The press is telling hair-raising porkies about ♯Leveson: true or false? A media scholar settles the question

Adaptation of photograph by MIL22 -- postgutenberg@gmail.com

In his popemobile, Pope Benedict XVI, whose church once held the reins of ‘mass media’
— adaptation of a photograph by MIL22

@5th, a stimulating visitor to this site with a particular interest in open-access online education, said in a comment on a recent ♯Leveson post here:

[A]s long as the press establishment is tightly connected to politics and politicians it seems rather pointless to regulate it by political means. … I think you are quite right that it’s up to all of us to hold the press accountable, but it’s hard to see how this change will come about. Traditional newspapers (including their online editions) have a tremendous advantage in that they are already popular, and their popularity leads to a kind of positive feedback process where popularity generates popularity. It’s convenient for people to read what everybody else reads (and links to!). … I think it’s hard for citizen-journalists to really reach out to the public in part because […] they are simply scattered all over the web.

The essence of post-Gutenberg’s reply to 5th is: indeed, the famous names in print are still powerful. They could be for a long time, yet. But in diving into any news that matters to us, we now spend only as much time with them as we do on sites that did not exist ten years ago – and we use these new sources to check the truthfulness of what the papers say, and neutralise their biases. We are sure that we are not alone in this attention shift. Already, the key to finding the most reliable and enlightening information – and the right people to discuss it with – is using search engines well. These tools get cleverer by the week (never mind if Google’s picture-indexer often attaches to results for this site a sultry, dark-eyed blonde we regret we do not know).

On some days we, too, feel pessimistic about things changing too slowly – but change they will. On The Atlantic’s blog the other day, the headline for an entertaining – and accurate — post by Rebecca Rosen about the imminent departure of Pope Benedict XVI was, ‘The Last Time a Pope Resigned, Mass Media Was Called … Mass’.

Her point was that for much of Europe in the Middle Ages, the chief – and virtually, only – authoritative source of news about the wider world was the Catholic Church.

Then that was all turned upside-down. It was, of course, the Gutenberg press making it so easy for dissenters to disseminate texts exposing the Church’s lies and disinformation that broke religion’s monopoly on knowledge and learning.

Okay, we will concede that the Catholic Church still has over a billion adherents. To this day, the resignation of a pope is as liable to create a tweet storm as to sprout headlines wherever people read newspapers. But in its original European homeland, it has lost so much of its sway and credibility that less than half of all the world’s Catholics live there. The next leader of the Vatican could be Latin American or African – and arguably, should.

Memories of this church’s corrupt ancient past passed down from generation to generation, in Europe, have something to do with European disenchantment.

What we have been wondering lately is, … will the deliberate warping of the truth about the misuse of power by today’s print media be just as famous, in retellings of its story a hundred years from now?

With the kind permission of INFORRM, we are re-posting below the first part of a meticulous analysis of the scale of that distortion by Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism at London’s Kingston University, and the director of Hacked Off. We urge you to follow the link beneath our extract and read on.

Leveson: The Latest Press Disinformation Campaign

Brian Cathcart

Three weeks ago the great former Sunday Times editor Sir Harry Evans accused the national press of gross distortion and staggering misrepresentation in their coverage of Lord Justice Leveson’s report. Well, since then it has got a lot worse.

The papers have turned their megaphone up even louder and, using a range of distortions, misrepresentations and downright lies, they are trying to drown out all reasoned discussion of the Leveson report in the hope that it will vanish for good.

Most of the noise is not about regulation, which is the core of the report. Instead it is about other supposed Leveson outrages relating to whistleblowers, journalistic sources and other matters.

The aim is to muddy the waters around press self-regulation. Editors and proprietors want to conceal the fact that they are engaged in disreputable secret negotiations with ministers for the purpose of sabotaging Leveson.

Before looking at the misinformation campaign, we need to look at what is happening about the Leveson recommendations on regulation.

You may remember that the judge offered papers the chance to set up their own independent self-regulator. But to protect the public and ensure that this self-regulator did not just turn out to be another Press Complaints Commission, he also proposed the establishment of a ‘recognition body’ which every three years would check that the self-regulator met various basic standards.

Although Leveson said this recognition body must be totally independent of both the press and politicians, and must be backed by statute, David Cameron promptly threw a spanner in the works by coming out against any legislation. So now instead Conservative ministers want to create the recognition body by royal charter.

They published their draft of this charter last week and it was a scandalous document, because ministers had secretly allowed editors and proprietors to rewrite it to suit their own interests. If that royal charter were adopted, the press would escape accountability.

