Now, net-shunning Private Eye outranks even The Economist as Britain’s most popular current affairs magazine

Ian Hislop, who has been Private Eye's editor since 1986

Private Eye cover, 12 April 2008

All hail Private Eye, whose circulation grew by more than ten per cent last year, when so many famous names linked to old media were — are — howling about print meeting its doom.

All hail Private Eye, not least because, as far as I can tell, no one in mainstream media has, on this occasion. There have been no laurel wreaths from its rivals, no adulatory editorials or delving into the reasons for its astonishing success since the Audit Bureau of Circulations released the latest figures in mid-February – although the media section of one broadsheet did carry brief news items on the subject.

All hail Private Eye because, in spite of its (affectionate) marginalisation as a ‘satirical magazine,’ it looks as if it could be becoming Britons’ most reliable source of printed information about what is happening in the UK — or close to that. The trade publication Media Week anointed it ‘the leading news and current affairs magazine by issue in the country, nearly 18,000 copies ahead of The Economist,’ with the minor qualifier that ‘its rival title is published weekly.’ (That qualifier is probably meaningless, since I reckon that most subscribers would be delighted to buy it once a week.)

There is no reason to disagree with the Eye’s managing director, Sheila Molnar, who explained two years ago that ‘People always turn to us in times of trouble because they trust us. With the MPs’ expenses row and the banks, people trust Private Eye and what they read in it.’

Though the Eye has no digital edition and is virtually ignoring the internet, its pages are saturated with the fearless, irreverent, outsider ethos of the web and blogging world – most obvious in its ‘Street of Shame’ column. There, as its editor Ian Hislop told Lord Justice Leveson in January at the official Inquiry into press culture and standards, his writers concentrate on the foibles of the 4th Estate — on

… stories about

journalists misbehaving. It tends to be anything from

making up stories, drunkenness, stealing stories from

each other, printing things that are totally and utterly

untrue, promoting each other for reasons that aren’t

terribly ethical, sucking up to their proprietors, being

told what to do by their proprietors, running stories

because their proprietors insist on it, marshalling the

facts towards a conclusion that they’ve already decided

on.

Private Eye’s robustness confirms these suspicions at post-Gutenberg about the secrets of media thriving in the transition to the 5th Estate – in its case, with only token contributions to its operating budget from advertisers, which is why it cannot afford to give away its contents on the net:

It is strictly non-partisan

The political left, right and centre are all flayed with equal relish. As noted here last month, highly-placed apologists for a worrying shift in 4th Estate practices feel that there is nothing wrong with abandoning political neutrality – but a reader poll on the site of The Economist shows that this is, overwhelmingly, the very opposite of what the public wants.

It is – without fear or favour – supplying the uncomfortable, true facts indispensable to government by the people, or what we call democracy

It might just as well be called The Whistleblower Wire. It tackles malfeasance as no other publication does, across a staggering breadth of public life. A small sample: ‘Called to Ordure’ (parliamentary proceedings); ‘Medicine Balls’ (mainly, the National Health Service); ‘Signal Failures’ (the railway network); ‘The Agri Brigade’ (farming and food policies); ‘Rotten Boroughs’ (local government); ‘Music and Musicians’; ‘Keeping the Lights On’ (the law and lawyers); ‘Books and Bookmen’ (cronyism in book publishing).

It relies on its readers for its peerless investigative reporting

… and did so long before the internet came along with its promise of building reader ‘communities’.  As Ian Hislop said in his Leveson evidence, his magazine

operates as a sort of club where people not only buy the

magazine, they write a lot of it, which is the principle

we work on. Broadly, the sources come from people

inside their professions, so the medical column, the

column about energy, the pieces in the back, a lot of

those are given by people directly involved.

None of its content is influenced by advertising

As it does not run on the advertising-centred business model for publishing — unlike virtually every other great name in print journalism — it has no need to court or bow to corporate panjandrums and satraps, and its articles are not distorted by their manipulations.

