This weekend’s Now Show on Radio Four had a succession of jokes about the apparent endlessness of the Leveson Inquiry. Most of them were funny, too, but the idea that the Leveson Inquiry could go on forever is perhaps not such a comic one. If you’ve been a keen follower of the video feed of the inquiry, it’s been a pleasure to watch senior politicians talk without trying to supply some dire, plastic sound-bite that’s been concocted for them by the spin doctors. For a taste of how grim and cynical politicians’ interactions with journalists can be, everyone should watch Ed Miliband’s woeful and famous “these strikes are wrong” performance. – http://youtu.be/PZtVm8wtyFI
In contrast to the berserk types of the mainstream right in the USA, it’s nice to see that many of our right wing politicians are at least identifiable as human beings, and that for the most part all our politicians are actually interested in and understand the value of evidence based policy. (Not something that viewing PM’s questions or reading the papers might convince you of.)
To have an arm of the judiciary constantly questioning the stories that the media tells us, and seeking to understand the dynamics of the various vested interests that have a hand in them, might be a very worthwhile exercise.
Much is made of the idea that “the public can make their own minds up” when it comes to duplicitous and dodgy reporting, especially by the smug rightists who know it’s not really true. Many people regard what they read in their paper as being at least partially true, even if they are sophisticated enough to appreciate that non-stories are bigged up and the truth is stretched an awful lot more than is healthy for it. The public would benefit from constantly being reminded that story tellers have agendas.
The telling and showing of story is fundamental to human culture. The people with the power to disseminate, control and authenticate story are hugely powerful. It has ever been thus. For many hundreds of years the institution which cornered the market in story was the Church, which used a top-down model, a pyramid of story-dissemination, with God at the apex, a situation which western society has yet to fully extricate itself from. Progress has been slow, but came on in leaps and bounds once we started teaching everyone to read the books the new printing presses could turn out.
Other systems grew up, all essentially in the shape of pyramids, but with different leaders. Hollywood has grown into an empire largely concerned with making profit from story-telling, and because it seeks to create the broadest market it can, it creates stories which match the bell curve of the public’s perception of good story values, and for the most part, mushes them up to make them easy to chew and digest. In this regard, Hollywood is the most democratic story generator, and if you look into the unwritten rules which all Hollywood films subject themselves to in search of maximum market, you will find, in the most successful ones, an elegant and sophisticated sampling of the zeitgeist of when they were written, performed, shot and cut.
In these stories there is usually a villain character who is megalomaniac, in pursuit of absolute power simply because they must have it, either indifferent to the human suffering their ambition causes, or actively enjoying it as they recognize it means they are making progress. They are entirely corrupt and seek to corrupt others along the way, discarding them once they are no longer of use.
Which brings us to Rupert Murdoch, the Voldemort of the media industry. Or perhaps the witch character from Hansel and Gretel would be a more resonant baddie. Luring them in with the candy house of the sport they crave, and fattening them up for politicization once they’ve subscribed. Rupert Murdoch perfectly understands the power of story-telling, which is why he wants to be the only story-teller there is. He wants to own the truth, just like the church once did.
What kind of heroism can stop him? We have it in Britain in abundance, which is why Murdoch’s influence is felt so much less here than in America. Watch Fox News for the culture shock that a truly brutally polarized political spectrum can afford you. We don’t have that here. For the most part, British politicians are sincere in their beliefs, and support, or at least pay lip service to, some version of the idea of decency, integrity and fair play.
The great question for the Leveson inquiry is: Did our politicians sell their soul to this man? Did they make a deal? Did they make it clear that they would help him in his endeavors in return for a little sugar and grease from his well-stocked larder? Does anyone need to ask whether Murdoch’s empire would be happy to operate in this fashion? I don’t think they do. The real question is “Has this man become so powerful that his operation has nurtured corruption in British politics?”
Ever optimistic, I think the answer is not so much, but he would if he could, and we’d better be on our guard against it, as it’s an insidious and creeping kind of corruption. Happily, and even more optimistically, I don’t think Murdoch’s got long enough left to live to be able to achieve it. After his demise, there will be a feeding frenzy of greed for the component part s of his operation. No-one wealthy enough to buy it is available who’d supply the naked ego and will to keep building it up.
But perhaps something Lord Leveson should remind us of is that we are already possessed of a magnificent tradition of Britishness personified in the idea that is the BBC. Lately the BBC has been hobbled and humbled and has lost its way somewhat. Its best traditions, of even handedness in its approach to news, have not been showcased as a source of pride, while it has s sought to “compete” inappropriately with organisations hungry for what they see as their “market share” with distinctly un-BBC-ish programmes that merely ape those that the commercial sector provides.
A catalyst for the BBC’s demise has been its far better match for the gamut of British Political opinion than any newspaper provides. Seen by the left as rightist and the right as leftist, it finds few friends among the real power-players of British politics, the vast majority of whom sit either to the left or the right. They know it’s not worth their effort to try and curry favour with the BBC, whose remit is to be scrupulously even handed. Maybe Leveson could recommend that an extra duty it could take on should be to continuously remind us that the people who tell and sell us stories have an agenda to pursue. The Leveson Inquiry could become the BBC’s Leveson Show, with a politician or major media figure being grilled under oath every day in pursuit of the real truths about the stories we see generated by politicians and the newspapers. Every day it could give right of reply to the poor people slandered and slighted and ridden over roughshod by the gutter press. Every day it could remind us that stories are told by people with agendas to promote, and assess their veracity and the reasons for their telling.
What could be more British than that? The world would be impressed, and the BBC given a little kudos and recognition for the role it plays in British life. Britain’s self-respect at home and its reputation abroad would benefit enormously. The antidote to a constant stream of disinformation is surely a constant stream of corrections, and a constant reminder of how and why news is made, gathered, sifted and disseminated. An endless investigation by a nationally trusted arbiter could be an elegant solution.