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Our news media desperately need reform. Wherever you look there are deep and damaging problems. For example:
- The BBC, by far our biggest and our most trusted news provider, is adrift and stumbling, under siege by vested interests, meddled with by government, subjected to relentless cuts and inevitably lacking in confidence.
- The national corporate press, largely in the hands of non-resident billionaires, pollutes our public sphere with lies and distortions, holding the country back by rendering rational policy-making all but impossible. At the same time it is internationally known for abusing innocent individuals with impunity.
- Regional and local news services, whether broadcast, in print and online, are under acute stress. Predatory corporations continue to asset-strip and close valued titles; local radio is shrinking and local innovators are starved of funds while “news deserts” are opening up across the country.
- Press “self-regulation” has failed again. The so-called Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is manifestly unable to uphold standards or to protect the public from abuses. Like its predecessors it has no teeth, so even on the rare occasions if finds fault with a big paper its opinion makes no difference.
Yes, there is some great journalism, but it cannot excuse or obscure the bad. The UK deserves better. If things are to change, politicians – and in particular Labour politicians – must be brave enough to face down the billionaires and bold enough to show the public the tremendous benefits of change.
The actual policies they need to include in their manifestos are not remotely radical. They might be described as sober, modest and even establishment in character. So what are they?
1. Labour should commit, now, to launching part two of the Leveson Inquiry on gaining power. If that sounds like something “old hat” or party political it’s not. Nor is it a narrow or limited measure, because it could have wide-ranging consequences, as we will see below.
2. Labour should promise to create an independent national body to support public interest journalism regionally, locally and nationally. This simple measure was recommended by the government’s own 2019 Cairncross Review and also again this year by the Commons DCMS Select Committee.
3. Labour should move decisively to give the BBC greater independence, not only in terms of public appointments at the top, but also in terms of its finances.
As we shall see, these policies would not only protect and enhance our democracy, in which independent journalism obviously plays a vital role, but they would also protect and enhance journalism itself. Let us look at them now in more detail.
Leveson 2 was to be the second phase of the Leveson Inquiry into the press, as ordered by Parliament in 2011 on the basis of cross-party agreement (including the Conservatives). The Conservatives cancelled it in 2018 (over Labour objections) but it should be relaunched as soon as there is a change of government.
The brief of Leveson part one, which took place in 2011-2, was chiefly to propose reform of press regulation, which everyone admitted had failed. Unfortunately the Conservatives, having backed the agreed changes, then quietly sabotaged them, putting us back where we started. Part two was meant to deal chiefly with criminality in the press (and the police), and that is still very much necessary, as the continuing hacking trials in the civil courts demonstrate.
But part two would inevitably do more than that. It would have to begin by reviewing events since 2012, which would be an opportunity for all parties to address the current crisis in the press, including the continuing failure of regulation, the role of non-resident billionaire proprietors, the extraordinarily low levels of public trust in the national press and the deep-seated problems of standards. If the original terms of reference are insufficiently broad to cover this, they should be amended.
In this way, Labour could place all these thorny issues before an impartial judge (who would presumably not now be Sir Brian Leveson since he has retired), and leave him or her to make considered recommendations, on the evidence, for what should be done. That in turn would make implementation of the recommendations much easier to defend when, as is all but inevitable whatever they may be, the corporate press objects to them.
Such an inquiry need not be long or expensive. Sir Brian Leveson took 18 months to hear evidence and deliver his report and the total cost was around £5 million. For obvious reasons, however, the inquiry should be launched very early in the new parliament.
A central recommendation of the Cairncross Review of the future of journalism, established by Matt Hancock when he was Media Secretary, was the creation of an Institute for Public Interest News, a public body independent of political control, tasked to protect and encourage journalism serving the public interest.
Again this was something the Conservatives refused to implement, even when the proposal was revived by the cross-party DCMS Select Committee. Their close friends in the corporate press feared that such a body would challenge their power.
