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The not-so-free press

George Orwell famously said journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.  In a world festooned with PR exercises and reputation management, was Mr Orwell overly cynical, or was he well ahead of his time?

With print media’s business model in free fall, newspaper proprietors are increasingly desperate to find ways to ensure financial viability. The problem with this approach is that corporate interests can and often do trump the interests of readers.

Joining us to discuss how free the UK press really is are the lecturer in journalism and media studies at Birkbeck College, Justin Schlosberg, and the editor of Open Media at openDemocracy, James Cusick.

So, how free is the UK press at the moment?

Schlosberg tells Renegade Inc. that depends on what we mean by ‘free’.

“I think in the kind of conventional narrative of the liberal press, freedom of the press has always meant freedom from state control, state intervention, state influence,” he says. “I think we need to take a much broader view of what a free press means, including freedom from, for example, corporate and commercial pressures that can be just as corruptive of journalism’s social purpose and its contribution to democratic life.”

Peter Oborne probably said it best when he resigned from the Daily Telegraph in 2014 because ostensibly, according to him, the Telegraph wouldn’t allow him to publish the stories that he wanted to publish, particularly in regard to the embroiling scandal surrounding HSBC at the time, which happened to be one of the Telegraph’s biggest account holders. And in his resignation letter he said very clearly that what we have seen in recent years, with the rise of the intensifying commercial pressures on newspapers, we’ve seen the emergence of what he called ‘shadowy executives’ who determine what truths can and can’t be told across the press. The reality is this is not just affecting newspapers, it’s happening in broadcast, sometimes for different reasons. The BBC has been under all sorts of financial pressures for a long time and it’s very clear that there is also a kind of climate of caution that has surrounded BBC News and current affairs.

“The reality is, journalism that is not risky is not real journalism.”

Low profits = low risk environment

Is there a caused and effect between business models in decline, and journalists that can no longer afford to take risks anymore?

James Cusick tells Renegade Inc. that he takes exception with one thing:

“I think we have a relatively free press,” he says. “What we also have, which is, say, different from the 1920s or ‘30s, is a press under great scrutiny. We’ve had decades of the rich proprietor, the press baron, all of those things that were notorious.

“You owned a newspaper for its influence, you didn’t own a newspaper because it was going to make you a lot of money.

“So the Beaverbrooks, the great men of journalism, at one point there was just as much commercial influence there as there is at the moment but there was a lot less scrutiny: from investigative journalists, from the public who want to know that if they’re buying a newspaper that there’s a division of church and state inside that newspaper, a division between the editorial content, which is meant to be free, independent and and driven by the journalists. That’s the church.  And advertising, which is the part that drove the wealth of newspapers. (That’s state).

“Now, with the arrival of the internet, that classic business model which was only ever about the delivery of money and revenue through circulation, the money you paid for the paper plus the content and advertising in it. The advertising is in free fall. The internet is taking care of that, and if you like, the internet sites that are accompanying each newspaper don’t make the money that they were predicted to make. So what do you do if your business model is broken? What you do is you invent or you try to invent another stream of income.”

We’ve now got to a stage of sponsored content or native content, meaning newsrooms can badge content up to look as though it’s the news, but it’s not technically news, because that part of the newspaper is bought and paid for.

“That’s the big debate,” says Cusick. “And that’s what I meant by scrutiny.”

But that’s where the trust capital with readers is lost. When something is badged or dressed as something and it isn’t actually what it seems.

Papers have always been about power and influence

Schlosberg takes slightly different approach to the history of journalism.

“In fact, things haven’t changed all that much in terms of newspaper power,” he says. “I think the first thing to remember is that newspaper revenues have actually been in steady decline pretty much since the late 1950s, since the introduction of television.

“Yes, the internet had a somewhat catalytic effect, but actually, the entire business model of newspapers really has always been about a progressive consolidation. Cuts to news gathering resources. Cuts to editorial content in favour of making more space for advertising. More sensationalism, more and more infotainment, whatever you want to call it. This has been going on for decades. The reality is, what motivates people to own newspapers today, I think, is still not that different from what motivated them in the era of Beaverbrooks. It’s political power and influence.”

The journalism lecturer says it is no surprise that the two most frequent visitors to Number 10 and Number 11 Downing Street, based on a piece of research conducted by the university leading up to the announcement of the Fox / Sky merger in 2016, the two most frequent visitors were Murdoch on the one hand, or his News Corp executives, and on the other hand is Lebedev, who owns the Independent print newspaper.

“It’s insidious,” he says. “Probably the most destructive manifestation of this was the very recent decision not to carry out or to complete the Leveson Inquiry which was supposed to get to the bottom of the phone hacking scandal. That phone hacking scandal was so much more than just phone hacking. It was one of the greatest webs of institutional corruption I think we’ve ever seen in this country. It embroiled elements of the police, politicians, along with media that extended well beyond News of the World and even beyond Murdoch. And that’s something surely that every journalist in their right mind would want to dig the truth out of.”

