Interview with Julian Petley: Press Freedom, Press Regulation and the Public Interest

Julian Petley photo

Julian Petley, one of the most prominent campaigners for media freedom in the UK, kindly agreed to answer some questions on phone-hacking, the Snowden leaks, the fallout from the Leveson Inquiry, and IPSO, the new self-regulatory body for the press. In this interview, he emphasises the need for press freedom from both the state and the market, and the need for some form of state intervention to ensure press freedom.

This interview has subsequently been republished on the Inforrm blog.

 

Simon Dawes: For its investigation into phone-hacking at The News of the World and its publication of the Snowden files, The Guardian has been hailed among the left as a bastion of fourth estate journalism, exercising its freedom to hold power to account in the public interest. Among the right, however, it has been accused of hypocrisy, and some have asked why the phone-hacking of celebrities should be prosecuted but not the risking of national security (despite the fact that the former claim has since been proven, while the latter remains alleged and woefully unsubstantiated). How do you see the difference between the kinds of journalism performed by newspapers such as The Guardian and those such as The News of the World, and how would you respond to the accusation from the right that The Guardian’s interpretation of the public interest, as well as its support for the Leveson Report, all too conveniently also serves its own private interests?

Julian Petley: The fact that newspapers such as the Sun, Telegraph and Mail appear to see not the slightest contradiction in raucously defending press freedom from the reforms to the press self-regulatory system proposed by Leveson, which they endlessly but entirely erroneously call ‘state control’, whilst at the same time demanding that the Guardian be prosecuted for publishing the Snowden revelations, tells you everything you need to know about these papers. The idea that revealing the surveillance of the entirety of the UK population’s online activity is not in the public interest is nothing less than palpably absurd. But it’s no more absurd than the idea put about by these and other papers that the public interest is impossible to define. As I show in Chapter 2 of Media and Public Shaming, there are numerous perfectly workable definitions of the public interest – as enshrined, for example, in the BBC Editorial Guidelines – but the problem for much of the press is that these simply cannot be used to justify the kind of journalism which they wish to carry, namely invasive and sensational stories which may interest certain members of the public but are in no sense in the public interest. Hence the nauseating spectacle in the Max Mosley case of the News of the World defence team inventing, on a daily basis, ever more ludicrous, and decidedly ex post facto, ‘public interest’ defences for a story in which there was not a shred of public interest, as properly understood.

If one judges the British press by the standards of the Fourth Estate – and, again, it’s a perfectly simple matter to adumbrate these (take a look at page 3 of David Randall’s wonderful book The Universal Journalist, for example) – much of what appears in the British press just isn’t journalism at all. It’s either a vicious, invasive and prurient form of ‘entertainment’, or its pure propaganda, not simply for the Tory party but for the right wing of the Tory party. To take but one example from the myriad of possible ones, the news that Boris Johnson was likely to stand for Parliament in the next election wasn’t presented as ‘news’ at all by the Tory press, but as slavish adulation. This counts as journalism only in the sense that the Soviet-era Pravda and Izvestia were newspapers.

 

Simon Dawes: We’re all familiar with the ways in which certain journalists, editors and media proprietors strategically use ‘press freedom’ or ‘public interest’ to justify their otherwise questionable actions (as governments tend to play the ‘national security’ card whenever they’re embarrassed by the press), but you’ve also recently accused the press itself of being a major threat to press freedom, claiming that “most newspapers are far more likely to endorse attempts by the state to censor [political watchdog] journalism than they are to condemn them”. Could you say a little more about this?

Julian Petley: One of the reasons why I became interested in analysing British journalism in the first place was because I was very involved in lobbying against the Video Recordings Act in the early 1980s. This came about as a result of a moral panic about ‘video nasties’ which was loudly amplified by the press, and by the Mail in particular. I began to wonder about what kind of press called for the censorship of other media, and the more I looked into it, the more examples I found. Whether it was films like The Devils, A Clockwork Orange or Straw Dogs, or controversies about sex and violence on television (and especially on Channel 4 in its early days), most British papers were in the forefront of those calling for censorship. And this extended into the political field too – for example, in the campaign led by The Sunday Times against Thames TV’s Death on the Rock or the widespread press support for the Special Branch raids on BBC Scotland and the New Statesman in the Secret Society affair. Indeed, the campaign by much of the press against the Guardian for publishing the Snowden revelations is an almost perfect echo of the latter. It’s for reasons such as this that I find it utterly impossible to take remotely seriously anything that most papers say about press freedom.

 

Simon Dawes: You’ve previously commented that public reaction to the Snowden revelations has been less pronounced in the UK than in the US. Do you think that this can be explained by the ways in which debate has been mediated in the UK, in the context of the current tensions between The Guardian and much of the rest of the UK press since the regulatory fallout from the phone-hacking scandal? Or could it also have something to do with the way in which the revelations have been interpreted in the US? While Americans may appear more outraged than UK citizens about state surveillance, for instance, it’s perhaps more the role of the state than the scope of surveillance itself that is the cause of the outrage – which explains why Obama thought that putting surveillance in the hands of a private company would be a satisfactory solution.

