The Blog

Freedom of Information: The British Press and the Royal Charter

There is a wonderfully funny scene in the film Groundhog Day. The main character - played with laconic, dead-pan charm by Bill Murray - has been condemned to live the same day over and over; to the point where he is bored beyond caring. Eventually he goes out and gets drunk, before driving through the town with a couple of buddies he has picked up along the way. As he is driving Murray's character delivers a rant on why we should all break the rules. 'It's the same thing your whole life', he says. 'Clean up your room. Stand up straight. Pick up your feet. Take it like a man. Be nice to your sister. Don't mix beer and wine, ever.' 'Oh yeah', he concludes with a flourish of bitter sarcasm - 'Don't drive on the railroad tracks...Well I am not going to play by their rules any longer!' In that moment he pulls the car onto a railway line. From the back seat comes a small terrified voice - 'But Phil, that's one rule I happen to agree with.'

This short skit comes to mind when one considers the yowls of outrage from Daily Mail supporters regarding the acrimonious response to the paper's pillaring of Ralph Miliband. One can almost hear them shriek with the same sarcastic disbelief - 'Oh yeah! And don't brand a deceased left-wing academic refugee as "evil" in order to anathematize the views of his son. Oh, and don't send your journalists out to infiltrate the funeral of the dead man's brother to try and scrape up dirt about him...Well I am not going to play by their rules any longer.' The logic is pure, simple and absurd. Any form of rule or regulation - however mild or sensible - constitutes a fundamental attack on one's freedom and provides the first step in the slide toward totalitarianism.

But most of us living in the real world recognise it is decent and sensible to suggest journalists shouldn't be allowed to smear people willy-nilly or infringe the privacy of bereaved families or do any of the sordid things which the Leveson inquiry was set up to address. It is reasonable to put in place a serious and effective set of measures which make sure papers which breach these standards are held to account. Or to put it in terms the Daily Mail would understand - it's just plain common sense. And yet, in a certain way, the Daily Mail have already been held to account. The rising temperature of public feeling, along with the mounting political pressure from both the opposition party and the government, meant that the paper was forced to apologise to Ed Miliband and publish his rejoinder.

But although watching the Mail squirm and contort in response to the backlash is both a duty and a privilege, it bears remembering their humiliation was only prompted by the fact that Ed Miliband is a powerful figure with the ability to mount a concentrated attack on their slimy manoeuvres. Miliband is in a position to defend both himself and his father. And in focusing on the Miliscandal there is always the danger of overlooking the people who are not so fortunate, and whose ultimate recourse is - more often than not - despair.

Consider the case of trans-gender teacher Lucy Meadows who committed suicide at a time when she had received a sustained media hounding, and had been described in print as 'not only trapped in the wrong body but ... in the wrong job'. One of the most controversial measures in the proposed Royal Charter is that it will allow members of the public any complaints they have against a particular newspaper to be subject to legal arbitration free of charge. Those press organisations which do not join the Charter would then be liable for all legal costs - whether they win or lose the particular case - and this has generated much brouhaha. But it is a fundamentally egalitarian measure because it helps equalise the playing field between individual citizens and the large, moneyed media corporations.

The increasingly hysterical set of voices raised against the charter argues that it will stifle press freedom and reduce the media to an arm of government propaganda. For them a true press 'is one that is free from government or political interference'. In actual fact, under the current charter, no working politician can be a member of the board of the self-regulator. But beyond this, the demand for a press which is free from any political interference whatsoever is something of a red-herring. It resembles the neo-liberal logic of the free marketeers who demand that the market remain free from state-interference. However these same ideologues lack any sort of consistency. For when the banks are on the verge of collapse, they suddenly realise - in and through their support of a state-sponsored bailout - just how vital governmental interference can be.

And a similar thing is true here. While unleashing a farrago of voices decrying state interference, many of the same papers have suggested that, in publishing the NSA revelations, the Guardian has 'with lethal irresponsibility, has crossed that line... between the civil liberties we treasure and the interests of national security.' In other words, the notion of a press free from all 'political interference' is one in which even its advocates can't truly sustain. They value 'interference' as long as it accords with their own political interests. In reality there never has been a press free from political interference. What the series of scandals in the run up to Leveson showed us - was that a press which lacked any genuine regulation was not at the same time free from political interference; rather the interference occurred in the manner in which powerful media heads and political leaders courted each other in a bid to allow their interests to better coincide. Rather than facilitate free expression, this lack of interference - subverted it.

And that is why we need an independent regulator which can act in the public interest. Hopefully it will go some way to prevent the tragic culmination of cases such as Lucy Meadows. For those are the kind of days none of us want to live again.