The then current secretary of state, Matt Hancock, made a statement to the House of Commons claiming Lord Justice Leveson didn’t need or want the second part of the inquiry to go ahead. He was subsequently interviewed and revealed that statement to be a complete lie.

“His response was: ‘maybe I could have said that differently’,” says Schlosberg.

“There’s not so much an institutional barrier against this. There are political reasons why the second part of the Leveson inquiry didn’t go ahead.”

So how free, is the press really, with the existence of those entrenched political strategic moves?

Schlosberg says there are journalists working for newspapers across the tabloids and across the serious end of the spectrum who would say that they are completely free to report whatever they want to report.

“The reality is we have to look at freedom as much more than just what you were told to do and not to do,” he says.

“You have to look at what is the actual institutional culture that exists within these news organisations, within these newsrooms. What are the kind of day-to-day, subtle, almost imperceptible pressures that journalists face, that can direct them away from particular stories and towards others.

“This notion that somehow the British press was free between somewhere in the 18th Century and 2012 when we had the Leveson inquiry is just nonsense.”

Defending journalism vs deference

Cusick defends the profession and practice of journalism. I think most most journalists want to tell it as it is,” he says. “Self-censorship is kind of crazy. News desks still have lots of power and it’s almost like where does the instructions come from? It is a rich proprietary who said we would rather not have that in my paper and everybody else follows that route all the way down.”

Cusick has been on the receiving end of that.

“I have carried out a lengthy investigation,” he says.

“I have left the newspaper thinking that this was going to be on the front page of the paper. I have come back the following day and found the story to be nowhere and I know that that story disappeared because the proprietor of the newspaper didn’t want it in the paper.”

Cusick says editorial interference is subtle and rare.

“This is not routine,” he says. “This is far from routine. Again, I would say it’s no different from from what Beaverbrook and the Express did in the ‘30s and ‘40s where they didn’t want to see stories. The difference now I think is that, say, perhaps it’s not necessarily a story that you wish to have in the paper, but there is an instruction that we would like you to do this a particular way.

“I know of one one senior journalist who was asked to put his name to, effectively it was a series of articles that he knew was bought and paid for, and he said ‘look I’d rather not do this. This is going to damage my reputation as as a journalist’. If you’re a young journalist coming in and you’re trying to stay there, you’re trying to establish a reputation. How do you say no to that?”

Schlosberg says that in the UK, in terms of press freedom, there is a peculiar culture of deference towards a state agenda, particularly here of the security state.

“I think one of the most astonishing ways in which this shows its face is the Snowden leaks that were reported by The Guardian in 2013 which came right off the back of the Guardian’s phone hacking coverage,” he says. “At that point under then editor, Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian was very much seen as beyond the pale of Fleet street.

And what you had is this utterly bizarre situation where you had editors, for example, like then editor of The Independent, Chris Blackhurst, penning editorials saying things like, if the security services say that I shouldn’t report this who am I to question their judgment?”

Cusick followed up part of that story as a journalist at The Independent, under Chris Blackhurst. He says there was no question of anything he wrote or investigated, along with his colleagues not being published.

“There wasn’t censorship at The Independent, at that time at all,” he says.

But Schlosberg says the kind of censorship he is referring to is not the necessarily measurable in the kind of micro context Cusick refers to, in terms of his personal experience.

“What I’m talking about is this dominant narrative that emerged and that was pushed by editors like Chris Blackhurst in conjunction with and collaboration with The Daily Mail, the Murdoch press,” says Schlosberg. “They were systematically, not just critical of the Snowden leaks, but deeply critical of The Guardian for covering it in the first place and for not being deferential enough to the demands of the security state.”

Says Cusick: “I think you’re being overly conspiratorial,” to which Schlosberg replied:

Well it is not conspiratorial if you look at the actual editorials at the time that were published.” 

I don’t buy that. Sorry,” says Cusick.

Schlosberg says there have been studies done on this.

“I’m not saying that in the reportage, titles like The Independent didn’t report on the Snowden leaks, they did,” he says. “Some of the reporting I have to say was problematic in ways that kind of sought to undermine The Guardian in a different way, by sort of claiming, in one instance, that they had an exclusive access to the leaks when, apparently, they didn’t. But beyond that, there’s no question that newspapers lined up, pulled rank left, right, and centre from the broadsheets of the tabloids to wage war over The Guardian on this issue.

