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From The Socialist newspaper, 28 November 2012

Media, Murdoch and Leveson

Cameron, the Murdoch empire and the police have been part of a web of mutual support and corruption, photo Paul Mattsson

Cameron, the Murdoch empire and the police have been part of a web of mutual support and corruption, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

MPs' expenses, bankers' bonuses, corporate tax dodgers; this deep, long-term crisis of capitalism has brought with it a thorough-going crisis of legitimacy in capitalist institutions. The murky Murdochgate scandal implicated media bosses, political leaders and police tops and led to the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. The report from the first part of the Inquiry is due to be released on Thursday 29 November.

Judy Beishon, from the Socialist Party executive committee looks at the background to the Leveson Inquiry.

The 'Murdochgate' phone hacking scandal brought out into the public arena the huge power that the press barons wield - intruding into the lives of any of us; threatening politicians with unfavourable coverage if they dare to defy their interests; using the propaganda they want; and so the list goes on.

Public officials, including police and prison officers, have been bribed by newspaper journalists and a number of top Tories had columns in Murdoch's papers and journals, or book deals with his companies. Prime Minister David Cameron was very close to two of the News of the World editors, Tony Blair secretly became godfather of one of Murdoch's children; there was a vast web of links involving mutual favours among the rich, along with corruption and some criminality.

When the phone hacking revelations were escalating and his own links became clear, Cameron felt compelled to shunt the scandal of the News of the World's abuses into an inquiry led by a senior judge, Brian Leveson. The inquiry was subsequently widened to encompass other issues, including other newspapers, and links between the media and the police and politicians.

In the run-up to the inquiry's report, there has been debate and panic in the media and among politicians over what Leveson might recommend. The right-wing Daily Mail, owned by Viscount Rothermere (who has wealth of 760 million according to the Sunday Times Rich List), devoted ten of its pages on 16 November to point out that there were 'assessors' working with Leveson during his inquiry who support independent or statutory regulation of the press.

The Tory party is divided on the issue of regulation, with Cameron among those wanting no statutory regulation, while others are pushing for it.

Many of the politicians of all three main parties who are baying for blood in the form of curbs on the press are sanctimoniously arguing that it would be in the 'public interest'. Some of their critics, though, have accused them of being motivated by rage at having been exposed by the press for over-claiming expenses and other corruption or suspect behaviour. No doubt they also want to reduce adverse media coverage of their parties before elections.

The Tories who oppose regulation in the interests of a 'free press' do so in the knowledge that most of the media is owned by their big business friends, so it's better for them to leave it unhampered and exert influence over the media barons during dinners at elite clubs and other networking occasions than to risk unpredictable interference from a new body.

The present self-regulation of the press, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) - where newspaper editors make recommendations to each other - is clearly unable to stop unacceptable stories and methods. But does this mean that socialists should support 'independent' or statutory regulation?

Big business barons

Firstly we have to point out that the fundamental problem is not one of poor regulation, but is that the media is almost entirely owned by big business individuals and conglomerates who act in the interests of the capitalist class.

An apt adage is that the mainstream media tells part of the truth some of the time, but only so it can use lies and propaganda the rest of the time.

The BBC is publicly owned, but its trustees are appointed by the government and its senior managers are not far different from those in privately owned media firms in echoing the ideology and needs of the capitalist class.

Therefore its coverage and political line reflects the views of the government and establishment - not those of ordinary people. All the media's class bias, excesses, corruption, profiteering, lies, inaccuracy, poor quality, repetition and monopolisation will only be consigned to irrelevancy and small audiences when substantial media resources are made available for genuine public use, under public ownership, control and accountability.

Then we would start to have a media that can provide accurate information, quality investigative journalism, quality entertainment, and that can be accessed by minority points of view.

Trade unionists and socialists face a virtual blackout in today's media - prevented from putting forward a programme against cuts in services and other austerity measures.

This means there is no informed debate where all sides can be heard on these vital issues and others of crucial importance to working class people.