What would an Institute do? As described by Cairncross, it would function like the Arts Council, acting as advocate for journalism while raising and disbursing money to support news provision where it has an important public function. Cairncross acknowledged what many have been slow to see: that news provision at all levels is too important to be left to the private sector.
An important beneficiary of the Institute, though not its only one, would be regional and local news provision, which is in desperate need of rescue. But there could also be big benefits in national news in the form of support for investigative reporting, court reporting and other public-interest activities.
And where would the institute find its money? That should be part of the challenge given to it by government. It might sensibly be given the initial task of creating and managing a relationship with the big tech companies. Meta, Google and others owe UK journalism money; the Institute could extract it and distribute it. Equally, the Institute would make the case for additional forms of state support for journalism – forms which do not privilege billionaires or give rise to perceptions of corruption or censorship.
Reform of the BBC
The BBC, which is in many ways the cultural engine of the country as well is its principal source of news, can and must be reinvigorated, and a key priority must be to remove the stigma and burden of political interference. This would not cost money and after the experiences of past few years would be popular with the public.
Labour should undertake to reform the process of top appointments to remove political influence. It is indefensible that individuals chosen by government ministers exercise oversight of journalists whose job is to report politics and challenge politicians. Not only is the BBC chair currently a political appointee but so are several of the trustees.
A genuinely independent and transparent process of appointment can easily be found and it needs to be introduced at the earliest opportunity not only at the BBC but also at Ofcom, which regulates broadcasting, including some BBC output.
Such a step would enhance the confidence and the journalistic integrity of the Corporation. For example, we might see it defining its own news agenda on the basis of the public interest, rather than sheepishly following the lead of the corporate press as it so often does at present.
But the BBC – and the public who rely on it so heavily – clearly need more. Its income needs to be protected – far from being expensive, it is by every possibly measure tremendous value – and ways must be found to ensure it is accountable to the public it serves without forcing it through the periodic political mangle that is the Charter Review. To repeat: party politicians must not be allowed to dominate the BBC and determine or influence its content.
A Better Country
These three measures require a bare minimum of political courage, indeed they are so modest and well-grounded it is hard to see how any reasonable person could object to them.
Leveson 2 was approved by all parties in Parliament in 2011 and was only cancelled in the shadiest of circumstances. It’s not in itself a decision in relation to these deep and lasting problems but it could bring about a fair and open exploration of possible solutions.
The Institute is an idea proposed by a Conservative government review body that included representatives of the press. It has been suggested again by a select committee that included Conservatives.
Making the BBC more independent is an obvious necessity after the scandalous appointments of obvious cronies and donors by recent Conservative governments – appointments which have damaged the BBC’s reputation nationally and internationally.
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If the measures themselves are modest and minimal, the potential benefits, both for the public and for journalism, are difficult to exaggerate. The public inquiry could offer ways to make the press more accountable without choking off its necessary freedoms, thus protecting the public from dishonesty and intrusion. It might also suggest how to tackle the dominance of overseas billionaires and it could resolve the problem of SLAPPs, or the legal bullying of investigative journalists by the rich and powerful.
The Institute could provide a new stimulus to struggling regional and local journalism, giving communities the information and the voice they often lack, while bringing support to public-interest journalism in all its forms, including for example investigative and court reporting. Greater independence for the BBC is bound to enhance the Corporation’s journalism.
What is the downside for Labour? Our corrupt national press will see all these as threats. The billionaires do not want to answer to a public inquiry, they do not want an independent public body supporting kinds of journalism they don’t own, and they do not want a stronger, freer BBC.
The inevitable consequence is that they will squeal, howl, lie and twist to the maximum, invoking supposed dangers to the ‘freedom of the press’, which of course they understand as meaning their freedom to do what they like no matter what the cost to the country or its citizens.
There is no reason why Labour should be afraid of that. These are – let’s say it again – extremely modest and tentative measures designed to address problems whose existence can’t be denied. If Labour cannot defend them in the face of the obvious abuse of power by an obviously corrupt vested interest, then there is no hope. All that’s required is the will.