Charlie Beckett: British press will never be the same again

BRITISH PRESS AFTER LEVESON. The phone hacking scandal and the following Leveson Inquiry has turned into a kind of trial on british press, with discussions on future regulations of the press.
   Charlie Beckett, director of Polis – the journalism think-tank at the London School of Economics – welcomes the reform that Leveson might bring, but says it is possible that British newspapers will get their ethical spring-clean too late. 

I spend a lot of my time explaining the London tabloid newspapers  to international journalists . So when a Swedish journalist came to visit me recently, I was expecting the worst when she told me she had been reading English newspapers. But in fact she loved them.
   "They are so much more exciting than Swedish newspapers", she said. "They really want your attention and they make everything sound important and controversial."

That is the good side of the British press: highly competitive, innovative, critical and entertaining. The Leveson Inquiry  means they will never be the same again. They key question is whether we will lose the virtues by trying to deal with the vices.
   The Leveson Inquiry is charged with investigating the specific scandal, largely revealed by The Guardian newspaper, around phone-hacking and the role of the police. It is also charged to report on future regulation of the press.

So in effect it has become a court to judge British newspaper journalism as a whole. Remember, two men have already gone to jail over phone-hacking, but this inquiry goes much further than that specific abuse.
   The Inquiry has already had effect. The tabloid press has gone very quiet. The UK’s biggest selling newspaper has been closed (The News of the World) only to re-open under a new name (Sun on Sunday) and in a rather more modest style.

Pretty much all editors have already accepted that regulation must move from feeble self-regulation to independent regulation with more teeth. I think that is a very good thing.
   Politicians of all parties were very keen to keep in with people like Rupert Murdoch and newspaper editors until this scandal broke. Now suddenly they have discovered the idea of an ethical press. But it does now mean that public expectations of transparency from everyone in public life (something you are much more used to in Sweden) have been raised.  That is also a very good thing.

Real issues remain. In a market where annual 5% readership decline is now the norm time is running out. Resources are already depleted. Tabloids used to carry out investigative and campaigning anti-establishment political reporting as well as all the celebrity gossip and sports, but that is vanishing fast. 
   So it is possible that British newspapers will get their ethical spring-clean too late. Leveson does not tackle the bigger problems of ownership. After all it is the proprietors and their management who oversees the newsroom culture and allowed these abuses because it boosted their profit and their power.

I welcome the reforms that Leveson might bring. But its fascinating hearings where journalists are put in the dock often feel a little bit like those historical TV costume dramas that we are so good at producing in the UK. It sometimes looks like a lot of old-fashioned people talking about the past.
   Newspapers are still very influential in the UK at setting the agenda on issues, partly because our broadcasters are obliged to be balanced. But the power of the press is waning.

This has as much to do with the Internet as any improvement in public morality or regulatory changes. The public is just as hypocritical about these scandals as before. They say they disapprove, but they continue reading. In fact, when they stop reading newspapers and go online it is often to read even more salacious scandal on gossip and celebrity websites.

I think there are two kinds of journalism that will thrive in the digital era. Firstly, there will be cheap, down-market, traffic-chasing celebrity, lifestyle and entertainment journalism like the Daily Mail Online. It is very well produced and gathers massive global traffic. It might be that some of the profits from it will support the good journalism that the Mail produces, too. But not everyone can pull off that trick.
   The other route is to provide new journalism and associated services to a community of people who value trusted and useful information.

This kind of journalism will have to be much more open and interactive so that the public feel their have a stake in the reporting and debate it creates. I call it ‘networked journalism’ and I have written about it in my book SuperMedia. It is very much the route of the Journalism 3.0 project. But it can also be something disruptive and challenging like WikiLeaks, which I have written about in my new book WikiLeaks: News In The Networked Era .

Of course, newspapers will survive as they change. We will lose some media organizations along the way but then journalism has always done that. After Leveson British journalism will look a bit different, but the radical forces for reform are digital, not judicial

Charlie Beckett
Director of Polis, the journalism think-tank at
the London School of Economics.
Used to work at the BBC and ITN’s Channel 4 News
Charlie Beckett's blog

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