Familiar abuse of power as press fights regulation

Rupert Murdoch and other media moguls have had to endure the unfamiliar experience of being under scrutiny.

Story highlights

  • As Leveson Inquiry continues, newspapers resume familiar message, says Brian Cathcart
  • Cathcart: Media repeats only one rogue news organization; freedom of expression in peril
  • Press that so readily dishes out bitter medicine can never, ever take it, media professor adds
  • But now, he argues, megaphone no longer so loud and there are other media outlets

So it begins. As the big-name politicians drift away from Britain's Leveson inquiry into the media's conduct and the hearings turn towards the technicalities of press regulation, the newspaper industry has grabbed its megaphone and started bellowing out its message.

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As we all know, it is almost impossible to argue with a man who has a megaphone, and the papers have bitterly resented the way that the inquiry took theirs away. For months they have had to endure the unfamiliar experience of being under scrutiny and being unable to drown out the voices they didn't want the public to hear.

But that period is ending and, cover your ears as you may, from now on if you are in Britain you will not be able to block out the howling fury of an industry that has never accepted that anything was ever wrong with the way it operated, and which will now vent its sense of injustice at maximum volume.

The aim is to prevent what most people thought inevitable after last year's revelations about the hacking of murdered teenager Milly Dowler's phone -- the introduction of some form of press regulation that acts in the public interest (rather than in the interests of editors and proprietors).

Brian Cathcart

A propaganda machine with few rivals in the world has begun roaring out its chosen slogans: there was only ever one rogue news organization; the politicians are out to gag us; freedom of expression is in peril; Leveson is a bumbling fool; we are your heroes and not your villains. There will also, no doubt, be more insidious messages, smearing and belittling critics and victims of the press and personalizing the debate.

A glance at the British papers tells the story. The Mail on Sunday leads its front page with a report (unsupported by any quotation from the judge himself) that Lord Justice Leveson threatened to resign over an attack on his inquiry months ago by Education Secretary Michael Gove. This is used as an excuse to reprint Gove's entire attack, and to carry a commentary beneath a headline suggesting that the judge can't see the "real lesson" from his own inquiry.

In the Sunday Times, Deputy Editor Martin Ivens blithely asserts that the idea of giving press regulation some kind of underpinning in law (so that it can compel papers to participate and pay fines if necessary) "is floundering." He doesn't provide any evidence of this; it is just what he and his industry want us to think.

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In the Observer Peter Preston, the former Guardian editor who is becoming the respectable face of Operation Megaphone, tells us that if all previous efforts to make the press accountable have failed, it must be for some good reason. And, to boot, he repeats the line that Leveson doesn't know what he is doing.

What is going on here? An old and familiar abuse of power. When the first Royal Commission on the Press reported in 1949, demanding that the industry take some responsibility for itself by setting up a press council, the Daily Mail shamelessly led its front page with the words: "The Press Vindicated."

The papers all used the megaphone then, as they did in 1962, 1977, 1990, 1993 and on every other occasion that any attempt was made to tackle press abuses. And when the hacking scandal appeared in 2009, what did they do? They simply turned the megaphones off and by a conspiracy of silence tried to hide the whole thing from the public. And yet these same editors have the nerve to lecture about freedom of expression.

What must it feel like to watch this if you belong to one of those institutions, industries or professions that the papers have vilified in print for their failures and demanded, self-righteously, to see reformed? How do the social workers, the hospital staff, the police, the teachers, the railway workers, the prison and immigration officials -- and yes, the bankers and MPs -- feel about the hypocrisy of a press that so readily dishes out bitter medicine but can never, ever take it?

For a few months the papers did not have their bullying power. They knew they had to lie low after the Dowler case and they were aware that if they got up to their old tricks they would be exposed on the Leveson stage. But they never hid their loathing for the proceedings -- you could see it in the faces of the editors as they gave evidence -- and more importantly they never showed a hint of understanding for why they were there.

No editor or proprietor did more than pay lip service to the need for change, though they shook their heads in dutiful horror at the stories of the Dowlers, the parents of missing child Madeline McCanns, wrongly accused murder suspect Christopher Jefferies and others. They promised better regulation, but not for one moment did they concede that it might be regulation in the public interest, rather than in their own interests.

Two years ago the same people all paraded before the House of Commons media select committee, swearing on their mother's graves that the Press Complaints Commission was a fine, powerful body of whose rulings they all lived in terror and which was relentlessly driving press standards ever higher.

Today there is nobody, not even the chair of the PCC himself, who would make such a pretence. And yet the editors will now shout into their megaphone -- as they did in 1949, 1962, 1977, 1990, 1993 and on all those other occasions: leave it to us and we will fix it.

And if we argue? If we want to say that we are not mugs and we do not intend to fall for their lies again? Will we simply be drowned out?

In one important way, 2012 is different. The megaphone is no longer quite so loud and there are other ways for arguments to travel, such as the one you are reading now. Civil society has engaged with the Leveson process and there are at least some politicians with the nerve for the fight. We do not have to let them swamp us with their self-serving noise.

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