Its success underlines the undesirability of concentrated media ownership, as it has the extreme editorial independence only possible when a publication is not beholden to any single media mogul or proprietor trading favours, buying influence, or vulnerable to manipulation or blackmail

In some ways, Private Eye can be seen as an early prototype of the ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ a model for post-Gutenberg publishing  in which sites are co-owned with clubs of reader-contributors. Its Wikipedia entry lists no fewer than seventeen shareholders, and says that the magazine has never disclosed exactly who has contributed what to its capitalization and upkeep.

What is an instance of this magazine’s uniqueness and indispensability? The other day, when all the broadsheets reported that the education secretary, Michael Gove, had condemned the Leveson Inquiry for its ‘chilling effect’ on the media, they failed to explain why he was complaining so bitterly about an investigation initiated by his own leader, David Cameron, and in the same tirade, lauding Rupert’s Murdoch’s launch of the Sun on Sunday. They also offered not a single example of what noble journalism the Inquiry has supposedly been inhibiting — just as he failed to do.

Mystification over all that was beginning to make me feel mildly unhinged when the latest Eye arrived. There I discovered that the education secretary is married to  — well, well, well, a journalist on the Times. And who owns the Times? Let us say, a certain Australian-born media mogul.

And, returning briefly to the subject of ownership … As diligent use of both inductive and deductive logic has yet to yield incontrovertible proof of his existence, I must reluctantly dismiss as speculation all hints to the effect that Private Eye does in fact have a proprietor — a reclusive individual writing occasionally under the rubric, ‘A Message From Lord Gnome’. The same goes for any suggestion that he is simply too shy or coy to (a) scotch rumours that his life’s ambition is to be more elusive than the putative Higgs boson particle, and (b), admit that he has no help from ghostwriters in recording his sublime meditations, as on the subject of the recent fate of bankers:

[W]here, we must ask, will this witchhunt end? Which other leading figures in the economic life of our country will be next to be hunted down, to be publicly humiliated, as their names are execrated across the land?

Should ordinary citizens be denied a say in the media’s future — as in, ‘For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments’?

Are cover-ups and the suppression of debate growing more frequent in the world's proudest democracies? Photograph by Amita Chatterjee

This is no ordinary elephant in the living room, the one the media are pretending not to see. She is pirouetting on stiletto heels in the shortest skirt ever sewn, displaying elephantine slabs of thigh. Still they behave as if she is invisible.

Recent events in England – which gave the rest of the world the model of a free press – are sending shivers up the spine of anyone who cares about democracy, from Calcutta to San Francisco and beyond. This is because of the eerie, silent void where you might expect round-the-clock media coverage of the media’s strategies for preserving their freedom and independence — on their terms.

Any attention paid to this struggle by the British press has focused on the tabloid phone hacking scandal, and just that part of a far wider judicial investigation of professional standards and practices, the Leveson Inquiry ordered by the prime minister.

Shameful and appalling as the hacking sagas are, they matter far less than the pachyderm in the parlour – on a par with the news earlier this month of Google being forced by the government of India, the world’s largest democracy, to cooperate with censoring web pages after ‘weeks of intense government pressure for 22 Internet giants to remove photographs, videos or text considered “anti-religious” or “anti-social”’.

That question no one in the media apparently wants to face is, will the public grant professional journalists a continuation of special privileges in the digital age if they no longer adhere to the traditions of fairness, neutrality and dedication to the truth that won them those privileges in the 18th century? Earlier this month, this blog mentioned the media’s refusal to acknowledge – or indeed discuss at all – the public’s dismay about an increasingly partisan press.

There are other alarming silences. Why, for instance, is no one in the British media mentioning the prohibition by a leading newspaper of free discussion – by ordinary citizens – of the future of the press, on three separate occasions last week?

