Fanatical libertarians are feverish and hallucinating as they await Lord Leveson’s report on Thursday. Some inquiry team members have been branded dangerous lefties and the nation is warned about ominous state censorship. A large newspaper advert, paid for by a free speech network, which has menacing photos of Mugabe, Assad, Putin and Castro presses that fear. As it happens I believe this whipped-up paranoia is bunkum and that some kind of statutory underpinning is essential for any future press regulatory body.
We heard about victims of malpractice, including Millie Dowler and Christopher Jefferies – an innocent man monstered by sensationalist British newspapers after the murder of Joanna Yeates in Bristol. After that we journalists can’t demand business as usual any more than bankers and MPs could after their scandals were blown out of secret chambers by, um, newspapers. That said, I too was hacked off by the Leveson proceedings because they kept within such guarded perimeters. At no point was any attention diverted to the hideous way some newspapers relentlessly demonise immigrants, refugees and blameless Muslims often by inventing or exaggerating stories.
Hugh Grant, Charlotte Church and Steve Coogan will get over the intrusions into their lives, but not the families of asylum seekers whose windows are broken and kids beaten up after newspapers publish their supposedly lavish lifestyles on benefits. Or all those young black men who never get job interviews because they are all thought to be gang members. Or the young, pregnant Muslim medical student who is too frightened to go out because neighbours shout “terrorist bitch” when she does because a journalist claimed the estate was full of Bin Laden sympathisers. They have no redress, no recourse to expensive lawyers, and nobody cares about that or them.
I went to see the play Enquirer recently, a brilliant enactment of moral degeneracy within the press. It was powerful, edgy and uncomfortable because all the words were real, mouthed by journalists during 60 interviews. But again, white professionals spoke with intense feeling about their industry, knew what was wrong and what was right, and not one seemed concerned about race in the press. Senior non-white journalists were not interviewed, and two black journalists who were, chose to remain anonymous. Is it a conspiracy? Is it a cock-up? Neither. It’s just how newspaper journalism excludes our concerns and lives – with some truly honourable exceptions.
The biggest, gravest investigation of newspaper malpractice has reinforced that message. OK so it wasn’t the panel’s remit. But somehow, sexism in the print sector did slip into the sombre inquiry room and a good thing too. A coalition of women’s organisations has analysed articles and images and warned this weekend that the widespread press objectification of women could glamorise rape.
With race and ethnicity, anti-foreign attitudes propagated by the red tops have become normative. They stopped this compulsive disparagement during the Olympics. But it’s all back, with a vengeance. When black and Asian people do wrong, good journalism has to report their misdemeanours, without fear or favour. I have written about British Pakistani paedophile rings, and black drug dealers in certain localities. But asylum seekers are usually cast as an enemy just because they made perilous journeys to seek our compassion, and hatred against migrants is encouraged because they work hard for low pay. It’s not fair and not right.
Way back in 1992, Leon Wieseltier, then the literary editor of the American publication The New Republic, wrote a scathing attack on two esteemed writers, poet Stephen Spender and ex-editor of The Telegraph, Charles Moore, who in The Spectator, had allegedly depicted immigrants as a threat to democracy: “Democracy is not threatened by strangers, it is threatened by the refusal to accept strangers and to treat them fairly.” Twenty years on, such demonisation of the “outsider” has become almost a norm. Research by reputable academics repeatedly authenticates these press injustices. Those of us who object to these practices are severely chastised for not being “grateful”. Sorry, we never consented to this gagging and masochism, trendy though that is these days.
All around Britain young people yearn to be journalists, not bloggers, not attention snatching tweeters, not even glam TV presenters. I know this because I am frequently invited to speak to media students at universities, a good number of them passionate about newspapers and bursting with ambitions. I was like them once.
My father, though a hopeless husband and parent, avidly bought and read newspapers even when there was no money for food. He passed the enthusiasm to me, his only gift. He said newspapers and books could change and challenge everything, even what God had planned for his world. What he didn’t tell me was that journalists and editors could create alternative realities where lies flourish and proliferate and truths are laid low.
Black and Asian Britons and other migrants, victimised so long by the press, are unimpressed by its special pleading and moral claims and have no faith in Leveson either. They will continue to be grossly misrepresented by our glorious press, and will have to put up and shut up.