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Real Freedom Sounds Like Many Voices

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The press regulation debate is pitiful and we deserve – and can have – better. My article from Bella Caledonia

I have unburdened myself of the frustration I feel at the way I feel about how the media regulation debate has been covered in the Scottish press. Since then I’ve been contacted by a number of people who share my frustration but who want to know if there are other options for media regulation or other possibilities or arguments that are being censored in this debate. Yes there are – all of them.

What I want to do with the hour or so I have this morning is to set out what I would like to put forward as a framework for how we should be discussing this issue in Scotland. I’d then like to go on to suggest how I would resolve some of the issues contained in that framework to see if there is a workable way forward.

There are so many reasons I want to do this. I want to do it because it is unhealthy that so many people have so little access to any divergence of views on this subject – it’s like Soviet Russia out here where anything that the Our Beloved Media Leaders don’t want you to here is disappeared. I want to do it because the terms that have been set (you either oppose all regulation or you are a fascist and there is no ground in between) are utterly ludicrous. I want to do it because the tone of this debate is unhinged – one commentator usually quite quick to ridicule hyperbole in others claims the McLusky report “would make Scotland a byword for repression”. I’ve heard everything from totalitarianism to dictatorship dropped casually into conversation. This is beyond ludicrous. I want to do it because in all of this there is an assumption that ‘we’ all know why ‘they’ in the media are so very, very important and I’m not sure either side really gets it.

But above all, I want to do it because I care very deeply about print journalism in Scotland. Unlike a few in the media I really believe that access to good and diverse news and opinion is essential to a functioning democracy. I believe that a healthy media is a sign of a healthy nation. I still read newspapers with the reverence of old; here in my hands is a window into a world of information I would otherwise not have access to. Even the declining quality of reporting in the Scottish press is (mainly) better than ignorance. Plus as a former journalist I still get that buzz from picking up an inky newspaper to read (hopefully) some of the best minds telling me their opinions on What Just Happened. I care very deeply about Scotland’s print journalism.

And I refute not completely but very largely the lazy arguments from the left/indy side of things that the Scottish press is inherently right-wing and unionist and somehow beyond redemption. I reject the idea that journalists individually and collectively are bringers of ill-will. It has not – mainly – been my experience of many years of working with them. Yes they right to a very clear brief and yes I can tell when I look at my caller ID that the next half hour is going to end up with one reaction quote from me stuck at the bottom of an article stressing the opposite of my position. C’est la vie – that’s the way it works. I will maintain here as I have elsewhere that both the left generally and the independence movement generally have contributed greatly to their media exclusion by not trying, their consciences salved because ‘the media is biased’. Well, I still can count on my fingers recent occasions on which either an indy story or a leftie story that deserved to be reported wasn’t reported or was given such a ridiculously low prominence that it might as well not have been.

I state this to explain where I begin. So here are some suggestions from me on how we might, one day, discuss this issue like adults.

The principle

I do not hold up ‘freedom of the press’ as a particularly important principle. What I believe are the fundamental principles of a ‘free’ society are freedom of information and freedom of opinion. Freedom of information is important because it is fundamental to all of our ability to make meaningful decisions about our society and our lives. For that principle to function we need to have easy, clear access to a wide range of relevant information which is accurate and comprehensible and to a range of views, opinions and analyses of that information from differing perspectives to help inform us. It begins with the right to leave the house, the right to read a book, the right to talk to our friends. At this point ‘producer’s rights’ (the right of one self-designated person to be the publisher of books or the person who ‘allows’ you to leave your house) don’t detain me.

The second principle is freedom of opinion. I debated whether to use ‘freedom of expression’, but just as the freedom of information is more fundamental as in the right to gain information about the world through the personal experience of not being imprisoned (for example) I think it is important to make clear that it is not the right to speak that matters first of all but the right to decide what it is we ourselves think. Freedom of expression relies on having a personal view to express; that is more fundamental than the right to talk incessantly (with the assumption that the right to share an idea is contained in the right to hold it).