In each case, a member of the Establishment – one high-ranking politician and two journalists – addressed the jubilation in the British press about Rupert Murdoch redux; many journalists only care about their belief that he is saving jobs in journalism. The media mogul who should have been fatally wounded by the hacking scandal is throwing his octogenarian energy into engineering a comeback with a new paper, the Sun on Sunday. None of these writers spared Murdoch the lash. Two of them delivered blistering warnings about the dangers of condoning this latest power-grab and about the perils, for British democracy, of concentrating media ownership in a few hands — especially, his.

Nothing in their excoriations suggested that they feared any legal retribution from Murdoch or his empire, News International. And yet each of these articles appeared on the portion of a newspaper site titled Comment is Free, advertised as a debating forum open to all, with an announcement that, For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments’.

In that case, why were the Murdoch bashings put on this part of the newspaper’s site at all?

Could the real message behind blocking readers’ reactions be that the newspaper’s editors believe that only they and their colleagues have a right to discuss the redesign of the ‘media landscape’ – even though most British citizens still rely on the press to give them the facts a democracy needs to make decisions that affect its collective wellbeing?

This blog has recorded the same newspaper’s censorship of readers’ posts about media reform in its Comment is Free section (see the entries on 7 November and 15 November). The paper gives no sign of having absorbed the salutary reminder by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, last year that

[i]t is the birthright of the citizen that the press should be independent. It is therefore not a right of one section of the community, not just a sectional right. It is the right of the community as a whole. It is, if you like, our right, the right of every citizen.

Here are opinions that the Guardian refused to allow its readers to discuss on its site – without any explanation that made sense (Kafka-esque, for real?):

Item 1: extracts from an article titled, ‘We must fashion a new media landscape,’ by Norman Fowler, a former chairman of the House of Lords communications committee.

… Murdoch remains the traditional proprietor. From his New York headquarters he will continue to have his say in the politics of the United Kingdom – and make no mistake, there will be politicians who will play along with this. […] So we are back to where some of us began. Last summer we were within days of the culture secretary waving through the Murdoch bid to take full control of BSkyB and claiming that phone hacking was an entirely separate and irrelevant issue. That fate has been avoided, but the challenge remains to devise a system where nobody – Murdoch or anybody else – has a disproportionate share of the British media. […W]hat is a disproportionate share of the media market? Four newspapers controlling almost 40% of national press circulation and total control of a major television company would have put Murdoch the wrong side of the line. […] Any new rules on share of voice cannot be directed exclusively at News International. The BBC must come within the net as too must the other media giants like Google.

[…]

• For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments

Item 2: extracts from an article titled. ‘If the Sun on Sunday soars Rupert Murdoch will also rise again,’ by Polly Toynbee.

[P]ractitioners are hired to do their masters’ bidding, even when that can mean spreading disinformation and disregarding evidence. The seventh Sun will offer jobs to those willing to put their pens to abusing migrants, travellers, trade unionists, single mothers, women, the unemployed, public sector staff, young people, Europe, foreigners or anyone to the left of John Redwood. Even the disabled are now being harassed as scroungers to win public support for benefit cuts reducing the already poor to penury.

[…]

Clouds of opposition are gathering around the Leveson press inquiry. Its remit grows, destination unknown. The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, along with many others, are right to demand that it leads to new laws to reset limits on media ownership by any one organisation, which Margaret Thatcher abolished for Murdoch’s sake. If the Sun on Sunday soars, [Murdoch] will be back owning some 40% of press readership, plus Sky (to whom the BBC is wrongly obliged to pay £10m a year).

The Sun and its owner’s influence on British politics have been underestimated in the history of the last decades … […]

For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments @commentisfree

Item 3: extracts from an opinion piece titled, ‘Rupert Murdoch’s Sun on Sunday sets on his empire,’ by Michael Wolff.

Curiously, he used […] the arrests of senior Sun staffers on suspicion of bribing the British police – as the crisis that justified the new Sun. The immediate launch of the paper, just days after he arrived in London, would be a way to stabilize an impending civil war in Wapping, he insisted – even as his own investigators continued to turn over evidence to the police. It would be a way, too, to shift attention from the negative to the positive, from retreat to advance.

