Leveson hearings: can a ‘blind and unreasoning’ or partisan press censoring citizen-journalists be good for democracy?

'Censor' was a Roman invention, but 'censorship' was virtually co-invented with the Gutenberg press -- Photograph by Amita Chatterjee

[ Addendum, 23 February:

Although The Guardian has unquestionably deleted courteous posts about proposals for press reform and media evolution from the Comment-is-free section of its site, as recorded on this blog on 7 November and 15 November, I might owe that newspaper an apology for suggesting in the entry below that its moderators broke links to post-gutenberg.com posted on its site in January. Please see the footnote** for details.  ]

A remarkable statement went unnoticed by the few commentators on a morning of superb theatre at the Leveson hearings on press practices, culture and ethics in Britain on 31 January.

As noted earlier on this blog, press coverage of the Leveson Inquiry has been scant. It has focused on tabloid phone-hacking and emphasised paeans to press freedom by well-known witnesses, but under-reported criticism of the media (for instance, the excoriating but mostly well-founded testimony of the former journalist and prime ministerial communications adviser Alastair Campbell.)

Giving evidence last week, Christopher Meyer, the former chairman of the Press Complaints Commission – a body roundly criticised for being too close to newspaper editors to handle accusations against them objectively — said in a fleeting aside that the press is free to be partisan in a democracy. He said that as if stating a self-evident truth, accepted as such. I could not find any record of his remark in the transcript of the proceedings, but there was this exchange between the ex-chairman and his surgically incisive interrogator, Robert Jay QC.

Q: … I think the point you’re making there is that the press is free to comment and be partisan and it’s not the role of the PCC in a democracy to seek to curb that democratic activity?

A:  Yeah, that’s fair enough.

That could stand as a marker for the extent of the shift from the last century’s ideal of a neutral press to one in which the media openly take sides – or, as The Economist put it last July, are becoming ‘more opinionated, polarised and partisan’.  Not the faintest note of doubt intruded on the former PCC chairman’s declaration or confirmation of his position on partisanship, even though media bias is not what the public wants, if we can take as representative the 73 per cent of 2,700-odd Economist readers who have so far voted ‘yes’ in answer to the question, ‘Should news organisations always remain impartial?’. Bias has rightly been worrying experts like this political scientist, who asked in 2010 on ‘a plain blog about politics‘:

Will we have a robust, vigorous, and almost completely partisan press?  Will there still be a place for neutrality?  How will this play out for state and local politics?  What kinds of norms will the partisan press develop?

Some of us who have noticed the British and American press grow more aggressively one-sided in recent years cannot help wondering whether that has meant getting fewer of the objective reports and facts that a democracy needs to make good decisions about policies and politicians.

Partisanship is disturbing in itself, when you consider the dictionary definition of ‘partisan’ as ‘adherent, esp. a blind or unreasoning adherent’ (Chambers, 2006).  How can it be consistent with this classic list of guidelines for journalists doing their ‘duty of providing the people with the information they need to be free and self-governing’ – from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism:

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.

2. Its first loyalty is to the citizens.

3. Its essence is discipline of verification.

4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.

6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.

7. It must strive to make the significant interesting, and relevant.

8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.

9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

Some of us have noticed ways in which partisan has begun to mean punitive – as in censoring healthy disagreement and opposition.

If we accept that a newspaper has the right to push a particular agenda at us, does that give it the right to stifle dissent about that agenda – from, for instance, citizen journalists, which all of us become when we react to articles in the comments sections of the online press? Moderators at online sites attached to famously liberal and left-wing mastheads unhesitatingly delete comments that challenge the biases of those newspapers, even when phrased cautiously and politely. (See ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?’)

There is proof that I am not alone in wondering about this in the Wikipedia entry for ‘Media democracy’ – a concept that elicited a curious response from an editor at the New York Times, mentioned in this spot last month.

The concept of “democratizing the media” has no real meaning within the terms of political discourse in Western society. In fact, the phrase has a paradoxical or even vaguely subversive ring to it. Citizen participation would be considered an infringement on freedom of the press, a blow struck against the independence of the media that would distort the mission they have undertaken to inform the public without fear or favor… this is because the general public must be reduced to its traditional apathy and obedience, and frightened away from the arena of political debate and action.

Addressing the Alpach Technology Forum in Germany last August, William Dutton, the outgoing director of the Oxford Internet Institute, identified ‘Journalists and the Mass Media – imitating, co-opting, competing,’ as one collective enemy of  the 5th Estate, which includes citizen-journalists. (See ‘The Future of the Internet for Networked Individuals of the Fifth Estate’.)