“Now what happened as a result of that, after Rusbridger left, Katherine Viner took over. What we’ve seen in the Guardian is a falling into line, is a pulling rank with Fleet Street. That is why The Guardian, the newspaper that exposed phone hacking in the first place, was also not calling for the completion of the Leveson inquiry. Was also complicit in a massive cover up, which is astonishing for The Guardian newspaper. So to come back to your original question. Is the press free in this country? I would say it doesn’t look like it from where I am standing.”

Replied Cusick:I think maybe you need to go to some other countries quickly and find out what actually an unfree press looks like.”

Says Schlosberg: “Well, I’ve been to other countries with un-free press, and yes it is manifestly different,” he says. “And, of course in more autocratic regimes you have much more state control, but the whole point that I was making in the first place is that press freedom is not just about state control.

“In a funny sort of way, if you look at the history of the British press, what happened when the government repealed things like stamp duty and censorship rules that were imposed on the press, is not that the press suddenly became free, but it was a transfer of control from the state to the market.

“In fact, if you look at the work done by people like James Curran, it’s very clear that the so-called emancipation of the British press in the 18th century actually marked the death of the working class press, of the actual real kind of alternative voices at the time.

“We need to really get beyond this very simplistic idea that press freedom is about whether or not the government steps on your toes. It’s much more than that.”

Media consolidation & trust

Media consolidation is even worse in the UK than the US, with typically similar results politically. Around 70% of Britain’s newspapers are owned by just three companies: Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, The Daily Mail’s General Trust, and Trinity Mirror. In broadcast media, more than 80%  of the national audience share goes to Murdoch or to the BBC.

Schlosberg says sometimes people forget that because we’ve got social media, Twitter, because we’ve got the rise of the so-called Fifth Estate and these kind of leftist, online news platforms like The Canary, that somehow none of this stuff matters anymore.

“But I think, actually, all the evidence points to the contrary,” he says. “That actually, newspapers still have a huge amount of influence on both the public and the political agenda.”

Journalist John Pilger recently stated: “I’ve been a journalist for many years. I’ve never known such corruption of my craft. It is as if a world of illusions has consumed the last vestiges of honest media in the cause of decaying power, its wars and witch hunts.”

Cusick tells Renegade Inc. John Pilger is one of the best journalists of his generation who wrote large parts of his body of work in the Daily Mirror.

“You probably couldn’t quite imagine a John Pilger exclusive in The Mirror these days,” he says. “And that means a slight decline. And there’s also a decline in investigative journalism on its own. That means that a story that has an agenda of its own, that is not following any news agenda on the back of what we are saying, and is looking at, maybe in John’s case, an international problem. Those things cost a lot of money, to send a journalist abroad, to spend time, to not know what the outcome of the story is going to be. That takes faith and investment.”

Cusick recently conducted an investigation which is directly linked to a business model and how that is rethinking itself.

We on openDemocracy published a story that showed that ESI, the Evening Standard, the company that owns the Evening Standard,” he says. “The Evening Standard is London’s Evening newspaper. It’s a freesheet. It’s supposed to be distributed, read by 900,000 people in London. So it’s an important newspaper. It has a strong political agenda. It has a good financial base as well. It is read by the city. It’s an important paper and its currently under the editorship of the former chancellor, George Osborne.

“We found that there had been a blurring of what we referred to earlier as ‘church & state’, a blurring between independent editorial and advertising.”

This was a project called ‘London 2020’, which was supposed to be about six individual packages, everything from housing to IT, to schools.

“For £500,000 buy in, half a million, any commercial company was effectively being promised favourable comment and positive news,” says Cusick.

“This was this was part of a presentation, a PowerPoint presentation which we managed to obtain from ESI media themselves. This was their offer, if you like, of what happened.

“Now, the standard parts of this presentation that are routine, it was some sponsored content, it would be exhibitions, it would be articles in the Evening Standard that were branded. In other words, readers would know what this was. And in the industry that is nothing new and there is no reason to write about it. There’s nothing wrong about it. If an industry is losing £10 billion over the last seven, eight years in trying to find a new income stream, then there’s nothing wrong with them finding an income stream by inventing a new form of advertising. Provided that they tell readers that’s what they’re doing.

So this is what potential people paying £500,000 were asked. This is what you would get: It would be launched between May 2018 and May 2020, when the next London mayoral contest is on. You would get a special print section, there would be eight pages of in-depth material and research, there would be a multi-platform presence, some bespoke social media strategy, there would be some live debates and everything would be branded and that’s fine. And then this: ‘Money can’t buy’. We expect every campaign to generate numerous news stories, comment pieces and profile backing.

“What happens is, for £500,000, inside this particular project, companies were being promised positive news and favourable comment. In editorial. Unbranded. In my term that would be abusing their readership”.

