9 July 2011

How can we clean up the media?

The News of the World was first set up in 1843. It provided the English working class with a diet of scandal, sexually titillating features and luridly detailed crime stories.

It was a formula which would endure two world wars and seismic political and social changes over a period of 168 years. Like it or not, The News of the World was one of the constants of English social history. But now, in spite of remaining the single biggest selling newspaper in the country, it has been ingloriously shut after a four day media firestorm.

Many have celebrated the closure as a victory against gutter journalism and the malign political influence of US Citizen Rupert Murdoch over the wider British political discourse. But it has also directly led to 200 mostly innocent people losing their jobs with no warning or consultation, and hundreds more freelance journalists denied valuable work at a precise time the newspaper industry is in a wider economic crisis.

Hacked off

Everyone largely knows what has happened over the last week, although many probably still do not realise just how easy it was for to “hack in” to listen to any mobile telephone voicemails on any number you wished. You didn't need to be a technical genius to do it. For journalists working under such pressure, as they were under the hardline management at News International, it would have become a very tempting shortcut to take in an attempt to gather stories - however illegal and immoral.

Some former News of the World journalists reported that every year the paper would tot-up the number of times each reporters’ name appeared in the paper over the previous 12 months and simply sack those whose names had appeared the least.

It is this culture that led directly to the “hacking” of the mobile telephone messages belonging to a 13-year-old murder victim.

Legacy of Wapping

But it is important for people to understand how this regime came into being. It is no co-incidence that it was Murdoch who 25 years ago brutally smashed the print and journalism unions by moving his operations to Wapping. After he won his fight to de-recognise the unions, egged on by the Tories, Murdoch proceeded to set up and fund a “yellow union” for his staff which helped him avoid the union friendly legislation over representation and collective recognition by the 1997 Labour government.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) which is by some distance the biggest and strongest independent trade union for working journalists in the UK and Ireland, has been effectively banned from Wapping for the past 25 years, even though we have many individual members working there.

It’s worth saying the NUJ isn’t recognised at every national newspaper, it’s not just Murdoch’s papers we have a problem at. But where journalists have a strong independent voice in the workplace they are able to fight back against the worst excesses of their proprietors and managers. Members of the NUJ are signed up to a clear code of conduct which would expressly forbid, for example, the phone hacking of murder victims and their families or the ritual bribing of police officers.

De-recognition of trade unions and the general demonisation of trade unionism at newspaper workplaces has led directly to the sinking of basic ethical standards in the trade. Where journalists and employees are unable to stand up to the pressure put on them by the all-powerful managers in charge, and are not encouraged to be members of a strong organisation like the NUJ fighting to maintain ethical standards, they are clearly more likely to indulge in activities like hacking voicemails.

The inquiry and regulation

The NUJ agreed at its recent April 2011 conference to call for the abolition of the Press Complaints Commission on the grounds it has utterly failed to offer redress and justice and has a supine culture of not even trying to challenge media bosses.

But is more regulation the answer? Any government-initiated inquiry comes with a danger that lawmakers will use the popular revulsion against the tabloid press to bring in general restrictions on all press activity. It would surely have suited many MPs if they had been able to keep the expenses scandal quiet and supressed it – as in fact the Speaker at the time did initially attempt to do.

However honourable our MPs and judiciary may be, the huge temptation for them to beat up the journalists that make their lives difficult will be massive.

That is why the big test will be whether the inquiry takes the trade union view seriously and involves workers representatives in the process, or continues the pattern of belittling, marginalising and demonising us as Murdoch did. The NUJ will make strong submissions and it is likely our position will be that signing up the NUJ Code of Conduct should be the fundamental basis of a new self-regulation across the press.

The future

Ed Miliband spoke well on Friday about the future of the print media. He recognises that newspapers, particularly local ones, are brought out with increasingly less resources and that this pattern is weakening journalism as the vital democratic safeguard it needs to be.

Indeed, journalists at his own constituency newspaper the South Yorkshire Times this week voted 100% to take indefinite, all-out strike action in utter exasperation at the latest round of stringent cuts exacted on them by the debt-laden incompetents running Johnston Press PLC. It is not just the public sector that is fighting for its life through industrial action.

Ultimately though, the national press in the UK is still strong. People still buy and identify with newspapers. At the time of writing The Sun is still the biggest selling daily paper and The Times is still “the paper of record”. Sky TV is still being beamed to the masses through dishes attached to the side of millions of homes in England.

Whatever the outcomes, Murdoch will not be broken by this scandal. His malign influence may be weakened, and unless the government are intent on committing political suicide, they will not allow him to take over BSkyB in full. But he will still be there and there are countless other media outlets continuing to influence and in some cases unfortunately poison political opinions in this country.

If we want to see a real culture change in the media, the answer is not to “close down” the papers through boycotts or seek strong top-down government regulation. It is to support unionisation and strong independent workers representation as a route to robust and democratic self-regulation. This will ensure journalists are able to resist pressures to write and print stories they know are not true, and to refuse to engage in illegal practices in gathering stories.

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