|Media coverage of the Leveson Inquiry has tended to focus on celebrity evidence [EPA]|
In July of this year, amid revelations of widespread lawbreaking by Britain’s newspapers, the government felt it necessary to launch an inquiry into “the culture, practices, and ethics of the press” in general, and the conduct of News International in particular.
The judge appointed to lead this inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson, has made it clear that he wants to address some profound questions about the relationship between the media, the political establishment, and the wider society. In his statement on the launch of the inquiry, Leveson noted that “there needs to be a discussion of what amounts to the public good, to what extent the public interest should be taken into account and by whom”. On the first day of hearings, he said that “the press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?” So Leveson is aware that the media are constitutionally significant, in the sense that their performance affects every other significant institution and social arrangement.
In November the Leveson Inquiry began taking evidence from witnesses. Much of what has been said so far will be familiar to those who have read about the unfolding scandal at News International. But there are already some important lessons we can learn from the way that the major media in Britain have covered the proceedings.
The national newspapers and broadcasters together can decide which elements of the inquiry are newsworthy. They have already been extremely successful in shaping coverage in ways that suit them. They have given plenty of airtime and column inches to the various famous people who have given evidence, for example. So much so that one newspaper has gone on to publish complaints from a victim of hacking that the proceedings have been “hijacked by celebrities“.
More than that, the media can decide which proposals for reform are, as the saying goes, “ready for prime time”. The climate of comment and opinion that surrounds Leveson concentrates on quite narrow questions of press regulation. The unwary viewer or reader might easily conclude that the media have become somewhat too intrusive and that a difficult balance will now have to be struck between the need for a rowdy, fearless press and the need to rein in its occasional excesses.
Commentators have paid much less attention to the questions Leveson considers to be central. The media don’t want to host a discussion that is framed in constitutional terms. They don’t want their audiences to think too hard about what is meant by “the public interest” and they are frantic to ensure that any debate about checks and balances leaves their privileges unnoticed and intact.
Over the months ahead the media will tend to concentrate on those elements of the inquiry that suit them. They will maintain their usual silence about their place in the structures of economic and political power. The fact that a significant proportion of the newspaper industry was able to act illegally for years without fear of prosecution will be pushed to the margins. An argument about whether the Press Complaints Commission should be reformed or replaced will take centre stage.
The reporting on Leveson has a paradoxical quality. Although the inquiry was launched in the face of accumulating evidence of criminality and systemic wrongdoing in the mass media, the mass media retain a privileged position between the inquiry and the general population.
The mass media’s handling of the Leveson Inquiry is, and looks set to remain, a symptom of the illness that Leveson wants to cure. It is part of a pattern of self-dealing that characterises the British media as a whole. A relative handful of insiders dominate discussion of the system on which most people rely on for their information. When that system fails – when it fails to notice that a gigantic credit bubble is inflating, or that the government is peddling nonsense about regimes it wants to attack – these same insiders declare that lessons have been learned and that it is time to move on.
Clearly it is naïve to expect the mass media to discuss the mass media in anything like an adequate way. They enjoy enormous and unaccountable power and they have little interest in explaining how they exercise it. But the rest of us should not be so reticent. Groups that want to reform the constitution need to take a much more lively interest in the structure of the communications industry. Those that want to tackle inequality and social disparagement or head off environmental disaster also have a stake in creating a media system capable of describing the world and its own operations accurately. More and more of us are realising that the country’s economic and political institutions have escaped effective scrutiny for too long and that the criminality of the tabloid press is of a piece with a much more pervasive culture of corruption.
Leveson’s questions urgently need answering. But the media cannot be trusted with the task. Civil society has tended to behave like a courtier in its dealing with the press. Reformers of all stripes have, after all, measured success in media coverage. This must now stop.
Network technology gives us the means to discuss the mass media without relying on the mass media for a platform. Leveson is giving us an opportunity to do so. And we have a motive. Intelligent reform of the media will improve the rest of our public life by illuminating matters that are currently ignored or misrepresented. Furthermore, a reformed media system will make possible further waves of constitutional, social and economic reform based on sound information and rigorous debate.
The crisis in the media is part of a much larger crisis in public life. If we are serious about addressing any other aspect of this larger crisis, we need to stop taking the media at their word.
Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is this year’s winner of the Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize.
Follow him on Twitter: @danhind
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.