Julian Petley: Yes, it’s partly because of the way in which much of the press has either taken the state’s side against the Guardian or simply ignored the issue. The broadcasters have also largely followed the latter course, and when the BBC has had the temerity to pick up on the story, it’s immediately attacked on the front page of the Mail. So the BBC has either been frightened into silence, or doesn’t think the story worth covering – in either case, that’s quite disgraceful. It’s true that certain Americans have an absolutely allergic reaction to anything to do with the state, but there’s also quite a powerful strand of anti-statist discourse in Britain too. The problem is, however, is that in the UK it’s directed against only certain manifestations of the state – as encompassed by the phrase the ‘nanny state’, in other words, against welfare services provided by the state. And, inevitably, the right-wing press is in the forefront of the charge here. But when it comes to matters such as ‘national security’, much press and public opinion towards the state is quite different, and, as the Snowden affair so clearly demonstrates, there is a very distinct willingness to trade rights and freedoms for increased security – even though the enemies against whom we’re supposedly being protected are frequently as nebulous as the alleged benefits of that enhanced security. I wonder – don’t people ever realise that exactly the same arguments about the need for a massive and secretive security apparatus are the hallmark of authoritarian societies throughout history and across the globe?

 

Simon Dawes: You’ve also suggested that there are ideological affinities between politicians (across party lines) and newspaper editors and proprietors in the UK, who, you argue, are more a part of the political establishment than an independent body holding it to account. How effective to do you think that groups such as Hacked Off, Media Reform and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom have been at redressing the imbalance in the weight of influence on parliamentary and public debate on media regulation?

Julian Petley: That’s a difficult question to answer. Hacked Off has clearly been remarkably successful in getting many issues to do with the press onto the political agenda and into wider public consciousness. And that, of course is why they, and anybody who supports them, are utterly loathed by the vast bulk of the press. And anybody who cares about the role of the press in a democratic society owes them a huge vote of thanks. Likewise the Media Standards Trust, whose research is superb. Bodies like the CPBF and MediaWise (formerly PressWise) have been around for a much longer time, and have put in a great deal of useful spadework over the years, acting in concert with organisations like the Voice of the Listener and Viewer and Public Voice when it comes to broadcasting matters. So when the Leveson Inquiry was established we could draw on years of experience and research when giving our evidence. We’ve also been involved in a great deal of parliamentary lobbying over the years, although with the advent of ‘New Labour’ in 1994 with its Murdoch-friendly policies our inputs were clearly less welcome on board in that particular quarter. It’s obviously extremely gratifying that so many of the issues on which we’ve campaigned for so long are no longer of minority interest, or seen simply as concerns of the Left, and although this may be due partly to sheer grinding persistence on our part, I also think that the issues have just become too big, and too impactful on people’s daily lives, to ignore. The spread of media studies (at least in its more critical forms) has helped too – which, of course, is one of the main (but entirely unspoken) reasons why the press hates it so virulently. As long as media studies is critical of the media – and long may it remain so – the media will be critical of media studies, or rather of a barely recognisable caricature of it. Of course, some academic writing about the media paints a barely recognisable picture of its subject, which doesn’t help, but, particularly compared to their counterparts in the States, most of whom will have been to journalism schools, many British journalists on national newspapers are quite remarkably unreflective and un-self-critical about their practice, and are thus hostile even to those journalists-turned -academics who do know what they’re talking about. Take Roy Greenslade, for example, who we discover from Nick Davies’ book Hack Attack Andy Coulson tried to get fired from his job at City University. The unspoken rubric in the British press that dog doesn’t eat dog has most certainly played a role in preventing the development of a self-critical press culture, and indeed has fostered a self-defensive, bunker mentality instead.

 

Simon Dawes: While the Leveson Inquiry illustrated the extent of corporate lobbying on media policymakers, you have drawn attention to the concerns of the Vice-Chairman of DPBAC (the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee) regarding the worrying levels of misunderstanding and disengagement among government ministers where matters of press regulation and national security are concerned. What do you think this level of corporate lobbying and government disengagement suggests about both the need for, and the likelihood of, any state involvement in press regulation?

Julian Petley: It’s certainly worrying that the Prime Minister doesn’t understand how the DPBAC works, nor what a DA Notice is, but it’s not altogether surprising. The reason for this is partly that every time that politicians have dared to suggest that the way in which press self-regulation works needs to be examined or improved, they have been bullied and traduced by sections of the press. The papers have succeeded in throwing a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around themselves, on the entirely spurious grounds that they are acting in the public interest and must therefore be insulated against any kind of political scrutiny, and politicians cross it at their peril.

