Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th Estate?

Lord Justice Leveson interrogating Rebekah Brooks, the former News International chief.

Why is this blog keeping a close eye on the progress of the Leveson Inquiry? Not because of minutiae about Rupert Murdoch and his henchwoman Rebekah Brooks jumping in and out of bed with British prime ministers, metaphorically speaking – as important as those shenanigans are to grasping the extent to which the governing of Britian has been infested by parasitical media magnates.

Under his Inquiry’s terms of reference, Lord Justice Leveson will have to make recommendations about the future of press regulation in Britain. These are bound to influence the debate about policy in other parts of the world. The expectation about the effect of his prescriptions that we at post-Gutenberg find most exciting is in this advice the judge has received:

…[I]f you do get the regulatory framework right for print journalism, I think that will have a profound effect on the way the Internet develops. […] What I think is happening is that we’re going to end up in a position where there has to be a redefinition essentially of what a journalist is.  … [I]t would be absurd to expect you to have regulation for every single person who is on Facebook and Twitter because then you’re not far off from saying we have to regulate the content of text messaging and so forth. […] So I think there has to be a definition of what a journalist is, what a media organisation is, and [though] this is where I have some sympathy for the print industry, it’s not just about the print industry.

That was part of yesterday’s testimony by Alastair Campbell, the much-reviled political strategist and press adviser to Tony Blair. Further justifying this blog’s praise for his contribution at an earlier hearing a few months ago,  Campbell has proved to be incontestably the clearest and best-informed thinker among those assisting the Inquiry.

Lord Justice Leveson’s obvious grasp of the most subtle aspects of what Campbell told him was particularly welcome after undercurrents at last week’s hearings suggested that perhaps David Cameron’s government – even though it commissioned this Inquiry – had been warning the judiciary, off-stage, about excessive zealousness.

The presiding judge’s unfailing good humour had up to then been as striking as his scrupulously fair treatment of all witnesses. But a newspaper quoted him as having said, last Thursday, with unprecedented irritability, that he was impatient to reach the end of the hearings and get back to ‘productive judicial work’. As this followed his rejection, the week before, of the government’s request for privileged ‘core participant’ status in the proceedings, it seems most likely that friction between the executive and judicial overseers of our democracy played some part in darkening his mood.

There were other apparent reactions to unpleasant, behind-the-scenes manoeuvring – as in the somewhat tortured and meandering summing-up by the chief interrogator, Counsel Robert Jay, of the chief issues raised by the hearings. Formally addressing the Lord Chief Justice, he delivered a sort of pre-mastication of findings from witness testimony to date. In this, he partly echoed quixotic attempts by the media to justify a partisan press – of which the most bizarre has been an argument offered by The Economist, dissected in an earlier post on this blog.

‘The fearlessness and vibrancy of our press is something of which we should be enormously proud,’ Counsel Jay, usually a model of calm rationality, said in a rare rhetorical passage. He also said:

Newspapers are entitled to be partisan in a democracy, to campaign in favour of causes, policies and political parties; and were the State to legislate otherwise that would be undemocratic, as well as, under our current settlement, an abrogation of human rights.

This paean clashed with his clear understanding – obvious from his thinly veiled outrage, in one interrogation after another – of the damage done by partisanship.  On Friday, grilling Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, he sought to underline that the payoff for newspapers, for pushing the agenda of their chosen political parties, is the ability to influence policy — and that this seriously undermines democracy. A New York Times report spotlighted his repeated insistence to Brooks that

…. media executives and editors were ‘unelected forces’ influencing policy by exercising power over governments …

Post-Gutenberg wondered, watching a video feed from Leveson:  since when has the concept of press partisanship been warped by being treated as an essential component of press freedom?  Not everyone is taken in by this Orwellian obfuscation. Gus O’Donnell – a Whitehall mandarin who has served three governments as cabinet secretary —  testified just before Alastair Campbell yesterday. In his written statement submitted to the Inquiry in advance, he said unequivocally,

Newspapers can and do actively support political parties, meaning it can be difficult to obtain objective information from them …

… then, in his live testimony, added:

 … [I]t’s in their strong interests for politicians to talk to newspaper editors and proprietors to try and explain their policies, try and explain why that newspaper should support them.  That’s been going on and continues to go on and that’s the structure we have.  And as long as you have newspapers which are allowed to strongly support and come out very overtly in favour of political parties, that relationship is going to continue.

Where I would like to see a change, perhaps, is […] if you contrast the newspapers, say, in the United States with the United Kingdom, you’ll find in the United States newspapers in general tend to separate out opinion and news much more.  So you’ll get a page of opinion, which basically says, “We strongly     support this politician or this set of policies”, in a very kind of almost propaganda-ish way, and then you’ll get the news columns, which tend to be pretty straight.

I think if you looked at our newspapers, where they differ is that you’ll find that you get all the opinion in the same way but in the news stories. [my ital.]

… Why is the press so desperate to convince us that media partisanship is a good thing? Because, if the public approves of the press siding with particular political leaders and parties — instead of preferring press impartiality,  as it actually does, at present — the 4th Estate can continue to assume king-making powers.

Politicians will continue to put themselves at the beck and call of newspaper proprietors and editors in the hope of winning their nominations in elections. As Campbell pointed out yesterday, Murdoch’s is not the only press fiefdom involved in what O’Donnell characterised earlier in the day as ‘a co-dependent relationship between politicians and the media’.

Alastair Campbell noted:

Because Murdoch’s the biggest figure and because the phone hacking has led to this Inquiry, there’s been a huge amount of focus on him, but this goes right across the media panoply.  I mean, I was in charge of Tony Blair’s  media operation and we had strategies for all of these papers and we had approaches out to all of these papers.

