The Levenson Enquiry is the prelude to the end of press democracy. There is no point complaining about it and definitely no point in trying to stop it happening. A new post democratic hierarchy is being introduced in anticipation of the emerging internet press reaching full maturity, When that day comes the fully formed Internet press will have a ready made straitjacket waiting for it.
We say that the press in this country is democratic, but what exactly does this mean? Is this only rhetoric; as in: ‘we have a democratic press here in the west which makes us better than all those foreigners!’?
Contrary to a lot of ‘radical’ hot air, the western press is genuinely democratic, but we have to define accurately what this democracy means.
It is meaningless to describe any entity, from a nation to a football club, as being ‘democratic’ in the abstract. This reduces our understanding of democracy to nothing more than an exercise in brand marketing.
There is no such thing as absolute democracy that can be attained. An entity can only be defined as democratic in terms of something else. i.e. this country is more or less democratic than that country. But this ends up as an exercise in relativism which must inevitably break down into nothing more than rhetoric.
The only way that the relative democracy of any given entity can be defined in a meaningful way is against the resource over which it has control. The members of a democracy are equal precisely to the extent and nature that they are equal in their opportunities to exploit and control that resource.
Greek citizens enjoyed ‘people democracy’ as opposed to the slaves they owned. Their democratic rights were defined precisely by the rights their slaves did not have. Anglo Saxon American ‘Land democracy’ was enjoyed by Anglo Saxons in contrast to the Native Americans. They enjoyed land rights defined in precise opposition to the land rights the Natives did not have.
Now that I have outlined a general argument with regards to what democracy actually is, I will move to the specific example of press democracy.
Up until now every component part of the press in England was equal and it is this sense that they are ‘democratic’. The Redtops and the Broadsheets are generally regarded as having the same rights and obligations in society; they are in this sense, equal. But as I explained above these rights and obligations can only be defined in relation to a resource. In the case of the press, the resource is public opinion. in the same way that the resource of America’s land can be sub-divided into its constituent parts of arable land; forest; water etc. so the resource of Public opinion can be broken down further onto constituent parts.
One of these component parts is public reputation, as defined by Libel Laws in here in England. Libel Law specifically states that the more important you are the more reputation you have and therefore the more you have to lose if that reputation is impugned- Ordinary people have no reputation and therefore no basis for a civil remedy in law!
In practice this is shown in the fact that all libel cases have to be heard in the High Court in London at a prohibitively expensive cost which debars most people from taking part. And of course there has never been any Legal Aid for libel because the good name of the kind of people who rely on legal aid does not matter!!!
But do not let this distract you from the main point:
Even if you are some pleb who becomes rich enough to pursue a private prosecution using the libel laws (say you win the lottery or ‘American Idol’), the damages you receive will be dependent upon your reputation and the damage it received. The less reputation you had at the beginning, the less damage could have been done to it. Rich Plebs receive less of a payout than rich people of high reputation, even if the offence against them is the same.
Here then is one part of the free resource that is the basis for press democracy: the reputation of ‘ordinary’ people which is free to be exploited by all of the press democratically.
This worked reasonably well for a couple of hundred years. Of course in a modern society, this state of affairs could not be expected to continue. A number of high profile controversies have emerged that have ended the uncontested or free nature of the public reputation of ordinary people.
- The Hillsborough Disaster.
- The Case of Madeleine McCann
- The Milly Dowler Case.
These three cases have much in common.
- They concern the reputations of ‘ordinary’ people.
- The reputations of these people were impugned by the press.
- The ordinary people fought back politically and through the media.
- They are all directly cited as contributing to the State of Affairs that led to the Levenson Enquiry.
Since ordinary people are no longer willing to accept that their collective individual reputations are a free resource to be exploited by the press to sell the maximum number of papers they can, the democratic press is being cut off from its free unprotected resource.
In order to forestall the day, the press attempted to voluntarily give up its free for all ethos and replace it with self regulation. This is uncannily like those Roman senators who voluntarily acclaimed Caesar as emperor hoping that it was just a temporary measure which would be overturned by the returning republic. See how that worked out….
And now we see the advent of enforced regulation. What exactly will this mean?
There will be a hierarchy with the Broadsheets at the top, the Redtops below them and at the bottom the internet mob. This state sponsored hierarchy will control access the public reputation of the people. Broadsheets will given licence to attack certain reputations, responsibly and in the public interest of course. But the redtops and the internet mob will be forbidden from doing this for the most part.
The ‘free for all’ attitude to abusing the publics reputation will have gone. It will have been replaced with a self enforcing regulatory system that is backed up by the state. And press democracy, press freedom as it has been constituted for two hundred years will be over.
The interesting question that now arises is:
Should we give a damn?