Ian Burrell: For or against statutory regulation? Battle lines are drawn
Media Studies: Media academics have in effect placed themselves in opposition to newspapers
Ian Burrell is Assistant Editor and Media Editor at The Independent, i paper and Independent on Sunday. He covers news from the whole media sector from television, press, radio and advertising to technology. His weekly column on the media appears every Monday in The Independent and i paper. He also writes on media, music and culture, including long-form pieces for The Independent’s Saturday magazine and the Independent on Sunday’s magazine, New Review. He is a regular presenter of BBC Radio 4’s What The Papers Say and a specialist commentator to Monocle 24 radio. He has contributed to most major broadcast outlets including BBC television and radio, CNN, Sky News, Al Jazeera and LBC. He has also written on media for GQ magazine. Ian has been reporting on the media industry for The Independent for more than a decade. Previously he was the newspaper’s Home Affairs Editor. He worked at The Sunday Times for five years, including as a member of the investigative Insight team, covering stories on political funding, industrial espionage and the arms industry. Previously he worked in ITV for London Weekend Television, on a weekly current affairs programme presented by Danny Baker. Ian trained at the Birmingham Post & Mail and was Regional Reporter of the Year in Press Gazette’s national awards.
Monday 12 November 2012
Though the national press long ago left the bustling environs of Fleet Street, it feels as if it could be back there now, shut away together in the cells beneath the nearby Old Bailey courtrooms and bickering as it awaits sentence from the judge.
The tensions that already existed between those on "trial" – many of whom feel they should not be there in the first place – have been heightened because of a perceived betrayal by those they hoped might testify on their behalf. So newspapers are screaming blue murder at the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and reaching for the throats of the media academics who have called for them to be shackled by the law.
As we wait for Lord Justice Leveson to return his verdict later this month, a furious round of campaigning is going on, both for the punishment and reprieve of the press. A process that began a year ago with appearances from Hugh Grant, JK Rowling and Sienna Miller – and talk of a Hollywood film – has come down to a tortuous discussion of the subtleties of future media regulation.
All agree that the existing Press Complaints Commission must be replaced by something with more muscle. But the question is whether its powers should be established by the industry or by Parliament.
The discussion of the subject that has gone on in newspapers in recent days has lacked the niceties of legal argument. In a Daily Mail piece headed "The New Dark Age", Dominic Sandbrook used the case of an obscure Athens magazine editor as an excuse for apocalyptic language on the threat to free speech "across Europe". Kostas Vaxevanis, editor of Hot Doc, narrowly escaped prison for naming alleged Greek tax evaders, the Mail article linking the case to Leveson and comparing events in Greece to "George Orwell's 1984" and "something from Hitler's Germany".
The Sun lambasted the NUJ last week after the union expressed support for a regulator with "statutory underpinning". The newspaper ran a story which began "Journalists across Britain last night threatened to quit their union..." The NUJ – which is anxious that journalists sit alongside newspaper management executives and editors on the decision-making process of any future regulatory body – claims to have lost only a handful of members.
But the sense of dismay in many newsrooms over the union's contrary position was very real. The Daily Telegraph ran a leader attacking the union's "wrong-headed" stance at a time which was "among the most important in living memory" for "supporters of a free press". The Telegraph snarled that some NUJ members would back the union's proposal, "just as some few engaged in the repulsive practice of phone-hacking". The others it urged to "reconsider their subscriptions".
Meanwhile radical press reform groups such as Hacked Off had convinced themselves that the Guardian, the title that broke the hacking story, was allied to their cause. But in a leader on 1 November the paper said regulation by statute could "edge us back towards something that looks like the licensing of the press and of journalists – something that was abolished in the 17th century and which has no place in a free society".
Not only did this provoke Brian Cathcart, director of campaign group Hacked Off, and professor in journalism at Kingston= university, to admonish the paper for being disrespectful to Leveson ("a little humility across the industry would not go amiss"), but his fellow media academics weighed in with a letter accusing The Guardian of "surrender".
The 20 co-signatories – professors in such subjects as communications, media policy, screen media, cultural policy and sociology – have in effect placed themselves in opposition to the newspaper industry, whether they like it or not. "Who are these people?" was a question asked in newsrooms last week of these self-styled experts, some of whom have never worked in journalism but nonetheless analyse this frenetic and constantly-evolving industry from the tranquillity of an ivory tower.
"One of the advantages of the academy is that it is actually expected that we sit around and think about things for a bit," says Chris Frost, a professor of journalism at Liverpool John Moores University who was a co-signatory of The Guardian letter and who helped draw up the NUJ's position on press reform as chair of its Ethics Council.
"I've not worked as a full-time journalist for nearly 20 years but like my colleagues I do my utmost to keep in touch with what's going on and I can usually spread myself over a wider area than most journalists."
Several media academics told me last week that many of their journalism students – who, like NUJ members are less and less dependent on, or loyal to, the big media employers in a rapidly fracturing industry – were supportive of state regulation. There is a disunity and lack of obvious leadership in the press at a time when it feels itself most under threat.
But Frost says the NUJ's position on reform has been "wrongly portrayed" as an attack on press freedom when all he advocates is "having the absolute minimum statutory underpinning, enough to make sure that people are obliged to accept the authority of the body".
He argues that the alternative option of a beefed-up self-regulatory system (proposed by Lord Hunt, the PCC chairman, and by Lord Black, the chairman of its funding body Presbof) would not ensure that publishers such as the maverick Richard Desmond sign up.
But Frost retreats when challenged on one extreme proposal, contained in his submission to Leveson, for the new regulator to be controlled by a panel appointed by the Secretary of State (potentially a politician as controversial as previous incumbent Jeremy Hunt).
"I can see why people would be worried about that," he admits. "If the Secretary of State appointed a lay person and another four were appointed by the industry I would certainly be happy with that."
It's probably too late for conciliation now. And when Sir Brian Leveson makes his recommendations in a few days' time the debate will only grow more acrimonious as both sides ramp up the pressure on the politicians who must act on his findings.
Jamil adds a modern touch but there's a long way to go
Radio 1 has suffered as badly as any brand from the Jimmy Savile revelations, which have cast a shadow over the station's early years and its reputation for fresh pop music, clean humour and all the fun of the roadshow.
The appointment on Friday of Jameela Jamil as the first solo female presenter of Radio 1's chart show since it began in 1967 as Pick of the Pops is a sign of the station's modernisation and a reminder of a historic male bias where all was not always as it seemed.
At 26, Jamil might feel she can jettison the nickname "Jam Jam" as she takes on the responsibility of her new position, unless she is seeking to emanate the show's pop-picking pioneer Alan "Fluff" Freeman.
But her breakthrough for women broadcasters should not be cause for complacency at the BBC. Broadcast magazine has monitored the use of female experts on BBC News on a monthly basis since the start of the year and found the ratio of male-female pundits plunged further in October from 9:1 to a shocking 13:1.
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