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The British press has been demonised by academics and celebrities

Under attack. Stefan Rousseau/PA

There is no arguing against the fact that the trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and others has been a disaster for British journalism, and has catastrophically worsened its reputation. But there remains a bigger question: to what extent have democracy and media freedom also been thrown into this bonfire of retribution?

Coulson was found guilty of conspiracy to hack mobile phones and Rebekah and Charlie Brooks cleared on all charges against them. At the time of writing, a decision was yet to be made on whether to retry Coulson and Clive Goodman for two other charges on which the jury could not reach a verdict.

But the trial has been much more than a narrative of journalists accused of breaking the law and having to answer for it, for which police, jurors, lawyers, and judge have all done their professional duty. This has been payback time, delivered through the ritual of criminal trial, and the rule of law applies its remedy with a sharp toxicity whatever the verdict.

The trial’s context is a determined mood in the British state along with the country’s political, cultural, academic, and entertainment elite to reset the capacity of the media to embarrass, outrage, insult and mock the peccadilloes, indulgences and hypocrisies of the rich and powerful.

The motive stems not just from shifting the power of exposure and public humiliation. The campaign is based on a consensus that the nasty and brutal edge of destructive media needs to be blunted when smashing into the lives of vulnerable and ordinary people. Hacked Off and its concentric rings of sympathetic support from the Media Standards Trust and the Media Reform Coalition represent a fusion of victim-hood.

Media victims who are public figures par excellence have dominated the headlines. But the Leveson Inquiry was a truth commission on the outrageous media abuse of power condemned not just by celebrity witnesses. It was also energised by the compelling and disturbing testimony of ordinary people.

Alliance of the wronged

This has been an alliance of the wronged. The country’s most successful author, J K Rowling, Hollywood A-List actor Hugh Grant, professionals such as former police detective Jacqui Hames, Kate and Gerry McCann and retired school-teacher Christopher Jefferies joined forces with brilliant media lawyers such as Mark Lewis, Hugh Tomlinson QC and Charlotte Harris and politicians such as Evan Harris, Chris Bryant and Tom Watson to fight for non-celebrity victims. They include Bob and Sally Dowler – the parents of murdered teenager Milly Dowler – and Margaret and Jim Watson – the parents who lost their daughter to murder and son to suicide.

This well-intentioned alliance has had another factor that has made a considerable difference. Theory and practice academics have given this campaign added intellectual legitimacy. The media is generally the menace of objectified mischief and negativity in academic inquiry. The debates are constructed by post-Marxist criticism of journalism that view it as a state apparatus of indoctrination. The private media corporations in liberal capitalism are ideological state agencies by proxy. One important source for the theory is Louis Althusser’s 1970 study Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation.

These media-critical arguments are intelligent and credible – but despite the impressive roll-call of original thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas, Gilles Deleuze, Pierre-Félix Guattari, and Pierre Bourdieu, they are only arguments.

Working journalists have to deal with realities. What is missing from most of the theory in media studies is a perspective of journalistic realism rooted in verifiable fact. People who kill are matters of fact including one of the fathers of media theory himself, Louis Althusser. He strangled his wife Hélène to death in 1980 and was committed to hospital on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Althusser used media expression to describe his own act of homicide in L'Avenir dure longtemps.

The point here is that not that all distinguished media theorists and professors kill their partners by strangulation. In the same way, Bob and Sally Dowler’s daughter Milly was not murdered by tabloid journalists. In fact her serial killer was brought to justice with the assistance of “bombshell information” from a Mirror journalist. The News of the World did not delete messages on Milly’s phone giving her parents false hope that she was still alive, but the paper did unlawfully listen to messages on her phone. The idea they could help to find her represents sheer arrogance and stupidity on their part.

The issue here should be one of proportionality. Professors from the discipline of media and communications, in particular, have combined critical investigation of the media in terms of institutions, audience, representation and ideology with political activism. The academy in a range of disciplines has transformed the media into a permanent problem. Stanley Cohen’s 1972 study Folk Devils and Moral Panics held the media responsible for stigmatising mods and rockers. Stuart Hall’s Policing the Crisis in 1978 did the same for exaggerating fears of mugging and racist associations with black youth.

New journalistic monster

Speaking as an exponent of journalistic realism in a career of nearly 40 years overlapping as a practice academic of 24 years, I do not feel there is a balance in the critical attention. I wish there had been more of such perceptive analysis by the late John Tulloch. As a media studies and journalism professor at Lincoln University with a critical attitude to tabloid ethics, he was still able to argue that Rebekah Brooks had been turned into a modern Medusa through a ritual of Salem-style witch-hunt media coverage.

The phone-hacking scandal has conjured a new journalistic demon, that of the “tabloid” privacy intruder whose gutter-press appetites can only be satiated by phone and computer hacking, bribing coppers and seeking a cheap thrill by peddling pornography with the telephoto lens. How ironic that journalism should become the folk devil. As Ann Diamond so vehemently said when confronting an ex-News of the World features editor on BBC Newsnight: “Now you know how it feels!”

What has been minority transgression by popular media has been transformed into the typical and general. Could it be the case that experts in researching moral panic theory have been adroit in perpetuating it? Academia not only theorises, it likes to do something about the problems it constructs. The need to prove “research impact” has impelled them to campaign for media law reform because they tend to see law as the answer.

But this is a destructive rather than a positive move. Sadly law and justice are not synonymous. They are not even mutually compatible concepts. Up to £1 billion in civil damages and other costs, tens of millions more in criminal enquiries, and scores of journalists and their sources have been snared in a construction of “misconduct in public office”.

The edifice of non-state self regulation has been compromised. British policing has been normalised into seeing whistle-blowing, and journalistic sourcing as open season. The mere communication of unauthorised information by a public official to a journalist has been criminalised. Even the Bribery Act makes any reward or payment in return for journalistic sources a criminal issue.

The bullying and harm perpetrated by an exceptionally limited area of journalism has not been confronted proportionately. As a result the notion of the public interest has been stripped from the public and is now firmly in the control of the judiciary, university professors, politicians and police and state prosecutors.

This is not media freedom but an exercise of the authoritarian tendency. The pendulum of reparation for media victim-hood has swung too far and I fear the impact of this trial symbolises more than a process of criminal justice, but an enduring tragedy that will be truly damaging to the democratic and media freedom interest.

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