Pin your hopes on the next generation to fix news media

Jeff Bezos: can he save journalism? Stephen Brashear/AP/Press Association Images

When representatives of the British newspaper industry were defending their freedoms from the modest changes to press regulation proposed by Lord Justice Leveson, they compared the UK with Zimbabwe, Iran, China, North Korea and not just Putin’s Russia, but Stalin’s.

It was the kind of absurd self-serving bilge that would not have survived a moment’s analysis had any other industry put something like it forward.

The press has rightly campaigned for regulation of banks, pension funds, MPs, doctors, lawyers – only newspapers, it seems, despite trust ratings lower than any of those, should be considered exempt. Only newspapers should be allowed to design their own regulation, despite so much evidence of their failure and untrustworthiness to do so.

Newspapers have consistently lied about regulation. As Harry Evans said in his Cudlipp Lecture: “The misrepresentation of Leveson’s core report is staggering. To portray his careful construct for statutory underpinning as state control is a gross distortion.” As far as my searches have found, Evans, a journalistic giant, was reported in just one paper. Hacks, or politicians opposed to Leveson, on the other hand, have free rein.

Damned lies

According to the industry, press freedom is over. A lie. They insist politicians will decide what you read. Another lie. Investigations into stories like MPs’ expenses could not happen. A lie. There will be pre-publication censorship. A lie. Editors will go to jail if they don’t sign up. A lie.

Just ignore it. It;ll go away. PA Archive

Perhaps the biggest lie is that Leveson’s recommendations are about protecting politicians and celebrities. Not so. They are about protecting people without power or wealth or fame who can have their lives destroyed by inhumane and illegal journalistic activity.

What Leveson proposed, and what the Royal Charter now says, does not even come close to establishing regulation of the press: it proposes a body to certify that any new self-regulator is independent. That is underpinning, not “state control”. The body would be independent of press – so they cannot control or water it down; and independent of politicians so that a future government cannot randomly make it more draconian.

There are other advantages. The new body would have investigative powers to deal with papers which keep breaching the code of practice; and an arbitration procedure, which would be cheaper for both people and publishers to use, rather than going to law.

It will have a new code but it will surely retain much of the current editors’ code of practice, which promises accuracy and respect for privacy. That code was a good piece of work. It has just never been adhered to, never been implemented, and that was always the Murdoch-Dacre plan. The PCC has been a body of the press, by the press, for the press.

Just ask yourself what those same owners and editors would have to say if any other walk of life had been exposed for so much wrongdoing, given rise to so much public disgust, and then still made a claim to be capable of a self-regulatory system. They would be insulted, hounded, vilified.

The press have thrown every false argument in the book and still – though this poll got even less coverage than Harry Evans’ lecture – more than seven out of ten readers want Leveson-style independence for a new regulator. The papers want nothing that gets in the way of business as usual. The good news is that despite their attempts to grind the politicians down, they are not getting their way.

The even better news is that when finally this new system happens, none of their big lies will come true. Both press and public will gain. That is why I am optimistic, despite the publishers trying to ignore the Royal Charter at the moment, hoping their alternative – the Independent Press Standards Organisation – will be deemed acceptable. It won’t, as anyone who has read Leveson will see.

IPSO facto failure

Indeed on Friday the Media Standards Trust is publishing an external analysis of IPSO, which establishes that of Leveson’s 38 recommendations for a self-regulator, only 12 are met by the Dacre-Black proposal.

It fails on the very first test in the very first word of its misleading title. It is not independent. It is almost entirely dependent on the industry which influences virtually every aspect of what it does, and in many cases has a veto. Through the funding body, it institutionalises the power of the big publishers, just as its predecessor used money to grip and control the PCC, and will control budgets, rules, code, investigations, sanctions for breaches. It is not independent of politics either, with a provision for peers and MEPs to be on the regulator.

