Donnacha DeLong of the National Union of Journalists argues for a holistic approach to the reform of media ethics.
The media industry needs reform on many levels to give the public the democratic and ethical media they deserve in a free society. The Leveson Inquiry has helped to highlight some of the areas where change is needed, but it’s important to remember – as more and more details of criminality by parts of the industry emerge – that there’s a difference between crime and ethics. If something is against the law, that’s usually not an ethical issue – it’s a criminal issue (acknowledging there are times when the public interest may require journalists to break the law). Ethical issues are more common and a truly ethical media would be accurate, fair and balanced – something far too little of the UK’s national media actually is.
The various steps needed to reform the media start on the level of the journalists. We need to re-unionise the industry to provide a counter-balance to the power of the proprietors and editors. It’s no coincidence that the worst abuses by parts of the media were related to News International – a company that has been union-free since the Battle of Wapping ended 25 years ago. The so-called “Wapping Clause” in the Employment Relations Act 1999 is a barrier to this as it allows the company to recognise NISA, a fake union set up and funded by the company, as a union despite it having been denied certification as an independent union in 2001.
However, this won’t be enough. When the NUJ Chapel in the Express and Star newspapers tried to take on the unethical content being published in their name, they got no support. Two complaints to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) were rebuffed because the PCC had a rule that only the subject of the articles could complain. The journalists were left with the option of putting up or getting out. They didn’t quit and, in 2006, journalists on the Daily Star forced the paper to pull a page mocking Islam. However, years of attacks from Richard Desmond and his lackeys have weakened the union in the company while the company has been rewarded for its anti-union, unethical content by being permitted to take over Channel 5.
A measure that could help, which ironically Rupert Murdoch said at the Leveson Inquiry that he’d support, is a Conscience Clause in the contract of every journalist. This would empower individual journalists to say no when asked to write unethical content. Combined with the return of the unions, this could totally change the media.
Beyond the workplace, we need a replacement for the toothless PCC, which announced its impending closure in March. The PCC was made up of the bosses who decided amongst themselves whether they were doing anything wrong. This needs to end. We need a new system where the media owners are in the minority, where working journalists have a voice and where representatives of civil society have a majority. We also need a body that, unlike the PCC, takes complaints from everyone and has power to tackle unethical practice in the media.
Finally, something needs to be done about ownership. Recent decades have seen increasing monopolisation of parts of the media. Murdoch’s control of national newspapers and TV is obvious, but four groups dominate the local media scene as well. Trinity Mirror, Newsquest, Northcliff and Johnston Press have divided much of the UK up between them and have proceeded to cut capacity to the bone, sacking journalists, closing and merging titles, leaving many people with little or no local coverage.
We need to reclaim the media at all levels, build new titles and new economic models – co-operatives, community ownership – to rebuild such a hugely important democratic resource. In print or online or in some new form we haven’t yet thought about, we need to rebuild a media that informs the community and gives them a voice. However, without changes at the top, these bottom-up attempts are in danger. The groups need to be broken up and limits put on how much of the media any one proprietor or company can own and new titles (or revived old titles) will need support. One possible means to support them is finding a way to claw back the money companies like Google have avoided paying in tax.
Two final elements need to be looked at which have barely been touched on at the Leveson Inquiry: the exclusive nature of distribution and newsagent display. Another effect of the Wapping dispute was to move newspaper distribution into vans and this has allowed monopolies to develop in the industry. These need to be broken up so that new titles at all levels can get their product to potential customers.
And what happens then? New titles (or even old ones) do not have a right to be displayed in newsagents. When was the last time you saw Red Pepper or the Morning Star on the shelves in your local newsagents? Other countries have rules that grant the right to be displayed which defends and supports a pluralistic and democratic media, why not the UK? Newsagents need to be more than just shops that stock what sells, they should also be a window on the varied world of print publications.