Leveson inquiry

It should be working class people who lead a democratically organised inquiry into phone hacking and other unacceptable practices by the press, not one appointed individual selected by the Tory prime minister - in this case Leveson. Representatives of media workers, media users and the trade unions should be fully involved in the inquiry, as well as the government.

Why should an unelected individual decide what is in the 'public interest'? Let us, the public, decide what's in our interest! A survey by the Carnegie Trust last month found that 63% of people think that they should have an input into setting future guidelines for the press.

Most people are disgusted by the crimes and privacy invasions of the press that were revealed during the phone hacking scandal and generally don't oppose the idea of denting the powers of the super-rich press barons to do what they like. Polls indicate that a majority of people support the idea of regulation of the press 'independent of the media and politicians'.

However, a recent poll by the Free Speech Network revealed that less than 1% of people think that regulation of the press is a priority - instead MPs should focus on issues such as improving the economy and health care they say. No doubt this partly stems from the fact that three out of every four people (according to a PBS UK survey) think that "media outlets sometimes, or frequently, lie to their audiences", and have probably concluded that tinkering with 'regulation' is a lost cause!

Maybe some of Leveson's recommendations could - if agreed by the government, which is far from certain - curtail some of the invasions of privacy and other excesses of the press and give people a better route than the PCC to challenge some of the lies that are printed and broadcast.

But socialists need to warn that if regulatory powers are placed in the hands of an appointed committee, it certainly won't be the views of the majority in society that will be the benchmark, but those of the handful on the committee - with their vested career interests and drawn mainly from the ranks of big business or capitalism's academia.

Why should they inflict their view of morals on the rest of us, and what's to stop them from protecting the interests of the rich and powerful by reducing the right of papers like the Socialist to expose corruption and exploitation?

Regulation by law

Any introduction of statutory underpinning of regulation carries even more dangers. This could involve state licensing of newspapers, charging them a fee for doing so, and punishing papers that break a set of rules. This could potentially be extended to websites, blogs and other online activity. Nowadays many ordinary people become 'reporters' when they are involved in events, or just during their normal routine.

The full force of the law is already brought down on some tweeters and bloggers who are deemed to have broken certain laws when expressing an opinion or joking; more heavy handed treatment could rain down if statutory media regulation is brought in.

In Hungary there were demonstrations in January 2011 against media legislation that imposed restrictions on all broadcast, print and internet media. The new law created heavy penalties for content deemed not in the 'public interest' or in keeping with 'common morality', 'public order' or 'balanced reporting'. An Amnesty International spokeswoman commented: "Facing the possibility of stringent fines or even closure, many journalists and editors are likely to choose the 'safe' option of modifying their content".

There have been many repressive laws and attacks on democratic rights and privacy already brought in by our Tory-Lib Dem government and Labour before it. At present the Communications Data Bill is being discussed in parliament that will allow the state to store the content of the website visits, emails, text messages and phone calls of all of us if it becomes law.

The 2011 Global Press Freedom Index placed the UK only in 26th place, showing that our 'free press' is not so free when compared to 25 countries that were judged to have greater press freedom. Plenty of laws already exist that make practises like phone hacking and invading people's medical records illegal, so there is a danger of a new regulatory body being introduced that further counters a 'free press' while being useless against future criminality. It's also the case that increased regulation couldn't cover online sources from abroad that everyone can access.

Socialists can't support any new 'privacy' or other laws that would allow the greed and unscrupulous methods of big business and capitalist politicians to go unreported and make it harder to expose their attacks on trade unionists, socialists, anti-cuts campaigners, benefit claimants and immigrants; and to put forward an alternative.

We need to campaign for a genuinely free media that is neither under big business control nor state control. In a socialist society it should be a means of communication for everyone, with its parameters discussed and decided democratically involving the widest possible number of people. Then it can help with planning what people need and want, and lay the basis for a massive flowering of communication, art and culture.

The Murdoch scandal

Who owns the press?

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