Setting standards: Paul Dacre. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

It also fails the central Leveson test, since it does not provide access to justice for ordinary members of the public via low-cost arbitration. The complaints system is virtually the same as the utterly discredited PCC. Leveson called for a “simple and credible” investigations process. The architects of IPSO have gone for complicated and incredible instead, allowing for up to six interventions by the publisher, and none by the victim

It makes a complete mockery of the claims they made in adverts in their own papers that IPSO “will deliver all of the key elements Lord Justice Leveson called for in his report”. More lies. It leaves me thinking: either they are incredibly stupid, or they think that everyone else is. And one thing of which I am certain: you will read very little about this report in the papers. Another planned news blackout: because it doesn’t support their lies and their bogus arguments.

They claim of course to speak for the public, hence another news blackout on the recent Transparency International report which showed British people viewed the media as the most corrupt of 12 institutions surveyed – 69% felt so, up from 39% three years ago.

I am pleased the politicians have thus far held reasonably firm – with a few wobbles, a bit of opportunism by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, and confused statements by culture secretary Maria Miller. It is almost a year since Leveson reported. Time to get it done.

Reasons to be cheerful

Here is what I think will eventually happen, and another reason for optimism. IPSO’s backers will push their luck and overplay their hand. It will be clear to anyone who can read that it is not Leveson-compliant. As politicians, public and the victims of media abuse lose patience, so will sections of the press less wrapped up in the lie machine.

Some will then set up a self-regulator to meet Royal Charter standards. Other newspapers will join because the costs of staying out -– for example, paying both sides of a libel case –- will be so high. The system will settle down and we will all look back with utter bemusement at their warnings of an end to civilisation as we know it, and contempt at their machinations.

Yet still the lie machine cranks on. Repressive Britain, I read recently. So let’s talk about repression. Turkey had 49 journalists imprisoned last year, followed by Iran on 45, China 32, Eritrea 28, Syria 15. Britain is well down the table, on zero.

There is only one big point put forward with which I have sympathy. The suggestion that countries which do repress the media will say Britain is doing so, therefore why shouldn’t we? But they can only pose the question because of the lies told by our press. And for further evidence of lies and hypocrisy, go to Ireland, where UK titles have signed up to a similar system without any skin falling from their Pinnochio noses.

The threat to journalism comes not from politicians, but from within. From arrogant and overweening industry leaders who love editorials saying “wake up and smell the coffee”, but cannot smell it for themselves. People who cannot see that falling sales are about more than technology – they are about falling credibility, and rising public awareness about their methods, and abuse of power.

Once this debate is settled, journalism can start to look at how it rebuilds its reputation – but it can only be done by the next generation, which is better at reading the rhythms of change.

Exceptional people

Mark Zuckerberg is 29; Google’s Larry Page a veteran at 40; the founders of Twitter 30-somethings. Of course these are exceptional people. But it is exceptional people who become leaders, and it is in these who have made their millions, and more so those of the same age being driven as much by idealism as by profits, who give me hope there will be change.

How remarkable to pick up last Friday’s FT and read the Business Life profile of online magazine editor, Tavi Gevinshon, aged 17.

It could be, of course, that the new media will simply create new oligarchs, less interested in good journalism – which costs money – than in the financial power the platforms and advertising give them. Let’s be very wary of billionaire techies thinking algorithms and blogs are all you need for journalism. Let’s see how Amazon founder Jeff Bezos handles the Washington Post. Let’s see if the sense develops that the Facebook/Twitter revolution is really only about the flotations, not a more democratic media. Let’s keep an eye on so-called “Demand Media” - aka advertorials - gaining hold.

Let’s be wary too of the danger of a new rich-poor divide which further weakens journalism as a pillar of democracy – on the one side free news in short blasts, on the other “proper” journalism, reserved for those willing to pay for it. But for now let’s be optimistic and try to ensure that social media is a counterweight to oligarchism, not a modern, sexier version.

This is an edited extract of a speech delivered to Cambridge University’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. Read the full lecture here.