[…]

Of course, all the investigations continue, the law suits mount, the US Justice Department is at attention, and, next week, public television in the US is promising an explosive new documentary on the Murdoch scandals, which will, in a sense for the first time, bring the story in all its details to the US.

[…]

• For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments

There is no doubt that the Guardian is furious with Lord Justice Leveson, who asked at the official commencement of his Inquiry, ‘Who guards the guardians?’ Last week, the news that British judges would be rating British lawyers for their performance in court gave the newspaper a chance to play tit-for-tat in an editorial that remarked, ‘Advocates might reasonably ask who is judging the judges’.

No one watching the Leveson hearings could fail to be struck by this judge’s open-mindedness, or by the deference and respect he shows witnesses. He comes across as genuine when he asks for their opinions of what should be done about the media’s failed self-regulation – and is frank about not knowing how to resolve the dilemma that follows from the all-but-universal dislike of proposals for statutory control.

He seems keenly aware of the media’s annoyance with interference with what they see as their business – and sympathetic. But from the odd remark he has let drop about the importance of allowing free discussion – for instance, that statements made on social networks such as Twitter must be counted as mere chat, and not held to the same standards as professional reporting – it seems unlikely that he would disagree with Albert Einstein about the undesirability of letting a wealthy or powerful few control the dissemination of facts and opinions for the many.

It feels not a little odd to be quoting the great physicist’s essay, ‘Why Socialism?’ for the second time this month. But there is a rather stunning parallel between present events and his noting, in 1949, that ‘Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition. Since, under present circumstances, free and unhindered discussion of these problems has come under a powerful taboo …’.

This was the most vital point he wanted to impress on his readers:

[U]nder existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

Now, as I was saying, about that elephant

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

obscurity - postgutenberg@gmail.com

[ 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):

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.

Co-owning media is on the horizon — and press coverage of the Leveson Inquiry shows why we need this

Panda drummer: who can speak?

Blindly they saw themselves and deaf they heard —

But who can speak of this?

        –Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds, 12th c.  A.D.

                 Persian trans. by Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi, 1984

A stranger, someone astute and entrepreneurial, emailed me about a comment posted in a discussion about the future of journalism on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Lab. ‘I think you’re on the right track with your focus on the business-model issue,’ he said.

He was referring to an outline of a means for old media organisations to move into post-print publishing in a Networking Age in which readers want to be more than passive audiences – to do more than influence stage management and be free to perform themselves. I set out a scheme for turning readers into financial stakeholders or co-owners – experimentally, at first, on parts of newspaper sites – suggesting that this might be an ownership structure for the future.

The essence of the idea was that every subscription would also be a share or financial stake in prospective profits. It would be an inducement for each reader or viewer to help bring many more visitors to a site. It would both help the site owner to attract more advertising and – implicitly – reduce dependence on advertising, if the concept of subscription-stakes caught on and went viral.

‘I tried an experiment along the lines of the one you are proposing,’ my correspondent continued. ‘It was a tremendous success … as far as it went.’

I shall call this correspondent ‘A’, as he does not want more recognition for what he did than his fellow-experimenters. The link to wallets and handbags for their plan was so clear that it had venture capitalists salivating. The idea was to monetise a publication and online forum on building for professionals and amateurs – an offshoot of the Journal of Light Construction (JLC), a magazine now 24 years old that is also the marquee name for a popular trade show. You can tell that it is thoroughly up-to-the-minute from the table of contents, where the offerings can range from ‘Pouring Complicated Slab Foundations’ to ‘Promoting Yourself With YouTube’.

The Journal of Light Construction

The forum on the magazine’s website is divided by specialisations. Each section has its own moderator – and in an innovation I have seen nowhere else, the specialist’s name is posted prominently beside the category. When the combined on- and off-line components of JLC were on their way to becoming a publicly traded company roughly ten years ago, ‘A’ and his confederates introduced the possibility of making JLC’s contributors and employees co-owners. I do not yet know whether readers would also have been invited to become stakeholders. If ‘A’ sheds any light on that question after he reads this, I will include what he says here with any other details of the adventure and corrections of this account.