These lead on to what I’m going to refer to here as ‘second order’ rights – expressions of the ideas contained in the freedoms of information and opinion. So once we have a right to access information in our society we need to recognise that there is too much information and too many possible individual opinions to be usable. So not only do we have a right to information we have a right to ‘hear’ different views of that information. If we have only tables of data most people don’t have usable information. If we are given only one possible interpretation of that table of data we equally don’t gain enough information to make use of it. Our right to talk is held above all rights; our right to hear is at least as important (unfashionable as it is to point it out, not every opinion or view is of equal value which is why I’m not writing here on bioscientific technological advance about which I know even less than I do about Scottish politics…). If we do not get a chance to expose ourselves to diversity we might as well have a state-controlled media. Next to that, the right of expression is of course vital, a second-order right to the right to opinions I de-emphasise here only because it is so over-emphasised as the fundamental right elsewhere.

Then, somewhere below all of this we get to third-order rights, like the right to not be defamed, the right of government to provide ‘official’ statistics, the right of protest, and the freedom of the press.

I labour this point for a reason – if we can’t see from this why freedom of the press need not be sacrosanct then we can’t have this debate. If it is impossible to imagine a media which is so fundamentally corrosive to the public good that to protect it is worse than to control it then we have no way of having this debate. If every newspaper in Britain was bought up by a network of neo-Nazis who every day ran endless false propaganda targeted at the usual suspects, would we still claim that a day-to-day litany of lies and hate would be protected by the fundamental right of the press to do absolutely anything it likes is inviolable? If not, we recognise that freedom of the press is only one freedom and it does not offer blanket immunity to the media to trample over other fundamental rights.

The web

Very simply, it’s still all about print. All that (this) blogging, all that tweeting, all that Facebook liking – still it is the professional media who define and control almost all of what we understand as ‘news and debate’. Hurray for that (mostly) – again, not all opinions are equal and if someone doesn’t ‘triage’ it for us we would struggle to manage. Even some of the best bloggers have severe limitations. When I blog (not that I’m putting myself into the category of ‘best’) and I’m making a particularly contentious point I will try and give a specific reference. But when I was a journalist I would ALWAYS have to reference a statement. I wrote about a controversial aspect of something happening in a political party. I made sure to get more than one source for it. A properly-functioning newspaper requires two sources for everything. Don’t fret yourselves about the web – that’s only a matter of defamation. Hacked Off is about privacy and it has a battle to fight with the Twitter-sphere. If we’re talking about the functional role of media to society it matters not – that’s just criminality, not a fundamental element of democracy. And don’t email me stories which came from ‘the web’ as if this is new or I’ll start emailing you back ‘things on the web that weren’t stories’. My point will be to demonstrate that it is still only a story if the media picks it up. It is still about the professional media.

The state

Concepts of ‘the state’ are ever-more corrupted in our society. Today another Tory is suggesting that any requirement relating to accuracy and the media is the establishment of an Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth’. I now await his call for criminal trials to be abolished on the basis that they too are an attempt by the state to arrive at a single agreed ‘truth’ about guilt and innocence.

Put simple, no-one but no-one is suggesting ‘governmental’ control over the media, or that the media should ever answer to the demands of one political grouping or another. The media is conveniently pretending that’s what is happening but it isn’t. Society needs means to manage behaviour in ways that protect its interests and the state is the vehicle for that. Let’s start thinking in terms of ‘social control’ so that we can stop dismissing any idea of control by conflating it with political interference in ordinary life. There is an enormous range of options which lie between Alex Salmond having the right to dictate front page content unhindered and Rupert Murdoch having the right to dictate front page content with no responsibility to society. The state is not the government.


Continuing on from our Ministry of Truth jibes, does truth matter? Is there any such thing as truth? Does the media have any duty or responsibility to truth? How can truth be defined? Is subverting truth the same as lying? Where is the line between truth and opinion? Should newspapers be allowed to lie knowingly and with intent? Should they be allowed to distort information for political ends? When does distortion cross over into lying?

If the media is about freedom of information, surely the integrity of the information is equally as important as a newspaper’s right to print it?

State of health

If the media matters, then it’s state of health matters. Here I think everyone can agree that if we don’t have properly-resourced newspapers able to properly cover the news then what point is their freedom or otherwise? To consider ‘regulation’ outside of a debate about the functioning capacity of the media we have is a mistake. I think everyone would also agree that the state of health of the Scottish media suggests too many pies and not enough fruit. I was recently called by a senior features writer who said ‘I’m really sorry, I’ve never covered politics before but we’re short staffed – could you explain…’ and went on to ask me an absolutely basic question. Not the journalist’s fault, a function of a newsroom where if one person gets the cold the newspaper can’t cover the news properly. Subs – the people who used to double-check what went into newspapers for accuracy, coherence and quality – are almost like a folk tale now in an era where a journalist knocks out the copy and sticks it straight onto the page and in real time onto the website.

