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The victims of phone hacking
Frogmarch 2002 - Whitby
tobyaw
According to news reports today, David Cameron has been accused of betraying the victims of phone hacking. In taking a principled stand against statutory regulation of the press in England, Cameron, like Alex Salmond has done in Scotland, is articulating a liberal position that I find very easy to agree with.

Many of the victims of the misbehaviour of the tabloid press have seen criminal cases develop from their stories. People have been jailed for phone hacking, and there are many pending criminal prosecutions. It is right that the victims have their opinions heard where a criminal act has occurred, and when it relates to the crime and the punishment for that crime.

But to be a victim of a specific criminal behaviour is a long way from making one an expert in the industry that encompasses the criminals. These victims — particularly the high profile media personalities — have their own agenda and are working with effective pressure groups to influence parliament. They cannot be expected to care about the impact that regulation may have on the newspaper industry, or to value traditional freedoms when they run counter to their immediate interests.

And I’m filled with the urge to stick my fingers in my ears and say “la la la” every time that Hugh Grant appears on the news.

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Thanks. This gave me the last little push I needed to go and sign the petition calling for the recommendations of the Leveson Report to be implemented in full.

A petition for a policy change is an anti-democratic device in a similar vein to a protest march; both provide an avenue for a minority with a strong opinion to try to define a news agenda and try to influence policy on issues where the majority of people often have no strong opinion. I’d prefer my democracy to work through elected representative who, hopefully, can gauge their electorate’s lack of interest in most political issues, and vote accordingly. Thankfully petitions and protest marches are pretty ineffective influencing tools, so no great damage can be done.

I would suggest that it is naive in the extreme to call for the Leveson Report to be implemented in full. While we obviously disagree on the headline issue of whether it is ever appropriate for government to have regulatory control over the press, there are various other aspects of Leveson that will be extremely contentious, across different political viewpoints. Example include the suggestion that Ofcom could be the backstop regulator, the changes to press/Police interactions and press/politician interactions, the toughening of data protection law, and the mechanisms by which publishers who don’t join the regulatory scheme are handled.

But the bigger questions are those that are skimmed over by Leveson. Do the proposals support or harm an industry that is in rapid and (probably) terminal decline? What impact will they have on the existing lack of profitability of quallity newspapers? How will they manage publications that exist both online and in paper form, or those that are online-only? And how will it cope with material aimed at a UK readership that is publishered outside of the UK?

A fundamental question is how Holyrood will handle the recommendations. How compatible will the future regularly regimes be in England and Scotland?

I disagree about the "anti-democratic" nature of those things. They're a way of increasing the visibility of a point of view. People are often fearful of change, and of standing out from the crowd. Making it obvious that there's a crowd to join gives such people greater confidence to express their real opinions.

Is that all sad and rather pathetic? Absolutely! Nonetheless, it's human nature and we have to work with it.

It's also an opportunity to get publicity for the arguments, so that more people may be convinced, which may be a little more to your taste.

You're probably right that petitions and protest marches tend to have little immediate effect (although there are exceptions, such as England's poll-tax riots, as opposed to the peaceful protests in Scotland that changed nothing). But longer term, they can build awareness and possibly help (indirectly, obviously) to change opinion.

I tend to see danger in anything that tries to subvert the apathy of the masses. The British electorate’s disinterest in most political issues serves us well by helping to maintain a long-term stability that is lacking in other countries.

This is facilitated by the structures of Westminster; it is relatively hard for a government to force legislation through parliament, but easy for a government to block or slow down legislation. Our system has structures in place to slow down or block new laws, which I see as a design feature.

Of course, this comes from a viewpoint that measures the effectiveness of government in terms of how little it does, and how small an impact it can have on the lives of its electorate.

Whereas I see effective government as improving the quality of life of its citizens, as broadly as possible but especially for the most vulnerable. If it has a small impact, it's failing. Which is why we seldom agree on these things :-)

Of course, some of that quality of life derives from freedom from government interference, so it's a balancing act.

Petitions and democracy

I like the approach used in some other places: Switzerland, California, various others.

A petition is a useful indicator of the strength of public opinion on an issue. Not, in itself, reason to *act* - but reason to investigate further. In those cases, the approach is that any issue reaching a certain number of petition signatures must then be put to a binding referendum, which of course delivers a much more useful indicator of democratic opinion on an issue: a bad idea with 100,000 vocal supporters still won't get anywhere that way.

I do wonder how many of the signatories to that petition have actually read all the 2,000-odd pages and fully considered the 92 policy recommendations they are demanding be enacted ... if any.

Part of the problem I have is that supporting statutory regulation means I have to trust the politicians and supporting beefed up self regulation means having to trust the press. At the risk of stating the obvious I don't trust either much. Both are capable of behaving ethically. Both fail to do so rather too often for my liking. I do think we need a strong press to help hold politicians to account. I also think the little guy (the ones who can't afford to hire Max Clifford) need some protection. I guess we are damned either way.

It is easy not to trust politician‘s motivations, particularly when they are driven by populist issues evangelised by tabloid newspapers. Likewise, those tabloids with large readerships are very aware of the influence they hold over our democracy; they speak to readers in a direct way that no politician can achieve, and can use their power to consider that they are above the law.

However, the industry is wider and more important than the powerful and misbehaving tabloids. We have to consider the loss-making quality press, the parlous state of much of the local and regional press, and then there are magazines and trade publications. There is a wide variety of ownerships and agendas, spread around the country and varying widely in influence and in outlook. Compare this to the limited number of elected representatives in our parliaments, often voting on party lines, or on agendas defined by the tabloid press.

If there were some way to regulate the tabloids while leaving the rest of the industry alone, I may have some sympathy for it, but I think a key issue behind any changes to press regulation should be to preserve the variety and independence of our smaller publishers.

The newspaper industry is structured in such a way that there is a lot of personal responsibility. Pieces are bylined, journalists can be held responsible for what they write, editors are responsible for what they publisher, and any could be sacked for professional or criminal failings. This is far cry from the wriggle room that politicians have when their failings are exposed. I’m pretty sure that the press, in general, are most trustworthy than politicians, and more deserving of our support. (Although I’m sure there are rats of reporters, and saintly members of parliament.)

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