LONDON – The poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia at an Italian restaurant in Salisbury has driven an important story off the front pages of the British press. Earlier this month, the former actor and comedian John Ford revealed that for 15 years, from 1995 to 2010, he was employed by Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times newspaper to hack and blag his way into the private affairs of dozens of prominent people, including then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Discussing the techniques he used, Ford said: “I did their phones, I did their mobiles, I did their bank accounts, I stole their rubbish.” Some of the most prominent names in British journalism are likely to be tarnished by this and other revelations of illegality and wrongdoing.
The basic plot goes back to the foundation of the free press with the abolition of licensing in 1695. To fulfill what has been seen since then as its distinctive purpose – holding power to account – a free press needs information. We expect a free press to investigate the exercise of power and bring abuses to light. In this context, one inevitably recalls the exposure of Watergate, which brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974.
But actual scandals are not necessary for the press to do its job. The very existence of a free press is a constraint on government. It is not the only one: the rule of law, enforced by an independent judiciary, and competitive elections held at regular intervals are no less important. Together, they form a three-legged stool: take one, and the other two collapse.
We continue to view the press as our defender against an over-mighty state, despite politicians’ often-craven performance in the face of media pressure. This is because we have no proper theory of private power.
The liberal argument is both simple and simplistic: the state is dangerous precisely because it is a monopolist. Because it controls the means of coercion and levies compulsory taxes, its dark doings need to be exposed by fearless investigative journalism. Newspapers, by contrast, are not monopolists. They lack any power of compulsion, so there is no need to guard against the abuse of press power. It does not exist.
But while a press monopoly in its pure form does not exist, oligopoly prevails in most countries. If, as economists claim, the public good emerges from the invisible hand of the market, the market for news is quite visible – and visibly concentrated. Eight companies own Britain’s 12 national newspapers, and four proprietors account for more than 80% of all copies sold. In 2013, two men, Murdoch and Lord Rothermere, owned 52% of online and print news publications in the United Kingdom. Were it not for the success of the press in rendering its own power invisible, we would never rely on self-regulation alone to keep the press honest.
Efforts to bind the British press to a standard of “decent” journalism have been tried – and failed – repeatedly. There have been six commissions of inquiry in the UK since 1945. Each one, established after some egregious abuse, has recommended that “steps be taken” to protect privacy; and each time, the government has backed down.
There are two main reasons for this. First, no politician wants to turn the press against him: Tony Blair’s wooing of Murdoch, owner the Sun, the Times, and the Sunday Times, is legendary, as was its pay-off. The Murdoch press backed Labour in Blair’s three election victories in 1997, 2001, and 2005. The other reason is more sinister: newspapers have “dirt” on politicians, which they are willing to use to protect their interests.
In 1989, following pressure from Parliament, the government commissioned David Calcutt to chair a committee to “consider what measures (whether legislative or otherwise) are needed to give further protection to individual privacy from the activities of the press and improve recourse against the press for the individual citizen.” Calcutt’s key recommendation was to replace the moribund Press Council with a Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which was duly created.
In 1993, however, Calcutt described the PCC as “a body set up by the industry, financed by the industry, dominated by the industry, and operating a code of practice devised by the industry and which is over-favorable to the industry.” He recommended its replacement by a statutory Press Complaints Tribunal. The government refused to act.
In March 2011, a Joint Committee of Parliament reported that “the current system of self-regulation is broken and needs fixing.” Because the PCC “was not equipped to deal with systemic and illegal invasions of privacy,” the committee set out proposals for a reformed regulator.
The same year, following criminal prosecutions for telephone hacking which led to the closure of Murdoch’s News of the World, then-Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Lord Justice Brian Leveson to head an inquiry into “the culture, practices and ethics of the press; their relationship with the police; the failure of the current system of regulation; the contacts made, and discussions had, between national newspapers and politicians; why previous warnings about press misconduct were not heeded; and the issue of cross-media ownership.” Leveson tackled his remit – to make recommendations for a new, more effective way of regulating the press – with “one simple question: who guards the guardians?”
The first part of the Leveson Report, published in 2012, recommended an industry regulator whose independence from the newspapers and government alike was to be assured by a Press Recognition Panel, set up under a Royal Charter. To preempt what they called “state control,” the newspaper proprietors set up an Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO), accountable to no one but itself.
True to previous form, the government then gave up, overruling the opinion of Leveson himself that further inquiry was needed to establish the “extent of unlawful or improper conduct by newspapers, including corrupt payments to the police.” Indeed, Leveson doubted whether the IPSO is sufficiently different from its predecessor, the PCC, to have resulted in any “real difference in behavior” at all.
Although some British press outlets are uniquely vicious, striking the right balance between the public’s need to know and individuals’ right to privacy is a general problem, and must be continually addressed in the light of changing technology and practices. The media are still needed to protect us against abuses of state power; but we need the state to protect us from abuses of media power.