Free Speech is a right unless you are a whistleblower like Julian Assange revealing uncomfortable truths. The rising power of the Media, “The Fourth Estate”, has seen a class of politicians increasingly trying to get on the good side of the Press Barons, even if they made strange bedfellows. Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron all bowed to the evidence that to be Prime Minister they had to get cosy (or at least not to cross) Rupert Murdoch and his News Corps Empire. And then it got interesting…
Over the past 6 years evidence began to emerge that the seemingly unstoppable power of News Corps was in fact deeply rooted in illegal, immoral and thoroughly objectionable practices that engaged politicians, police, journalists, private investigators and misuse of newly developed surveillance technology.
Here is another instalment in the running saga: see our April article for further background
Timeline to the Leveson Enquiry
2006-7: News of the World royal editor and private investigator hack phones of members of the royal household and get prison sentences. Editor Andy Coulson resigns and is appointed Communications Chief to David Cameron’s team.
2009: It emerges more hacking of celebrities’ and politicians’ phones took place while Coulson was editor.
2011: Murdered schoolgirl voicemail messages hacked. The government supports plans by News Corp to buy out BSkyB (creating a near Media monopoly). The list of hacked celebrities and ordinary people grows and Coulson is arrested on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications.
News Corp withdraws its bid for BSkyB. Rebekah Brooks, another News of the World editor and David Cameron’s personal friend resigns.
November 14: Lord Leveson’s inquiry into press ethics begins.
Rupert Murdoch pleads ignorance of just about everything.
Coulson and Brooks give evidence. Brooks gives details of her friendship with the prime minister.
Coulson and Brooks are charged with conspiring to make illegal payments to officials for information for stories.
November 29: Lord Leveson reports back, calling for a powerful new independent body to regulate the press. Prime Minister Cameron initial response: No, citing “any form of statute relating to newspapers could restrict freedom of speech”
Main Findings of the Enquiry
Phone hacking probably more widespread than the simple evidence revealed. Covert surveillance much criticised in particular where there is no public interest justification, including surveillance of the victims of hacking lawyers.
A recklessness in prioritising sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected.
Many celebrities’ relatives’ lives destroyed by the relentless pursuit of the press. Parts of the press decided actors, footballers, writers and pop stars were “fair game, public property with little if any entitlement to any sort of private life or respect for dignity”
A “casual attitude to privacy and the lip service it paid to consent demonstrated a far more general loss of direction”.
Complaints not taken seriously.
Specific cases highlighted such as: hacking the telephone of murdered schoolgirl which may or may not have given hope to the family that she was still alive, accusing the McCann family, whose 3 year old daughter disappeared in Portugal, of selling her, and wrongly accusing a landlord of murdering a woman.
Press intense lobbying for self-regulation.
Metropolitan Police officers were “too close” to News International, including hospitality police received from media, lavish restaurant meals and champagne. The Met’s decision not to reopen the criminal inquiry into hacking was “incredibly swift” and resulted in a “defensive mindset”. Police failed to inform potential victims of hacking
Response from the Media
Not surprisingly those who have benefited the most from a poorly regulated business immediate cry “Free Speech”! and “Freedom of the Press”! Others, who have been doing investigative journalism for years, seriously, without committing any crimes or destroying personal lives wonder what all the fuss is about. Just about every industry and services has independent oversight. What for many Freedom of the Press means is to be able to create an image of the world that agrees with the Corporate Design, the system in which we live, the control and manipulation of the subjectivity of the population.
A Story to illustrate: “The Spirit and the Oppression”
“There was a very powerful man, owner of a large number of sheep. In order to prevent their escape he put up a fence. However, some broke out of their prison and managed to run away. To avoid this, the man brought powerful dogs that guarded the sheep night and day.
Nevertheless, some could still flee and others were killed by the guard dogs that tore their flesh and skin with ferocious bites. Enthused by this, they penetrated into the fold continuing the slaughter.
The powerful man saw that the fence was too fragile to contain the sheep and the guard dogs too dangerous.
Then he summoned a magician who sent the sheep to sleep and made them dream that they were free. When they awoke, they continued to believe they acted voluntarily and no longer left his master.
Thus, the powerful man got rid of the fence and the guard dogs, as he now could take the sheep at will when he needed their meat and their skin.
The sheep is the human spirit. The powerful man is one who wants to manipulate it. The fence, the dogs and the magician are the assistants of the oppressor.
Fencing in the spirit is to separate it from the world by ignorance. Surrounding it with guards is to keep it docile through violence and force, instilling fear into it. Finally, numbing the spirit degrades it with persuasion and beautiful falsehoods”.
Silo, Valparaíso, Chile, 1969
In totalitarian regimes where the Press is definitely restricted the visibility of the “guards” leaves no doubt about where the oppression is coming from, but “open societies” have learned more sophisticated ways to enforce conformity, and the Press has become the Magician that numbs our senses with unrealistic expectations, gives us the chance to live the lives of celebrities vicariously and finds scapegoats for everything that does not work out.
Can we really tell Information from Propaganda?
The good news is that now with the benefit of New Media and Alternative Media it has become much easier to verify sources and dig into the background of those presenting to us a particular “reality”. Do we bother to do it? Crisis is a wonderful alarm clock.
Can we be protected from defamation and press intrusion?
Human Rights legislation is increasingly adopted for the benefit of the citizens, but at the same time the means to access such legal right is made more and more restricted to the affluent, as Legal Aid is progressively withdrawn.
At the same time the surveillance industry, fuelled by massive investment in “antiterrorism strategies” advances like an unstoppable bulldozer. According to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism,
“When the government told the people of London that the eyes of the world would be on it during the Olympic Games, it failed to mention one particularly powerful watcher; a new software programme used for tracking potential troublemakers… Palantir has already won over intelligence agencies on both side of the Atlantic Ocean with its ability to assemble mountains of information and data for use in a cornucopia of causes. ‘The contradiction that we wanted to remove was between civil liberties and fighting terrorism,’ a Palantir co-founder said of his creation… The software processes large quantities of information from an almost endless range of data, including surveillance images, drone footage, electronic communications and health records…
In 2010, an adviser to Bank of America approached Palantir to help bring down WikiLeaks. While Palantir never approved the collaboration, emails from the adviser detail his desire to target Julian Assange’s company, use the software to help launch cyberattacks on WikiLeaks and close the net around WikiLeaks’ sources by obtaining data on who submits leaks and from where….”
In the face of new toys like this for the unscrupulous Media (News Corps got caught, but they are not a unique case, of course), the creation of independent regulators, codes of conduct and legal protection for victims of the Press can only be helpful. However, if there is no growing networking from the grassroots in the development of a different Media, committed to the creation of a different system where human well being rather than money is the central concern, no amount of regulation is likely to make any difference.