One senior journalist I spoke to openly pointed out that they’d rather have nutters posting at the bottom of their online stories than no-one – it at least makes you look like you’re alive. And if you haven’t heard rumours on a weekly basis that one publication or another is about to go ‘web only’ (i.e. close down as a newspaper) then you don’t work near the Scottish media. And if you think being a journalist is a great career option you’ve been watching too much TV. I think back on all the good journalists I’ve worked with who are now in PR, often unwillingly. Again, because I care about the media this makes me very doomy about the current state of affairs.

People argue that having a government without having a free press to hold it to account is like having a children’s swimming pool without having a lifeguard. This analogy holds somewhat – but only if the lifeguard is alive.

Capacity and competence

Irrespective of whether a newspaper has enough staff and basic investment, there is also a question of competence and capacity. Many of the left economists I know believe that there was no possible way for the media to properly hold RBS and the big financial scam to account because there was a fundamental lack of financial literacy in the media. This is probably true. That we read so much about ‘Scotland and the EU’ from newspapers which are structurally unable to really report on the EU (never mind the rest of the world) suggests a problem. Do we have a media capable of ‘reporting Scotland’ and reporting the world to Scotland? No, and it’s not just about the number of staff but a state of mind. Too many Scottish publications are happy to take 90 per cent of content straight from media releases and then brag about the ten per cent which is ‘properly’ reported. That is a state of mind and I don’t think people really understand just how much we have moved towards ‘parroting’ rather than ‘reporting’. The career structure is now limited, insecure and in every way mitigates against specialisation or learning a trade. There is a capacity problem.

News values

One of the problems of the Scottish media is that it has been sucked into the UK system of ‘news values’. If crime stats go down there is no-one to pillory, no opposition politician to go mental, no fear to be shoved up the readership; these are the things currently taken to be a ‘good story’. A leak is a story because it is a leak, irrespective of content. The same document leaked is a bigger news story than if it is published. Identical content but somehow more important. ‘Human interest’ matters a lot – because we all believe it does. Tabloids still believe that ‘tits and ass’ is a necessary evil (and I’m giving some benefit of the doubt there). The more hysterical the content the more important. All of this is in some ways much worse than many of the other aspects of the media regularly discussed. The question ‘what is news?’ is one anyone in the business can answer in practical terms without thinking – you just get sucked into a group-think position on what is news.

On this I must declare complete and utter complicity – I made a career out of turning ‘events’ into ‘news’ by poking and prodding them until they fit the criteria. ‘Here’s our publication, here’s the shock-horror bit, not the important bit but the eye-catching bit, here’s a tame rent-a-quote who will go mental about this on my behalf, now there’s your story.’ This is why many of you will disagree with me that the media is not straightforwardly anti-indy or anti-left; I assess the news values of what I’ve seen coming out in terms of editorial news values. I sort-of implicitly reinforce those values in so doing. This is a tricky one…

Advertising and finance

A question to consider: if a free press is inherent to democracy, why is there advertising in it? The practical answer is that they need the money to hold it together even financially as much as they currently manage. But what is the implication? Here is the fundamental means of defining meaning and knowledge in our society – why can I buy a page to tell you, next to a story about LIBOR rigging, that I’m running a wonderful bank and you have nothing to worry about? There is no natural relationship between news and advertising and many negative consequences. All newspapers hold back stories that would offend advertisers (not on every occasion but enough to be a worry). But more importantly, newspapers design themselves for advertising. Advertising distorts news. Perhaps we might talk about this.

Ownership and politics

Few people now seek to own national newspapers for reasons of profit – they struggle to make money and there are better ways to increase your wealth. They have many other purposes, just not profit.

Why do we conflate ‘freedom of the press’ with ‘the right to pay for control of the press’? No-one I have read is defending the rights of journalists against their proprietors – that would be a real debate about ‘freedom of the press’. When it becomes ‘no Mr Murdoch I refuse to write up this character assassination because I don’t believe it to be fair, true or balanced’ then perhaps we’re having a debate about freedom of the press.