If not for Justice Leveson and his supremely necessary investigation, I might have been depressed by the results that came up when I typed into search boxes the once-hallowed phrase, ‘Without fear or favour’. It encapsulated a consensus among the most admirable practitioners of journalism about the importance of rising above partisanship.  When I used the English spelling of the word ‘favour’, the first Google results page brought up scarcely any links to sites unconnected with Africa, New Zealand, Australia or Malaysia. With American spelling, dropping the ‘u’, the first page of findings did supply links to sites related to the U. S., but too few of them led to anyone expressing the outrage about the increasingly hollow sound of those words that I had hoped to see.

A press that no longer sees neutrality as essential to democracy in the west would explain why some of us have been given our first visceral impressions of what samizdat resistance under the old Soviet Union felt like, as commenters repeatedly censored – improbably enough – by The Guardian, a standard-bearer for liberalism.

Since I published these posts deleted by that paper on this blog on 7 November and 15 November, interference with my comments appears to have turned covert.

In the last two weeks, every link to this site posted in comments there has been broken either by Guardian moderators or by some profoundly mysterious line of rogue code in the newspaper’s software. (Anyone curious enough to run a paranoia test can search on  ‘CheryllBarron’ beneath Peter Guillam’s contribution, ‘The capitalism debate is anaemic – it must dig deeper‘.  Compare the results from pasting the URLs I have posted there into your own browser with clicking on the same URLs on the Guardian page – which only leads to variations of ‘Oops! Page not  found’.)

‘Censor’ is a word that came to us from the Roman Empire – although it mainly alluded to a lofty being entrusted with conducting the census and guarding public morality. ‘Censorship’ was a novelty that the Gutenberg press spawned. As the historian John Hale has explained,

It was in Germany, where printing was pioneered, that censorship was first introduced. In 1475 the University of Cologne, jealous of the freelance expression of ideas, obtained from the Pope the right to grant licences for the publication of books and to punish those who published or read unauthorized ones.

[…]

By [1515] the flood of books and the realization that a new, less instructed and more excitable audience for them was being reached, moved a number of European secular authorities to insist on manuscripts being submitted to them before printing.

Who could have predicted a punitive partisan press being allowed – so far – to get away with silencing democratic opposition in our own media revolution, five centuries later?

______________________

** Links to post-gutenberg.com yielding a ‘not found’ notice

Since I reported on what appeared to be a novel form of censorship, I have discovered the identical problem on this WordPress site. Something has been – inconsistently – inserting an extra ‘http’into texts of mine where there should be only one in each URL, with results like this (the unwanted duplicate is highlighted in bold):

‘<a href=”http://http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/”><span style=”text-decoration: underline;”>

This curious repetition disables the link. A technical support specialist at WordPress has so far been unable to trace the trouble to its source – or explain it.

Until the investigation is concluded, I feel I owe The Guardian the benefit of the doubt – and an apology for an unjust accusation.

I hope to know more soon.

Stieg Larsson, 5th Estate forerunner, marginalised as a media critic

As a storytelling campaigner, Stieg Larsson puts Ayn Rand in the shade. Never mind that there was a time when only the Bible outsold her Atlas Shrugged. Though their diametrically opposite political affiliations would have made them furious about being mentioned in the same sentence, I suspect that they would have been equally enthusiastic about the possibilities of post-print publishing. Would they have had an easier time with the layout software I am still learning to use? Reader: please be patient with my M. C. Escher-esque menus and attempts at tables of contents as I await answers from helpers.

We of the 4th Estate, offspring of the Gutenberg press, are certainly using the internet. Nearly every print newspaper has a web site. But we are doing our best to downplay the shift in power to our successors in the 5th Estate, when we should – surely – be reorienting publishing to reflect it, to the last serif and pixel.

Networked individuals are becoming an independent source of social and political accountability – a Fifth Estate […]. The crowd has become an independent power – even independent from the press.

Until last month’s interview in Spiegel Online, practically no ranking newspaper or magazine had ever mentioned the 5th Estate or William Dutton, the founding director of the Oxford Internet Institute*, which has a celebration planned for its tenth birthday later this month. Those are his words – published in a 2007 paper – I have quoted in that clip. Although his term for the power shift is short, snappy and a perfect encapsulation of the internet’s implications for journalism and publishing, the mainstream media persist in referring instead to the rise of ‘the blogosphere’ – with its connotations of unwashed and unlettered barbarians at the gate. That is a remarkable mischaracterisation, considering that the most distinguished professionals who care about social justice – and many of those who do not – are present somewhere on the net.

