What’s next for news in the UK?

The close of the News of the World newspaper scandal highlights the need for a complete overhaul of media practices.

A combination of pictures shows former N
Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks were two of seven charged in a phone-hacking scandal on Tuesday [AFP]

On Tuesday July 24, Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service announced that it was charging seven senior journalists from Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World with conspiring to intercept the voicemails of hundreds of people between 2000 and 2006. The seven charged include two former editors of the paper, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator previously jailed for hacking offences, has also been charged.

When the tabloids Brooks and Coulson edited were at the height of their power, few were reckless enough to question, much less challenge, “the culture, practices, and ethics of the press”. Now, those papers are struggling. A series of revelations last summer led to public outrage at the alleged excesses of certain tabloid journalists. Already starved of advertising, and faced with punishing online competition, the popular press lost control of the narrative.

Once they posed as well-intentioned tribunes of the people; now they looked like well-connected bullies. As night falls on an era in the politics of communication the establishment in Britain is taking a long hard look at the press in general and the tabloids in particular.

The Leveson Inquiry has been taking evidence from witnesses since November of last year, and finished the process earlier this week. The sessions have often been horribly enlightening: private individuals and celebrities have revealed a culture of intimidation and intrusion that was far more explicit and pervasive than most people ever imagined. Lord Justice Leveson will work on his report over the summer with the goal to publish his recommendations later this year. After what we’ve learned from Leveson and separate inquiries by the Metropolitan police, existing arrangements can no longer stand even quite casual scrutiny. It is reasonable to think that some of the worst excesses of the tabloid press will be curbed in the future.

The next debate

This is welcome, but it is not enough. After all, an inquiry into the “culture, practices, and ethics of the press” is likely to leave the structure of the media unexamined. Consider how the inquiry has been reported. The media have largely contained all debate within their comfort zone. The tension described is between a free press and the need for effective regulation, leaving the discussion of Leveson remains bounded by two families of legitimating ideas. On one side are those who argue that individual decisions in a regime of private property are the best way to discover the common good. On the other are those who make the case for public servants who work through the state to deliver the best possible balance of competing claims. Do we want market forces, or rule by experts, professionals and elected officials? Absent, as ever, is any suggestion that a sovereign public should have effective means to shape its opinions.

The market liberal model is in retreat – James Murdoch’s claim that “the only reliable, durable and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit” is no longer persuasive in light of what is now widely known about the culture and practices of News International. The debate is now on how much regulation is needed, what form it will take, and so on. This model for organising controversy, in which would-be regulators clash endlessly with the defenders of free markets, remains dominant in our discussions of the media even though it makes no sense to see recent history in those terms.

The scandal that triggered the Leveson Inquiry wasn’t caused by a failure of regulation. It emerged from a protracted breakdown of constitutional government. The police failed to investigate evidence of widespread criminal wrongdoing in the media for years. The police now acknowledge that “the current assessment of the evidence” is that at least one newspaper was able to create a “network of corrupted officials”. Meanwhile, the political class sought to govern in ways that secured the support of institutions that were responsible for this same wrongdoing. Systemic criminality in parts of the media ran parallel with – and was part of – their unaccountable power in the state.

Silence as testament

 UK PM’s ex-aide charged in hacking scandal

This was not discussed at the time. The silence is testament to the way things really work. Since this longstanding silence has itself gone largely unremarked, why is it that one newspaper – the Guardian – took on so much of the burden of exposing the scandal? What were the broadcasters doing?

Regulatory reform is welcome, but it is not adequate. The collusion between News International and successive British governments points to a constitutional crisis that has profound real world implications. After all, the same media that were unable to give an accurate picture of their own activities also failed to describe what was happening in the British economy and in the British state.

The judges in Britain, James I once said, are the lions beneath the throne. They protect the established order, by means of careful reform where necessary. It would be a great mistake to imagine that, unaided, they will find a way out of the country’s current troubles. They cannot be expected to question the fundamentals of the existing constitution. So let’s not imagine that Leveson’s report will be equal to the crisis that prompted his inquiry and continues to play out in recession and revelations of widespread criminality in the financial sector.

It is time to ask what the media are for, both in theory and in fact. They are supposed to inform the citizenry of what is happening, without fear or favour. They are supposed to check an overbearing state and the presumptions of the rich. At the moment they are not capable of performing the grand roles that they claim for themselves. All too often they collude with other powerful interests to defraud or distract their audiences.

Dan Hind is the author of two books, The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. His pamphlet Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty, was published as an e-book in March. He is a member of the Tax Justice Network.