by Brian Cathcart
So it has begun. With the big-name politicians drifting away from the Leveson inquiry and the hearings turning towards the technicalities of press regulation, the newspaper industry has finally grabbed its megaphone back and started bellowing out its message.
Everybody knows it is 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 endured the unfamiliar experience of being under scrutiny and 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 you will not be able to block out the howling fury of an industry that never accepted anything was 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 Milly Dowler’s phone – the introduction of a form of press regulation that acts in the public interest (rather than in the interests of editors and proprietors).
So a propaganda machine with few rivals in the world has begun roaring out its chosen slogans: there was only ever one rogue news organisation; 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 be insidious messages smearing and belittling critics and victims of the press, personalising the debate.
A glance at the papers tells the story. The Mail on Sunday led its front page with a loosely-sourced report that Lord Justice Leveson threatened to resign over criticism of his inquiry months ago by Michael Gove, the education secretary. This was used as an excuse to reprint Gove’s entire attack, and the next morning’s Mail followed up with: ‘Now MPs say Leveson is stifling free speech’.
In the Sunday Times, deputy editor Martin Ivens blithely asserted 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 foundering’. He doesn’t provide any evidence; it is just what he wants us to think, just as Matthew d’Ancona in the Telegraph wants us to think that ‘Leveson already feels like a requiem for another world’.
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 doctors, 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 to others 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 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 McCanns, 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 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.
Brian Cathcart is a founder of Hacked Off and teaches journalism at Kingston University London. He tweets at @BrianCathcart