Press Regulation: Grant us serenity

My Nan had a prayer blue-tacked to her fridge.  It is by It is by Reinhold Neibuhr:

Dear Lord,
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

We would do well to remember this in the debate over press regulation.

I think a great deal of the motivation of politicians and campaigners to impose regulation on the press comes from a hatred of its hackery, rather than phone hacking. Shoddy reporting, blatant ideological propaganda, and quotes taken out of context in order to misrepresent and sensationalise.A recent example of this might be Francesca Infante and Rebecca English’s obtuse hatchet-job on Hillary Mantel. Another might be Zoe Brennan’s embarrassing ‘conclusions-first, research later’ attitude to reporting the NHS that was exposed by Mumsnet.

The co-ordinated yet pathetic attempts to smear Nick Clegg, immediately prior to the 2010 General Election, was joined by the Telegraph and the Times and the Sun as well as the Mail. Even the Guardian is not above commissioning a vile piece of wilful bigotry if it thinks it will get some page views (oops, sorry, it was the Observer).

The press is hated because it sacrifices fairness and context in the pursuit of money and the advancement of its ideology. But…

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

None of the transgressions I cite above would be affected by a regulator. You could never devise any rule or guideline that would stop reporters sneaking out of context quotes into their articles, or dictate which case studies they report in an article about the NHS. A regulator could not stop the gratuitious paragraphs about Hilary Mantel’s weight and health problems, or stop the press from constantly appending the unnecessary descriptorbisexualwhenever they mention Chris Huhne’s new partner, Carina Trimingham, because these are facts in the public domain. Any regulations or principles that punished this kind of unpleasant editorialising against individuals would also prevent all kinds of satire and criticism of rich and powerful people too. The free press would die.

Speaking to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee yesterday, Seamus Dooley of the NUJ said of the Royal Charter:

What we have is a guarantee of quality and ethical journalism

This is just wishful thinking.  I fear that all those who hope that a new regulator can make the press just be a bit nicer are on a Quixotic mission. If the kinds of articles described will not and should not fall foul of the regulator. So how will it “guarantee” quality journalism?

Courage to change the things I can

So what is the answer? As ever, I think that technology will help. In the examples I mention above, the Internet redressed the imbalance. In the Mantel case, readers were able to share the link to the author’s London Review of Books lecture and read the rich, tabloid-shaming thesis form themselves (they were also able to give her an instant sales bump on Amazon). Mumsnetters were able to InstaShame Zoe Brennan of the Daily Mail. And the embattled Alan Rusbridger was able to take to twitter to point out that, actually, the spiteful Burchill op-ed was commissioned by the Observer, not the Guardian.

One cannot walk ten yards in London these days without falling over some ‘future of digital’ conference, examining how most of the media is going online. Sources go direct to the audience, cutting out the journalistic middle men who may twist and warp their words.

Moreover, the users are becoming bolshier, and will use the ubiquitous comment forms to call bullshit on shoddy journalism. The audience is becoming savvier and less innately trusting of the newspapers. A couple of weeks ago a young journalism student told me his friends say things like “I don’t know if its true or not; I only read it in a newspaper”. The press can only solve this problem through greater transparency and an ostentatious rediscovery of ethics. Thankfully, most journalists already have this sense of purpose. I have faith that they will prevail over the hacks.

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