And so the Leveson report has finally been published, re-igniting the well-worn debate about the freedom of the press versus the rights and privacy of ordinary people (and Hugh Grant). What sort of press do we want? Do we want one which is controlled by an independent authority, policed and punished whenever it transgresses a set of predefined rules and boundaries? Or do we want one which can do and say whatever it likes in the pursuit of the “truth” and freedom of speech?
Ironic that even this very debate about the media is conducted within the media in typically positioned and emotive terms. Opinionated and indignant people line up on either side to voice their immovable views, shouting each other down in so-called debates. We have let down every person who has ever been a “victim of the press”. Or we are edging towards 1984 and “may as well not have won the war”.
But the unpalatable fact is that we already have the press we want and pay for. The decrease in sales of newspapers in not a result of some moralistic backlash, a sudden epidemic of good-taste or some widespread return to so-called traditional values. No, it is because we prefer to have our smut, sensationalism and sound-bytes served up online, than the bother of turning the pages of an actual newspaper.
I say this from the moral and rather smug high-ground of being a paid-up Guardian reader. So in the interests of research I had a look at The “online” Sun. Within a couple of scrolls I counted 18 pictures of under-dressed young females. Now, I am not particularly puritanical or prudish – although I could go on about sexism, sexualisation and exploitation, with good cause. But what struck me most was how lazy this so-called journalism is. It is easy to produce and even easier to consume.
“Bikini-clad Candice gets her puppies out” could have been written by a 13 year old in the playground. They were Jack Russells before you bother checking. Celebrities and breasts being just two of the far-too-easy options for catching the consumer’s attention – along with royalty, crime, scandal and free holidays.
The Sun is, of course, just one example of the dumbing down of the media and culture. We have become anaesthetised into easy-consumerism and have switched off our brains and our critical faculties. I, for one, prefer a good quality challenging drama/comedy/documentary to yet-another so-called Reality TV show. I would rather enjoy a properly cooked meal to a pre-prepared plastic-wrapped chicken jalfrezi. I prefer a real-life conversation to a social-media chat. But yes, that was me you saw, last Tuesday eating my microwaved chow mien, watching “I’m a Celebrity” whilst facebooking with my daughter. Convenience is rather tempting. Get me out of here!
And so back to Leveson. Surely we need to impose some more rules and control on the press, with appropriate dire consequences for those who break them?
Last week I tried to do something similar at work. People were building software solutions without having completed the design. Rather like constructing a conservatory without any drawings. I called a meeting to agree a detailed set of criteria and procedures to put a stop this heinous crime, with mechanisms for exposing it and serious consequences for those who transgressed.
One of the directors who had vehemently criticised this sort of bad building practice, gate-crashed my meeting. I was fine with this. It was like the headmaster joining the staff meeting to tighten up the school rules. But, no, he said we were going about it all the wrong way. We didn’t need more rules, procedures, policing or punishment. We needed to persuade people the sense and value of doing the right thing. That, even under pressure of time, it is better to look before you leap, design before you build. We needed to engage people’s hearts and minds.
Of course he was right. When rules are being ignored, the overwhelming temptation is to add in more rules. This is the first recourse of those who cannot win the argument, but seek to impose their own views by authority, rule of law or force. Dictators have suppressed and destroyed whole countries on the back of this state of mind.
People do not react to rules by meekly obeying them and thanking those who thought of them for their great wisdom and kindness. No, they find clever and ingenious ways around them. Adding more tax-law creates an industry of accountants helping people to find cunning ways around them. Speed cameras spurn an industry of camera-spotting technology. MPs displayed remarkable imagination and energy in maximising their expenses. There is nobody quite so creative as a rule-evader or a criminal.
When I was at school, in the light of increasing disregard for the school uniform standards, the headmaster added in more rules. A schoolboy error. Although the schoolboys were cleverer than him. Haircuts and tie-knots were created which met the letter of the law but mocked and ridiculed its spirit.
Of course we need sensible laws and rules which are fairly enforced. But the real answer to the problem of the press is ethics. We need editors and journalists who have integrity and humanity. We need politicians, celebrities and other people in positions of power to behave with more self-respect and humility. And we, dear readers, need to stop tut-tutting about the behaviour of the press whilst at the same time buying their papers and adding clicks to their websites. Rewarding bad-behaviour only encourages it.
We need a hearts and minds debate about what is good, what is right, what is honest and what is fair. And then we need to do what we believe in.
I think most people know what they want from the media and from society as a whole. Hopefully there will, one day, be a backlash against the tide of superficiality, sex and sensationalism. Assuming it is not too late and we are not all intellectually comatose and brain-dead by then.
Please do “like” this if you do, or give it marks out of 5, or even better, extend the debate in the comments section.