4th Estate faces are also being averted from the most important reason why 50 million readers around the world have made Stieg Larsson and his Millennium Trilogy a posthumous publishing sensation. He was writing closely fact-based social and political criticism – set in Sweden, but applicable everywhere – cleverly disguised as Scandinavian-noir thrillers.

Last year, in a New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani did briefly mention that Mikael Blomkvist, the hero of the series, is driven by ‘a moral imperative […] to slash away at the tentacles of governmental, corporate and judicial corruption that he sees strangling the country.’ But most of her paragraphs focused on a single character, the beguiling, computer-hacking vigilante and anti-heroine, Lisbeth Salander. Just as I was, in my initial reaction to Larsson’s saga, Tim Parks – writing in the New York Review of Books in June – was most struck by its implications for sexual politics. Only near the end of his essay, almost as an afterthought, does he say that it is ‘the ingenuousness and sincerity of Larsson’s engagement with good and evil that give the trilogy its power to attract so many millions of people.’

Respected old media commentators have chosen to overlook what Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson’s partner for three decades, points out in Stieg and Me:

The Millennium Trilogy accuses the media of gradually abdicating their responsibilities towards society throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Investigative journalists had turned away from social problems, and financial journalists treated CEOs like rock stars …

That was the Larsson message that most impressed me, because of events dominating the news, when – with a belatedness that would do Rip van Winkle credit – I finally discovered who he was. In July, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had caught my eye when I raced into my library to find something to listen to on a car journey of seven hundred miles. I was stunned by the parallels between the targets of his wrath and the lesson for us all at the heart of the London phone hacking scandal: you cannot be paranoid enough about the abuse of power at the top. As William Dutton would put it to Spiegel, in discussing the internet’s usefulness for initiating political movements,

We can see that, for example, in the scandal over Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World — which is absolutely stunning stuff. There had been rumors for years over people hacking into private voicemail, but no one had seriously examined the issue. The media had become too entangled with politicians…

A few days earlier, David Carr concluded a stirring NYT column on the subject by observing that, on the net,

… social media had roamed wild and free across the story, punching a hole in the tiny clubhouse that had been running the country. Democracy […] has broken out in Britain.

A long hop and skip from Fleet Street, Larsson’s career and his stories add up to recursive confirmation of the 5th Estate’s power to give a voice to those shut out by its predecessor; people who might have something important to tell us.

Denied a place in a Swedish journalism school, according to two chroniclers of his career, he was forced to enter publishing as ‘a graphic designer’. Eva Gabrielsson says that even after he was allowed to make journalistic contributions at the Swedish news agency that employed him for twenty years, he was repeatedly rejected as a fully-fledged journalist with the explanation that ‘Stieg Larsson cannot write’. She hints that his refusal to give up came from his identification with the grandparents with whom he spent his early childhood, who did not meekly accept being marginalised as poor rural folk.

He co-founded Expo, an activist magazine that hobbled along on a shoestring budget, to get the stories he thought important into the world. Though major media – certainly in the English-speaking world – have failed to react to what he revealed about their failings, then and now, his books have let him say what he felt needed saying without their help.

Larsson died of brutal overwork that had led him to neglect his health, and perhaps of the exhaustion peculiar to lonely, extended struggles for causes with insufficient moral or financial support.

Surely the vast audience his work found after his death can – and must – help to ease the path of excluded writers like him.

Restructuring media for the 5th estate would be a good start. My own tentative proposal for an experiment in re-arranging media ownership was written after a rare Whitehall mandarin with a practical streak judged the scheme workable – if a bit outlandish, at first glance – and sent me to the Oxford Internet Institute. He guessed – correctly – that I would find sympathetic listeners in that spot. You can read, at no cost, not just about the scheme, but frank commentaries on it from four publishing luminaries here, as well as a summary, on this very site.

The proposal is crying out for help with refining its details. Reports from readers of anything closely resembling it being tried out – or that have been attempted elsewhere – will also be welcome. Messages to postgutenberg@gmail.com, please.

Cheryll Barron

* … admittedly, one reason for this failure could be summed up in the reaction to news of the OII’s existence from an American friend who was a student at Magdalen in the 1980s: ‘Is there really an Oxford Internet Institute? They were still working on plumbing and electricity when last I checked.’ To which the director’s swift response – after I pasted the remark into a note to him – was: ‘Thanks, but we were the first university with a printing press.’