 

Simon Dawes: Contrary to claims that the UK government’s proposal for press regulation represents state intervention and the end of press freedom, you stress the importance of distinguishing between ‘statutory protection’ and ‘statutory underpinning’. To what extent do you think that some form of state intervention into press regulation could actually protect, rather than contradict, press freedom, and do we need to start to think of press freedom in terms other than ‘freedom from the state’?

Julian Petley: I’ve argued for many years that the media in general, and not just the press, need protection from both the state and the market. One shouldn’t forget that legislation such as the Official Secrets Act can and has been used to stifle journalism which is most certainly in the public interest. And the Obscene Publications Act and Video Recordings Act have had considerable impact on what can and can’t be shown in cinemas and on video. Indeed, there are over 60 laws which impact on media content of one kind or another. So this idea that we must not have ‘state regulation’ of the press is doubly ridiculous – first of all, we have it already in these various laws, and secondly, no-one is proposing to extend it anyway. But this brings me back to my earlier point about the hypocrisy of the press in roaring against threats to press freedom, because when one looks at cases involving the three acts mentioned above, for example, one finds that most newspapers actually supported the prosecution and did their best to smear the defendants!  As for the market, it’s become ever clearer over the years, and especially since broadcasting was ‘de-regulated’, that market forces can and do act as a form of censorship; in particular programmes and publications which can’t adequately ‘pay their way’ in the marketplace are marginalised, diminished in number, or simply don’t appear at all. Minority and non-mainstream tastes are the losers here. What sells survives, and the British national press is a very clear example of what kinds of newspapers survive when market forces rule. Limits on media ownership (and especially cross-media ownership), subsidies to offset the effects of market failure, conscience clauses for journalists, effective trade union recognition, a right of reply established on a statutory basis – these are all forms of state intervention which could help to protect and enhance press freedom, but press freedom understood in a much wider sense than the freedom of press owners to do what the hell they like with their papers and their employees.

 

Simon Dawes: Do you think that there’s still hope for some form of independent press regulation now that Maria Miller has stepped down from her role as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and that IPSO, the press industry’s alternative to Parliament’s proposal (for a royal charter to establish an independent body to oversee the self-regulation of the press), is currently being established? And do you agree with Roy Greenslade that The Guardian and The Independent should follow the lead of the Financial Times, appointing their own internal editorial complaints commissioners instead?

Julian Petley: In my view, it makes little difference who is the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and to which political party they belong. The press has simply put two fingers up to Parliament, the Queen and indeed to public opinion, and in IPSO has established a body which is not remotely compliant with the Leveson principles and which threatens to be even less independent of press interests than the Press Complaints Commission, which is really saying something. Whether it will get off the ground with its present chair, Sir Alan Moses, remains to be seen, as Moses has clearly spotted some of the problems inherent in IPSO’s structure and wants these to be put right. Personally I rather doubt that the newspaper barons will agree to the changes proposed by Moses, but we’ll just have to wait and see. In my view the Guardian, Independent and Financial Times are quite right to have nothing to do with this sham ‘regulator’, but it is of course a bitter irony that the papers most in need of effective self-regulation will barely be regulated at all in any meaningful sense, whilst those with higher journalistic standards are contemplating setting up internal regulatory systems which will probably meet many of Leveson’s requirements.

 

Simon Dawes: What kind of press regulation would you like to see in the UK, and do you think that all media should be regulated in the same way? Does public service have a future in and beyond national broadcasting, and could it have a role to play in the press? Would restrictions on ownership, or a focus on training, pay equality and union membership, solve problems of content standards, or do you think some form of content regulation is needed? Should more be done to distinguish, for example, between news and commentary (as well as advertising/paid for content)?

Julian Petley: I don’t believe that all media should be regulated in exactly the same way. The media are different from each other in form, in terms of delivery and in the ways in which people relate to them, and thus should be regulated differently. It would also be a worrying concentration of power if all media were regulated by the same body. I strongly support the principles of public service broadcasting, and I only wish that the public service broadcasters supported them more strongly than they sometimes appear to do, particularly when it comes to allowing a diversity of voices on the airwaves, being more responsive to and representative of their publics, withstanding pressure both from government and hostile newspapers, not following press-set agendas in their news programmes, and catering more adequately for minority tastes of one kind or another. It would be very difficult to apply the principles of public service broadcasting wholesale to the press, much as one might like to do so. In particular, it’s very hard to see how the press could be required to adhere to the same regulations on impartiality as the broadcasters, but an effective self-regulator should most certainly come down extremely hard on papers when they infuse news stories with editorialising, or when the comment in comment columns is based on ‘facts’ which turn out to be no such thing. In fact, these practices are absolutely endemic across much of the press, but all the remedy actually requires is that the existing PCC Code is properly enforced.

 

Julian Petley is Professor of Screen Media in the Department of Social Sciences, Media and Communications at Brunel University. His most recent book is the edited collection The Media and Public Shaming (I.B. Tauris 2013) and he’s a member of the editorial board of the British Journalism Review, the advisory board of Index on Censorship, and the national council of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

 

 

 

 

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