If you were an editor you would want your readers looking elsewhere while you engaged in such a disgraceful political fix, and this is what is happening. The megaphone has been turned up, and we are having distractions shouted at us.

Now let’s deal with the distractions in turn.

1. Whistleblowers.

We are told that Leveson’s proposals mean it will be harder, or even impossible, for whistleblowers to bring stories of wrongdoing to the press. This is completely false, and you can read a full explanation here. In brief, Leveson in his report declared that whistleblowing was ‘justified and legitimate’, although he pointed out that in the case of the police service it might be a good idea if staff also had the alternative of reporting misconduct internally, rather than their only option being to go to the press. That’s it.

[ … continues here …]

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4 thoughts on “The press is telling hair-raising porkies about ♯Leveson: true or false? A media scholar settles the question

  1. Until recently, U.S. newspapers had ombudsmen to try to keep reporters and editors honest. About ombudsmen, Margaret Sullivan (quoted by Rem Reider two days ago) said: “And at a time when every story is examined by legions of would-be public editors among bloggers, tweeters and self-appointed critics, the role is changing. Will it become unnecessary, because there’s so much other criticism, or will it become more important as a way to make sense of all the noise?” Politics has always been about trying to influence “politicians” to do one’s bidding, to influence civic affairs to suit one’s own interests. And by the way, The Church never had to worry too much about dissenters using the Gutenberg Press because they were, of course, infallible. Those who hold the power make decisions to perpetuate their power and satisfy their constituents – usually the richest ones (lobbyists) or those most aligned with their purposes. And so it goes. They are “infallible” until The Fall. We still have Leveson, post-Gutenberg, ombudsmen(and women) to ferret out the truth. It’s often said that we get the political leaders we deserve. Someone voted for them. And those someones may be quite happy with the distortions and lies. So, it is our duty as readers to question a Wall Street Journal owned by Murdoch or an official pronouncement by Cameron. We have to work much harder these days to get the facts. But only if we can take time from our x-boxes or bingo or facebook or tv…

  2. Your comments will in future appear when you post them, Oleoghain, … I forgot to adjust a setting. … That is the new NYT ombudsman you are quoting — Margaret Sullivan. So far, sad to say, she does not match her predecessor, Arthur S. Brisbane, who seems to have been axed because he did his job so well — too well. His excellence has been mentioned here: https://post-gutenberg.com/tag/arthur-s-brisbane/ … Ombudsmen are rare everywhere, and most do not live up to their billing — I mean that they are toothless, or exist to defend their papers, not to rap them on the knuckles.

    You are right, we do indeed get the politicians and institutions we deserve, and most people only have enough energy to survive the drudgery of the work week andmeet their responsibilities to their families, then disappear into their X-boxes, or some equivalent, for relief. … They don’t even have the time to learn why obliviousness is so dangerous.

    The Catholic Church _did_ belatedly grasp that the Gutenberg press was going to wound it to the core — perhaps I’ll write a post about that, soon. But, yes, the challenges to its authority on every front, after the birth of printing, made no difference to seeing itself as infallible. Reminders of this never fail to make me laugh — never mind that my wonderful great-grandfather was Catholic (married to a Protestant):

    === In 2000, Pope John Paul II issued a formal apology for all the mistakes committed by some Catholics in the last 2,000 years of the Catholic Church’s history, including the trial of Galileo among others. === (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_affair)

  3. I too am confident that change will come, in time, though I wish it comes sooner rather than later unlike in the case of the demise of the church’s power :)

    Search engines are extremely useful, but they first and foremost serve up popular content, so in order to get beyond the usual news outlets one often needs to be quite specific with search terms (and in a way, advertising becomes extremely effective when people are left with an empty search box and what’s at the front of their consciousness, but that’s another topic). Further, there are no neutral search algorithms. Google PageRank, while probably being quite a smart algorithm, to a large extent bases its judgement of importance on the number of links to the website in question. In general, this makes for good results, but it also favours the already-popular content over the rest. Perhaps what search engines don’t show is more important though, but that’s hard to know because the exact algorithms are secret. But that’s enough with pessimism for a while, search engines really do give us a fair amount of power over how we gather information.

    Thanks for the elaborate reply, p-G!

  4. Without the smallest wish to go all Alphonse-et-Gaston on you, 5th, it is I who must thank you. (An American friend had to teach me who these characters are, but because many readers won’t know, I am going to insert an explanatory link: hhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphonse_and_Gaston).

    Your latest reply has convinced me that I have to hurry up with another entry I’ve been mulling for a while (just as Oleoghain has given me a brand new idea for one.) … And speaking of acceleration, I look forward to seeing what you do next with A Fool’s Critique. ;)

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