Let us hope that Lord Justice Leveson, when he sits down to write his report, proposes a regulatory framework that puts an end to the toxic mutual manipulation that goes with press partisanship. Let us hope that he can resist the huge pressure being brought to bear on him to stop citizen journalists and other outsiders from breaking up the exclusionary symbiosis of old media and government.

One thoughtful witness after another has recommended greater transparency and accountability in press dealings with the government and politicians. Excellent and essential ideas, yes. But the Lord Justice should, in addition, do all he can to let the new technologies at our disposal open the way to many more disseminators of facts, and to challengers of media warping or omitting inconvenient facts.

New voices must be heard from – in whatever framework he advocates — on equal terms with today’s media powerhouses, even as the lights dim in these institutions, and they bow before the force of the onrushing 5th Estate.

David Talbot drops serious clangers in his appeal for the resurrection of Salon.com, an e-publishing pioneer

'The Great Grievance', an etching associated with the French Revolution, by an unknown artist

Salon.com is not actually extinct. It is just that its readership has declined precipitously, and no one talks about it any more – even though it is still capable of running first-rate pieces, like a report on Sunday about the indispensable Google Translate’s implications for multilingualism.

David Talbot is clever, likeable and tremendously enterprising. He deserved the towering pile of laurels that all but suffocated him and his fellow-Salonniers when they co-pioneered online journalism in the mid-1990s. I myself wrote a piece or two for him, at his invitation, in those early years. I enjoyed the typhoons they whipped up in reader reactions enough to sign on as a subscriber when the magazine slipped behind a pay wall a few years ago. It virtually disappeared behind it.

Not long after that, the e-zine lost David and its groove.  I let my subscription lapse and forgot all about it. But into my email box, a few days ago, dropped a surprise announcement – at least, for me – that he was trying to revive the magazine. The message said that he was back as its über-manager, after stepping down as editor-in-chief around 2005.

Unfortunately, what I could glean of his strategy ignores – or gives only the faintest nod to — the rise of the 5th Estate, the new media voices on the verge of eclipsing the once supremely authoritative 4th Estate with which Salon.com evidently still identifies. A more realistic plan would at least experiment with giving readers a chance to share ownership of the publishing sites that they sustain with their eyeballs and clicks – as in, for instance, this proposal recognising that the philosophical DNA encoded in the term ‘4th Estate’ belongs to the run-up to the French Revolution.

Instead, here is the gist of David’s email circular:

Dear Salon reader and Premium supporter:

I founded Salon 16 years ago […] For the first time in my life as a journalist, we — editors, reporters and critics — were in sole control of our work, not managers and corporate sponsors. […]

Now, six years after leaving Salon, I’ve decided to return as CEO, because I think the country needs a fighting, independent media more than ever. […]

I wanted you to know first because your previous support for Salon has meant a great deal to us — not just the money, but the sense of solidarity from your choice to become a Salon Premium member. […W]e are revamping and renaming Salon Premium. [ …]

We are adding many new benefits, amongst which are: opportunities to engage with writers and editors, magazine subscriptions, and if you choose, benefits from select marketers. […]

With the American people struggling to stay afloat in the Great Recession, and their hopes and well-being largely ignored by our political system, a free press is more vital than ever. We need an independent media to […] fight for the people. […]

I could be mistaken, but honestly do not see that getting many takers. What’s wrong with his appeal?

  • It’s the same old model. Reporters and editors perform on a stage. Readers pay to watch and listen. It ignores the new reality, which is that readers expect to have a chance to do star turns themselves. When I first visited the site a day or so ago, I found that a section of it, Open Salon, has since 2008 been dedicated to featuring readers’ blogs. I have been back twice. That might not be enough, but I have so far found no arresting or startlingly good – or simply startling – contribution, even though I remember that there were hundreds of readers with the requisite talent among the 100,000 paid subscribers the magazine once had.
  • Without a serious financial incentive – or at least, stake – in Salon’s revival and, ideally, voting rights in at least part of its running, why should anyone outside David’s small circle bother to post their best efforts on Open Salon? Its part of the site looks so strictly functional and dull that it could almost have a sign saying, ‘Makeshift Kiddie Corner’. Joan Walsh, the last editor-in-chief, said that OS would make the magazine’s ‘smart, creative audience full partners in Salon’s publishing future’. Her replacement, Kerry Lauerman, has promised, ‘We’ll also be unveiling ways for you to earn money for your great work on Open.I hope to find my pessimism unjustified, when that veil drops, but from his tone, it does not sound as if the Salonniers plan anything more enticing than some equivalent of the old 4th Estate offers of small cash prizes for ‘tastiest reader recipe’ or ‘best holiday snapshot’.
  • David’s appeal is addressed to ‘the American people’. Big mistake. Online readers are best addressed, for the most part, as citizens of the world. This part of his pitch sounds like the blinkered parochialism of George W. Bush. What do we expect now? The phrase ‘accelerated global conversation’ says it all. I found it here, in a piece reporting that,

    […[Pete] Cashmore, the soft-spoken chief executive of Mashable, the one-man blog he turned into a popular news site … appeared totally at ease [in his video interview.] … [W]ithin half an hour, an important measure of success was achieved. [Elie] Wiesel, who wondered aloud during the talk what might have happened if Moses — and also Hitler — had used social media tools to get their messages across, was trending worldwide on Twitter.
    “It just shows the acceleration of the global conversation and that Mashable is a force online,” said Mr. Cashmore, whose company worked with the United Nations Foundation ….”

Worldwide. Global. United. Online. Surely those are the essential thoughts, not just for me but all of us – and the hour.

Why, I wonder, is David ignoring them?

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.’