What we are actually having a debate about is the right of very, very rich people to control our society outside of any oversight or regulation. There is no difference between the self-interest of bankers who make their dominance over our lives a fundamental matter of public good (as in ‘we’re too big and too important to fail so you have no option but to do as we tell you and give us what we want’) and media proprietors who do the same.

When did money become synonymous with justice, fairness, freedom and democracy? What is democratic in claiming that anyone with vast sums of money may at a whim be granted the right to mediate between power and the people with no responsibilities other than the very most basic criminal ones? And since money goes hand in hand with ideology, let’s not kid on that this is anything other than a money-based political ideology. I reject completely and utterly any idea that there is a ‘right’ of ‘ownership’ of the media since it is fundamentally in opposition to the key principles above – the right to hear diversity.


Finally, if the media is so damned important, what do we make of the exodus of readers from the mainstream dailies? Is it financial? Is it the impact of the neoliberal strategy of alienating people from politics? Does it even matter enough to talk about? Well, surely if this is about freedom of information it matters deeply. We need to talk about getting people reading freely, not just a small gang writing freely.
So that’s the framework over – what would I do?

You can agree with all or part of this framework and not agree with what comes next. This is my attempt to show that the ‘received wisdom’ of ‘there’s nothing we can do – live with it’ is wrong.

We need more diversity in ownership if we are to meet the ‘freedom of hearing’ criteria. And it must not be only diversity of rich people but real diversity. We need some means of sustaining newspapers other than through the whim of financiers. If free news is too important to be left to government it is certainly too important to be left to the people who brought you the Great Financial Crash. That media must be truly free – from the many little oppressions of advertisers, from the ideological whims of one group of proprietors, from government, from political parties. That seems impossible in our current ownership structures.

But we also need truth from our media. We can no longer accept a situation where people who read certain newspapers know significantly less factual information about the world than they would if they read no newspapers. In that we need to differentiate better between news and opinion. But that means nothing if the newspapers don’t have the capacity to invest in proper news or if people aren’t reading it anyway. We need more and ‘better’ journalists (quotes round better because I don’t mean to suggest it’s the fault of the journalist but the space and support they are given to develop). And none of this matters if we don’t have sustainability – we must know newspapers are here to stay.

There are few ways in which our existing media meets this high standard – partly its own fault, partly not. The quality is in rapid decline, the scope and coverage being dragged down behind it. The diversity of voice is declining, not opening up. Accuracy is not a by-word for reporting any more. Bias is universal and mainly in one direction.

Someone from the Scottish media commenting on my other piece suggested that there was something in what I had written but this not-ideal situation is better than the alternative. Well, I propose another not-ideal solution which in fact seems better than the status quo.

I would shift the national media (reporting on national and international news on a daily basis in print and over a certain level of circulation) from the private sector to the not-for-profit sector. I would then provide absolutely insulated public support for the press – call it state funding if you want, but with no control and no capacity to pick and choose. I would then get involved in a big discussion about what might represent a balanced media – how many titles at different segments of the market are necessary to give some reflection of wider social opinions and attitudes. I would then propose a franchising system – happy to call it licensing if you want and be not the slightest ashamed – which would distribute the right to run the various titles the discussion on range concluded in a means to create real diversity. The franchising might be done on a random jury basis – 15 people selected at random to hear bids from various non-profit trusts for each franchise and free to make a decision (with some professional support). This might happen every three or five years. The decision would be influenced by various metrics (circulation, number of upheld complaints of defamation, intrusion, inaccuracy or whatever might be a definition of performance) and some of the income would be circulation-related while some would be a public-good grant in aid.

Regulation would of course cover defamation and then there would be a debate about privacy (I always have mixed views on privacy and have ducked the issue here partly because I don’t think it’s all that important to democracy). But I think it should also cover ‘veracity’ – in news (not opinion) it should be possible to challenge a newspaper over factual inaccuracy. I just think of this as sort-of ‘defamation of the truth’ or ‘social defamation’. You can’t call Lord X a paedophile if he isn’t; why can you claim Lithuania has a nuclear weapon pointed at Edinburgh if it isn’t true? It cannot be beyond the wit of man to come up with a simple system of arbitrating the difference between truth and a lie (with the benefit of the doubt clearly in favour of the right of expression). I think there might be a case for extending this to factual statements in opinion – ‘France is a smelly country’ is opinion but ‘France executes the disabled’ is a lie.

