John Lloyd

A free press without total freedom

John Lloyd
Mar 19, 2013 21:52 UTC

Journalism gyrates dizzily between the dolorous grind of falling revenue and the Internet’s vast opportunities of a limitless knowledge and creation engine. On the revenue front, no news is good. The just-published Pew Center’s “State of the US News Media” opens with the bleak statement that “a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.” Not only, that is, is the trade shrinking, but those who once depended on its gatekeepers have found their own ways to visibility.

Journalists’ task, as large as any they have collectively faced in 400 years of their trade’s existence, is to find a way to continue the journalism that societies most need and citizens are least willing to pay for: detailed, skeptical, truthful, fair, investigatory writing and broadcasting. It’s a big ask. The British are in the process of not answering it. They are staging a sideshow: not an unimportant one, but in a minor key all the same.

Over the past two years, a series of alleged crimes – illegal interception of phone messages, bribery, blackmail, perverting the course of justice, theft – have been committed by journalists working for the British tabloids. The Leveson Inquiry, prompted by revelations of phone hacking, and subsequent police investigations have laid bare a shaming landscape of cruelty and criminality. Many politicians of all parties bowed before the perpetrators, adding to the shame.

Redress is planned. Over the past few days, the three main party leaders have agreed to a much stricter regime of press regulation. The political parties, sensing that the popular mood has been and may remain critical of the tabloids, have also agreed (it seems; the deal may still fall apart) to put their collective weight behind a regulator with the power to levy fines up to £1 million and to command prominent display for corrections. The tabloids, led by Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, the most popular daily in the land, cry tyranny. That cry is most eloquently uttered by Trevor Kavanagh, the paper’s veteran political columnist, who warned on Tuesday that “once politicians seize control of that voice [a free press], whatever their promises and assurances, there is nothing to stop them gagging it altogether.”

British tabloid journalism, which often shocks foreigners with its brutality, sees itself, in the minds of its editors and owners, as in the great line of British arguments for press freedom – John Milton’s Areopagitica; John Wilkes’ “seditious” defiance; the caustic cartoons of Hogarth and Rowlandson; John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”; George Orwell; and the tradition, in print and broadcast, of investigative journalism. 

Freedom isn’t ruining lives

John Lloyd
Dec 6, 2011 18:07 UTC

By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.

My Reuters colleague Jack Shafer wrote a powerful piece, giving two cheers for the tabloids. He took his text, as I did in a quite contrary piece, from the current Leveson Inquiry into British tabloid journalism, which has its roots in the uncovering of the massive interception of phone messages – “phone hacking” – at the News of the World, part of Rupert Murdoch’s British stable, now closed.

Columnists working on the same patch usually pass by on the other side of an argument with each other. But this argument is important to the profession of journalism, now in several sorts of trouble, and it is important to the public which journalism claims to inform. So I want to take public issue.

Jack quotes the legal writer Stephen Bates in the Journal of Media Law & Ethics as arguing that the “freedom of the press in Britain has been constricted” by judgments made in the past few years in favor of observing the privacy of those about whom journalists have written. Shafer and Bates agree that such judgments will deprive the British working class of its favored reading material, and will delight the elite, whose sins, of whatever kind, will be safe from the public scrutiny they should have. These assertions need examples, which Jack doesn’t give. Here are two:

A deserving press

John Lloyd
Dec 1, 2011 06:00 UTC

By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.

An inquiry under way in the Royal Courts of Justice London, just a few hundred yards from Fleet Street, once the heart of the British newspaper industry, is becoming — in the low key way in which the British like to think they always do things (but often don’t) — a global event. It is the consequence of a crisis, as inquiries frequently are. But it will have consequences of its own: one of these may be to redefine journalism for the 21st century.

In July, the forward march of Rupert Murdoch and his son James through the British media and political establishment was halted — cruelly, abruptly, with every sign of the chaos and clamor which his tabloids usually love, indeed often create. The efforts by his British newspaper subsidiary, News International, to lock in the narrative that phone hacking at the Sunday tabloid News of the World was the preserve of one “rogue” reporter in 2006 — Clive Goodman, the Royal Correspondent, who had paid for his sins with a short sharp prison sentence — fell apart. Like Marley’s ghost from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, the awful truth came through the door, dragging a clanking chain made up of mobile phones, mementos of the hackings into the private lives of this celebrity and that politician and, most horrible, of ordinary people, caught in some media storm, for a few days the biggest story in town, and thus regarded as fair game.

No escaping that. Politicians, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, beat their breasts and said they had been too servile to the man who had four of the most important newspapers in the land and controlled the largest share of the only major satellite broadcaster, now rivaling the BBC. No more kow-towing to the Murdochs. The Press Complaints Commission, which handles complaints against the press and had foolishly said that nothing was amiss at the News of the World, was for the chop. A Commission, with full powers to examine and propose, was set up, under the chairmanship of Lord Justice Leveson, a judge with a reputation for probity and profundity.