For the moment, it is enough to say that the idea of co-ownership so appalled the lead investment banker working on the public offering that the whole plan was scuppered. The points ‘A’ most wanted to impress on me were these:

Ownership can be transferred at any time. The trick is to have something worth transferring first. … There could be NGO funding possibilities from which a larger community trust with cooperative member ownership could emerge…

And that, strangely enough, is very close to the proposal for a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’.  A publishing enterprise with a thriving community of reader-commenters could easily progress to sharing ownership of the commenting sites where readers already supply most of what there is to read or watch.

It would ask that many newspapers make just one more leap forward after this change announced by the New York Times last week, but already in place for some time on other digital news sites:

We have started using an improved comment section. It will put readers’ responses on the same page as the article, provide threading of comments so readers can respond directly to one another, and allow them to share their comments and those of others, to Twitter and Facebook.

To understand why readers want more than that, I recommend an excellent paper, ‘Gutenberg and the social media revolution,’ by a new media consultant, Richard Stacy**, which puts all these developments in their historical context, then offers a clear-sighted vision of the way ahead. Serendipity led me to it last week, when it came up with some Google links to my own site. His conclusion:

It is unlikely that power and influence in the world that is now forming will lie in the control of channel.  Instead it will be vested in forms of community, which will have a tendency to exclude any forms of institutional interference, control or ownership.

He also said,

It is not that people are going to reject institutionalised trust, but the task of sustaining institutionalised trust is going to become much harder in the world of transparency brought about by social media.

I would welcome anything that reversed my own fast-diminishing trust in mainstream, 21st-century journalism’s ability to live up to the ideals of the Fourth Estate – of which the highest are impartiality and rigorous self-scrutiny. To my dismay, most of  the British media – not just the tabloids – have failed to report every important criticism of the media made in the hearings for the Leveson Inquiry, except for the sensational details of the phone hacking scandal.

Giving evidence last week, Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s political adviser and communications director – that is, chief ‘spin doctor’ – did draw attention to some problems of the very greatest importance:

The. principle of the freedom of the press is always worth fighting for. The quality of that freedom however is questionable when the quality of so much journalism is so low, and when so few people — just a handful of men until now seemingly unaccountable to anyone but themselves and to anything but their own commercial and political interests – have so much say over the tone and nature of public discourse, and so much responsibility for the decline in standards. It is also worth fighting therefore – politicians, journalists and public alike – to change the press we have.

What he said before that at considerable length – about the collapse in standards – was not addressed in any press report of the Inquiry I have seen.  A former editor of the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, said in his 2002 memoir about his career that it is the job of a political press officer ‘to act as a purveyor of half-truths to the nation’s journalists, but it is the business of the journalists to seek out the missing 50%.’

At least half of what Alastair Campbell said is true and his critique deserves intense scrutiny and wide discussion by the press – in public. It dovetailed perfectly with the testimony in the same week by Nick Davies, the freelance writer for The Guardian who broke the phone hacking story and pursued it with ferocious determination. He said unequivocally that the press can no longer be trusted to regulate itself.

Is a thorough airing of such opinions possible with today’s media ownership structure? Is it possible when the authority to disseminate the information people need in a democracy — to make decisions for the common good — is concentrated in so few hands?

Surely we need a new ‘business model’ – of which the keirestu-cooperative could be a very rough first draft – not just to accommodate readers in their wish to share the stage, but to protect our form of government?

______________________________________________________

** who has already posted a magnificent response to this piece on his own site. I shall be replying in next week’s blog entry – underlining some of his points and clarifying aspects of the keiretsu-cooperative that have been imperfectly transmitted (mea culpa). I will put that up sooner than next Tuesday if I can interrupt what I am writing off-line.