I would pay for all of this with a compulsory subscription (I know, us lefties are always putting our hands in your pockets…); in fact, in an independent Scotland I’d just conflate it with the TV license fee and make everyone pay a couple of hundred quid a year for the sake of defending the principle of a free, diverse and competent media. I would then look at the economics of offering everyone the right to one of the newspapers being delivered free to them every morning as a right stemming from the responsibility to protect a really free press. Hopefully it would get people reading again.

What would this look like? At first I would suggest that it might result in three tiers of three newspapers and that Scottish-based titles would initially be assumed to be the vehicles for this. So the Scotsman might become a centre-right newspaper with a not-for-profit board made up of business-orientated people and those on the right of the political spectrum. The Herald could continue it’s drift towards the centre where it’s board might be made up of the great and good of business and civic Scotland, people who don’t consider themselves too political. Then a sort of daily Sunday Herald might cover centre left politics with a board of left-leaning academics and thinkers. At the mid end you would probably need to start from scratch inventing a Scottish Daily Mail on the right, and then a centrist and leftist equivalent (who knows what such things would look like). At the tabloid end the Record might drift left, something spinning off from the Sun covering the right and something that looked not unlike the Metro covering the centre.

They would all be properly financed to be able to sustain a proper pool of journalists who would then be able to develop their skills in a secure job. They would make decisions about how to cover international-versus-sport or features-versus-politics based on something wider than the fear of immediate advertiser or reader flight. Papers could specialise – one might put serious money into investigative journalism, another develop a more complete lifestyle approach to news. They would be genuinely free from all but their board – so long as they don’t act criminally, contravene defamation laws or tell knowing lies to readers. I imagine them with little or no advertising – in the main body of the newspapers at least (adverts in magazine supplements could be treated differently). My hope would be that we would get from this not only diversity of voices but a new diversity of news values. Some of us would definitely like to pick up a calmer, less shouty newspaper in the morning.

Then, in three or five years’ time they would be up for ‘refranchise’. If a title had seen a severe drop in readership then it would find it hard to make a case for retaining the franchise – not all market discipline would be lost in this. Then competing non-profit trusts could get together and really challenge the existing titles by being more innovative, offering new approaches or just being better. That would be competition in an upwards direction, not the downward spiral of competition we currently witness.

Downsides to this? There are of course a number. Above all, this would require that titles other than the franchised ones would be banned. Now I know this would be met with yelps of horror from some, but that is the effective position just now. It is almost impossible to break a new title into the pay-print market and so it is already a closed shop. My suggestion is simply that the closed shop be put in diverse hand. There are also risks stemming from not having to fight for your income, but then it is hard to see that the BBC is under insufficient pressure over performance from being in the same position. It doesn’t address the web, but I’d probably leave the web alone anyway for the reasons suggested above; this has all been about the status of the national newspapers as arbiters. It always leaves open the risk of political interference with overall funding – although governments would be prevented by statute from influencing the funding of any given title, only the sum given in total. Government could monkey around with the criteria a franchise jury are given to make their choice. Then again, governments can do pretty much as they like anyway so you can’t stop all potential abuses of power.

Perhaps one day we could ‘privatise’ the tiles again if we generated a healthy, balanced media culture in Scotland. It might be preferable, it might not. And no, I’m not unaware that this too would be a less than perfect solution. But it seems to me infinitely preferable to the current less-than-perfect solution.

My apologies to all for the length of this – but I wanted to attempt something serious in the face of the utter rubbish that has been spoken and written on this subject. I want to emphasise that there are alternatives to the collapsing, failing system we have. I want to demonstrate that if we start from a calm and balanced framework of values and understandings then we can end up somewhere better than we are. I also want to show that there is more possible than the proprietors will allow you to hear.

I don’t expect everyone (anyone!) to agree with all of this. But I do think it would offer a decent framework for discussion if a sensible discussion were to be permitted.

However, today this is mainly for the many thousands of people in Scotland on this horrible, snowy morning who suspect that there might be something more to be said about this whole debate than the mainstream media has allowed. I am not holding my breath in the hope of progress. But a little bit of my enthusiasm, optimism and faith in the possibility of ‘being better’ remains tied up with my deep love of the news media, my commitment to their essential role in democracy and my personal belief that something better is possible.

Robin McAlpine