HOW THINGS HAVE CHANGED, HOW THINGS REMAIN THE SAME

‘Freedom and fetters in new media blueprint’ was the first of a two-part contribution on the ‘The Case for Change’ which appeared in UK Press Gazette, 3 November 1986.

When Princess Anne complains about Press harassment and falling journalistic standards, it is news for a day.

The Press listens politely, casts sagely about for a rival to blame, then sets off in hot pursuit of another Royal scoop: The Sunday Times constructing a constitutional crisis to boost circulation, Sunday Sport and others inventing salacious headlines to sell another, old, non-story.

When a bereaved woman complains that an inaccurate report in a local paper about the death of her lover may adversely affect her legitimate right to supplementary benefits for their child, she can be fobbed off with the line that “normally agency copy is very reliable but perhaps a reporter misunderstood a tiny detail”. She merits neither an apology nor a correction.

The Press is safe in the knowledge that there is little either complainant can do to alter its practices – they are as powerless to intervene effectively as the Press Council or the Government of the day.

The Government of these days has little to fear from the Press, even if Fleet Street is wearying of its long honeymoon with Mrs Thatcher. Her continuation in office was backed by 12 out of 18 national newspapers at the last election.

Mrs Thatcher has presided over an astonishing concentration of press ownership. Despite the alleged safeguard of independent directors (irrelevant) and Fair Trading legislation (ignored), five millionaires between them now control 84% of our daily news consumption and 96% of our Sundays.

Their international business interests extend from oil wells, mining and manufacture to travel, transport and tourism. Perhaps most significantly they are also heavily engaged in other aspects of the media – cable, publishing, radio, satellites, telecommunications and television. The First Law of Modern Media appear to be that as the frontiers of communication expand, they must also contract.

While Leader-writers spill crocodile tears over the loss of British assets to overseas concerns, do they weep for British democracy as its watchdogs become the playthings of multi-national conglomerate? Or do they stifle a grin at the irony of it all as they collect a pay cheque drawn on a Liechtenstein account?

Journalists on Maxwell’s Mirror, Lonrho’s Observer and Today or Murdoch’s Wapping stable do not need razor wire, surveillance cameras and colour-coded security cards to remind them that certain stories are unlikely to appear when the bosses’ business interests are so extensive.

Nor is it to the credit of British journalism that so many leading practitioners have accepted honours doled out by Downing Street for services rendered since the Tories came to power in 1979.

But Mrs Thatcher’s seal of approval is no guarantee that the rest of us are getting the Press we deserve – especially if we are black or gay or a member of the majority gender. 

I wonder why it is that market research suggests that women aren’t the main buyers of newspapers. Would men be if they found themselves constantly derided, stripped naked, or consigned to the role of passive onlooker or ferocious harridan?

And how must have it have felt to have been black in Handsworth last summer after several papers announced that a ‘West Indian gang’ of between 10 and 100 youths had beaten and burned to death two Asian brothers in their sub-post office? The men had not been beaten, it turned out, and it was white youths who were subsequently charged with the killing. There were no banner headline retractions of so gross a misrepresentation, and few papers even bothered to give the facts much prominence. 

When the Press discovered AIDS, readers might have been forgiven for thinking that homosexuality had become a fatal infectious disease from the coverage given to a serious public health hazard with no sexual preferences.

To be a black woman, gay and opposed to nuclear weapons, is somehow the ultimate crime to the hacks who serve us our diet of daily news. If you were disabled too and lived in certain parts of London during the last days fo the GLC (Greater London Council) – your chances of a fair hearing, let alone sympathetic coverage, were as remote as the possibility of Rupert Murdoch reinstating the 5,500 (staff sacked when he moved his papers to Wapping) with full back pay.

I have only one question – why?

Perhaps it’s because there are so few women/black/gay/disabled journalists working on our national papers. Perhaps because one of the main functions of the British Press is to supply their readers with scapegoats. Surely not because our busy proprietors have issued explicit instructions that non-white, non-heterosexual, non-male, non-able-bodied people must be scorned daily in the pages of their publications.

It has always been in fashion, thank goodness, to present the case against the Press, but woe betide anyone who comes up with concrete proposals for reform.

Whatever happened to the four post-war Royal Commissions on the Press? They died a death and suffer resurrection every righteous study of the media. Was this another snub to Buck House from the republicans of Fleet Street, or was the legislature reined in by the Press barons and reminded of the Second Law of Modern Media – that the pen is mightier than a sword for power-brokers.

The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF), a festering rag-bag of left-wing media freaks and failed fat-cats in tabloid terminology, has had the temerity to produce its own Manifesto for the Media.

It proposes restrictions on the number of titles owned by any individual or corporation; a levy on advertising revenue and/or profits to finance a more diverse range of publications through Media Enterprise Boards; the introduction of French-style distribution laws to guarantee display for all legitimate publications; a statutory Right of Reply, and internal controls to govern journalistic standards; positive action to improve representation, in terms of image and employment, for groups currently discriminated against; and workers’ participation in the management of national newspapers. Journalists’ rights to work free from hindrances are upheld, along with demands for Freedom of Information laws and the repeal of Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act.

Unveiled at the TUC, the Media Manifesto is a consultative document aimed at encouraging people to consider their (lack of) democratic rights in respect of the media. It went  down surprisingly well with delegates at the Green Party conference, the Liberal Assembly and, more predictably, among Labour supporters (at the Party conference) in Blackpool. The SDP (Social Democratic Party) has already announced its plans for a unified Ministry covering the press, broadcasting and the arts, another of the Media Manifesto proposals.

It is a measure of the low esteem in which journalists are held – and the anxiety that too much power is now concentrated in too few hands – that such a document has caught the imagination of so diverse a range of political activists.

An initial print run of 50,000 copies has had to be trebled to meet demand and the Campaign is determined to make the media an issue at the next General Election, the media permitting of course.

The Manifesto marks the culmination of seven years off campaigning on ethical and industrial issues, primarily within the labour movement. More recently the CPBF has broadened is base and its horizons and begun to tackle the political and industrial implications of the merging communications technologies. 

Two of the last titles from ill-fated publisher Pluto Press provide much of the evidence and main arguments behind the manifesto (Bending Reality – the State of the Media, edited by James Curran and Jake Ecclestone, and Mark Hollingsworth’s The Press and Political Dissent – a Question of Censorship).

For some years the Campaign has found a ready market for its own booklets and videos, not least among teachers of media studies, and community organisations.

Inevitably the manifest has been largely ignored by the Press. That is a pity, because it has been the smugness of journalists and proprietors alike that have convinced more and more readers, and non-readers, that the Third Law of Modern media is – you get closer to the truth by believing the exact opposite of what appears in the Press.

Declaration of interest: I was the longest serving member of the CPBF National Council, and editor of its journal Free Press from 1983-1986

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