“If I buy a newspaper or am given a newspaper, I want to be able to know the distinction between what is editorial and what is not editorial. Now, in this particular instance, one company, Starbucks, looked at this and said ‘this is not for us’. And the quote was effectively, even although this was me speaking to an executive privately at Starbucks. They said ‘we don’t do this. We don’t need to buy a reputation’. In fact the phrase he used was: ‘this was PR death’. This was public relations death. But Uber signed up, and Google signed up, and there are four other companies.

So this project, London 2020 cost £3 million, which is commercial companies paying in, and for their cash they’re expecting to get good news stories in the pages of a prominent, respected newspaper with a reputation. The project has apparently been, not necessarily shelved, but it was expected to launch on June 5th, and that didn’t happen. So the fallout from the story was huge. People objected to it. Politically, there’s a court case involving Uber, supposed to be at the end of this month, and it looked as if Uber were looking for some positive news in the run up to that. Uber have said nothing. Google have said nothing. And The Standard have shelved the project. People have called for the resignation of George Osborne. They’ve said he has no place in journalism.

“If he wants to be successful or he wants to have made his mark as a newspaper editor that has reputation, and trust, and has broken stories, and that The Standard means something, this ‘London 2020’ where he sells parts of the pages of his newspaper is not going to give him the reputation, in fact it’s going to be the reverse.”

Schlosberg says he is both surprised and unsurprised by this investigation.

Advertisers have always had, to varying degrees, a considerable influence, I think, on the editorial output of newspapers,” he says. “I think that the reality is, that when newspapers are seen to go too far down or to stray too far down an acceptable script, if you like, to advertisers, that they do pull their money,

There is a real fundamental problem with journalism in this country at the moment and and I think that it comes down to the fact that journalists are not being questioning enough of the scripts that are handed to them, or what Michele Foucault called ‘regimes of truth’ that get established seemingly so quickly.”

Journalist, John Pilger.

The Salisbury case & the Snowden issue

Another case in point is the Salisbury poisoning.

“Almost as soon as that happened, as soon as that hit the front pages, journalists were just echo chambers for whatever the government was saying,” says Schlosberg. “And there was an opposition, a leader of the opposition, calling for a much more calm, reasoned and evidence based approach, and he was, in most of the press, dismissed as being a Kremlin stooge. And that’s just an example. There are not enough journalists doing this kind of journalism.”

Cusick says that in the Salisbury case there are time critical elements for political journalists.

“You want to report what the state says,” he says. “The evidence is that this has happened, that poisoning has taking place, that people have almost lost their lives and that there is a potential agent which has been confirmed not by the government, but been confirmed by an expert international lab that can tell you what this is. It would be really difficult not to report that. And you would report it in such a way as this is what the government said.”

Cusick says Schlosberg is making a massive jump between a reported statement and a statement of belief.

“Newspapers didn’t necessarily believe this story, but we had a duty to report what the government said,” says Cusick. “They also had a duty to report whether the leader of the opposition said and did that. Again I think you you’re jumping into a kind of a critical mindset. I don’t think that reflects the hard job that would be to actually report that.”

Schlosberg comes back to the Snowden issue saying that the criticality of time sensitive journalism is an absolute fair point, but actually the problems extend way beyond that.

“Take, for example, The Sunday Times which absolutely prides itself on being an agenda leader in terms of the news across the board, and in fact studies have shown consistently that it is,” says Schlosberg. “Now, in 2015 we got an exclusive headline on The Sunday Times, it was supposedly, the product of a very long, in-depth investigation. The headline was that Russia and China had gotten hold of the Snowden leaks, or words to that effect. What happened is very quickly that story unraveled, because what was it based on? That entire in-depth investigation was based on two corroborated sources. Both of them from the Foreign Office. That’s what The Sunday Times thought was an in-depth investigation.”

Cusick says it’s very difficult to believe that that journalist is still working at The Sunday Times.

Back to Schlosberg: “Some of the people with bylines on that story were very well respected journalists,” he says. “That is an example of how journalism can just go horribly wrong, when newsroom cultures do not actually allow for that kind of questioning, critical perspective that is so fundamental.”

Cusick says all of these things can be bundled together.

“I think it comes down to a matter of trust,” he says. “There is a future for newspapers, if people who buy them trust them.”

But they don’t at the moment.

But things like this ‘London 2020’, and the selling of content or reporting that looks one-sided, or a lack of investigation which looks beyond a news agenda. If all those things happen in tandem: you sell parts of your newspaper. You don’t invest in investigative journalism. You have one-sided reportage. Trust is eroded.

“If trust is eroded there is no future for newspapers.

“So, from my point of view, I’m trying to not knock down what newspapers do, and I’m defending them against your analysis. I’m trying to make sure that there’s a future for newspapers because I spent my entire life in them.”

Outside of all of this, Schlosberg says it’s important to look at the ideological alignment of newspapers across the board from The Guardian and The Mirror right through to The Mail and The Sun.

“You know that is as much of a problem as anything else to talk about,” he says.

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