediately turned his camera on her, took some pictures and then accelerated hard towards her so fast that Tinglan's mother had to jump out of the way. Then he did a U- turn at the end of the street and drove fast towards her again in a deliberately menacing way. She was, and remains, extremely frightened."
I’m wondering what the Daily Mail headline would have been if, instead of a tabloid photographer trying to run down a 61 year old granny in the street, it had been a failed asylum seeker. Or a traveller from Dale Farm. Or some other Mail hate figure.
But it wasn’t. It was a tabloid photographer from the world that tabloid editors like Paul Dacre have created. A world where there is no regard for anyone and where there is a mocking, sneering culture. A world and culture that John Lanchester described so precisely when he reviewed Nick Davies’ book Flat Earth News in the London Review of Books: Too many journalists, he wrote, are:
"...indifferent to their own best traditions of independence, recklessly indifferent to the central functions of reporting and checking facts...and in far too many respects, simply indifferent to the truth. There is a growing, industry-wide failure to be sufficiently interested in reality."
By the end of 2011, Leveson – and the rest of us – had heard account after account of the most unacceptable behaviour and attitudes. Behaviour and attitudes that, if they existed in any other sector of society, the tabloids would condemn day in, day out in page after page of spume flecked outrage. They would ask what kind of person wouldn’t just hack a dead girl’s phone but stalk her parents when they walked their daughter's last journey. Or print the private diary of a mother whose child has been stolen away. Or wear disguise to gatecrash a private funeral to photograph a father’s grief.
‘What kind of ethics can you teach this kind of journalist,’ one of the lawyers asked at the Leveson inquiry. Rhetorically, one has to assume. Expecting the answer – none. It’s just not possible.
What To Do?
The question is, though, what to do? A question Lord Leveson plans to answer, perhaps in full perhaps in part, towards the end of 2012. And he may well try to answer the question that before, during and after the phone hacking scandal has been repeatedly asked. Can the press regulate itself? Or do we need statutory regulation?
The trouble is, that’s the wrong question. This is no longer about replacing the failed Press Complaints Commission nor re-casting the utterly discredited editors’ code..There is, instead, a much more important, prior question that now demands an answer. What do we require a free press to do on our behalf? And what do we want it not to do in order to be a civilised player in a civilised society?
How do we make sure we have a free press that really can expose MPs’ greed; corporate corruption and crime; police, doctors social workers and the rest who really are incompetent. A press that can bear witness on our behalf; campaign for justice; argue the hell out of everything that matters to us. But do it without divesting itself of every shred of decency. Without the harassment, the lying, the blagging, distortion, vindictiveness that’s become the norm in this powerful institution.
There’s no easy answer and it would be foolish to pretend there is. But one thing I do know. The last people you want to make or monitor any set of rules are the crooks themselves. Imagine if you will the Mail’s spitting outrage if paedophiles were invited to draft new child protection laws and enforce them. Or if illegal immigrants and people traffickers were to be given control of Britain’s border. Quite.
The tabloid press has proved beyond any doubt that it can’t be trusted to regulate itself. But if the answer doesn’t lie in regulation, where might it lie? The fact is that the British media, including the press, is already surrounded by a forest of legislation. Legislation that, if it were enforced it as the legislators intended and as most decent, reasonable people thought proper, would constrain most if not all of the tabloid’s bestial behaviours.
The libel laws. The Human Rights Act that, effectively, balances rights to privacy and to freedom of expression. The Data Protection Act; the Freedom of Information Act; the Official Secrets Act; the Bribery Act; the Contempt of Court Act and so on. But this forest of laws is a mess. Some is statute, some common law. Most is effectively unenforceable or a real brake on responsible journalism because of the costs and time involved. Some have a public interest defence; some don’t. Some is closely defined, some a question of balance between conflicting statutes or precedents. 
It is a massive thing to suggest and I do so aware of the monumental, probably insurmountable difficulties in the way. But we can still consider ideals and in that an ideal word, we would have a new legal settlement for the media. A clear body of law that applied to people and businesses committing deliberate acts of journalism, whether paid for or not.
And one of the key characteristics of that body of law would be that all parts of it had a clear, public interest defence. And while it’s easy to get hung up on defining ‘public interest’, there is a model for this kind of defence in the so-called Reynolds defence – or common law privilege – in a libel action. It’s otherwise known as the defence of diligent and careful journalism done in the public interest. Tied to this new body of media law, however, we need rapid, low-cost resolution. Both victims and newspapers argue – rightly – that the cost of pursuing or defending a libel action is prohibitive. That, and the time involved, turns the righting of that particular wrong into a thermonuclear option. Yet most victims don’t want massive damages. An apology, explanation and putting the record straight is all most require. Quickly and prominently.
The one thing the PCC did, in fact, do well was to organise speedy mediation and resolution, particularly in the local press. And we also have the models of the small claims court and professional arbitration panels to draw on – models that limit costs and damages and aim to resolve disputes quickly and simply.
Streamlining and simplification like this would strengthen both free expression and the public’s ability to keep the press honest and accountable. But there should be more. Even with more rational media law, we’d still need an editors’ code – though one not written by the tabloid editors themselves – underpinning an independent, statutorily established regulator whose main job would be to investigate, rather than simply resolve, breaches of the code.
A burden? Perhaps. But here’s the thing. Newspapers could choose whether to be inside a system like this or not. Inside, you’d sign up to the whole package – complete with pubic interest defence and limited costs and damages. Outside, you could do what you liked – much as the tabloids do now.
Except for this. Outside would be very, very cold and hostile indeed. You’d have no public interest defence. Unlimited costs and damages. Juries and judges would, inevitably, take into account your decision to stay outside the system when they were apportioning those costs and damages. And, as is already the case with libel, the balance of proof would be against you – you’d have to prove you hadn’t harassed, distorted, misrepresented. It wouldn’t be up to the complainant to prove that you had.
When Leveson finally writes his report, it’s very unlikely he’ll take a many steps in this direction. It would be a step – may be more than one step – too far. But it’s not a bad ‘high water mark’ against which we can judge whatever recommendations he does finally produce. But he’s already made it clear he’s not going to walk away and do nothing about this massively powerful, profit led institution that’s gone so far off the rails, it no longer knows where the rails once were.
Getting the Thugs off the Street
How else might we judge whether Leveson has got it right? In the long queue of ‘just ordinary people’ and celebrities who gave Leveson their accounts of tabloid harassment there was one that struck me especially forcefully. It was Sienna Miller’s. She told how up to fifteen men would stalk her every day. How they would spit on her to get a reaction. How they would chase her, alone, down dark streets at midnight.
The men weren’t just your ordinary, common-or-garden stalkers, perverts and muggers. They had been given licence by their editors – men like Paul Dacre – to leave decency behind and ‘legitimised’ by Miller’s celebrity and the cameras they carried. Miller was just 21 years old. The same age my daughter is now. That gave her account, for me, a painful resonance and piquancy.
Leveson will have got it right if his solution makes the press truly accountable to us, the public. If he brings some responsibility to the last unaccountable power in the land. If the tabloid press has to take more care than it does now that that it’s honest and fair and has more than a passing relationship with the truth. If it can tell the difference between challenging power and trashing the lives of the victims of crime. If we, the public, can put wrongs right quickly and fairly.
And if young women, whether a celebrity like Miller or ‘just ordinary people’ like the rest of us are no longer be terrorised by thuggish yobs, turning that terror into cash for the power that is the tabloid press.