Updated: May 15
Since we launched our Open Letters to the BBC and Church of England, CAMPAIN has gained many subscribers. If you are one you may be excused from thinking that we are solely concerned with Israel, Palestine and “antisemitism”, but this is far from the case. CAMPAIN sees misrepresentation about antisemitism and related matters as a particularly egregious example of a wider malaise of misinformation that afflicts our society and our ability to make rational decisions.
The problem was particularly evident in the build-up to Britain’s middle eastern wars, notably the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 where in Peter Oborne’s words: “the UK media parroted government lies and fabrications uncritically and became an enthusiastic part of the state’s propaganda machine”.
Members of CAMPAIN have varying opinions about the war in Ukraine, but we are united in believing that mainstream journalists are in thrall to official information sources, and that they are not providing a balanced coverage of the arguments. For example, we have heard relatively little about eminent commentators who, since the break-up of the Soviet Union, have cautioned against the rapid eastward expansion of NATO. Neither have we heard a full discussion of the blowing up of the Nordstream II pipeline, which veteran journalist Seymour Hersh attributes to the USA.
A key turning point: Britain's phone-hacking scandal
It is often said that “the first casualty of war is truth”, but the problem has been equally evident in times of peace. The investigative journalist Nick Davies started revealing criminal phone hacking and related practices in 2006, but for years the Murdoch press and the Metropolitan Police misrepresented this as simply the action of “rogue reporters”. It was not until 2011, with the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone, that the true extent of the problem erupted into national consciousness.
In his book “Hack Attack”, Davies showed this was only the tip of the iceberg. There was a veritable industry of rogue newspapers, with the number of estimated victims, many of them public figures, in excess of 7,000. This activity created an environment of fear where leading newspapers could subject those targeted (or those who thought they might be targeted) to implicit blackmail or “kompromat”. The revelations also led to the Inquiry led by Justice Leveson who recommended thoroughgoing independent regulation of the British Press, making it easier for the public to hold newspapers accountable for their conduct and the veracity of their assertions.
Despite the initial uproar against Rupert Murdoch and other press magnates, Conservative governments had too much at stake to implement a full programme of press reform. Since the time of Margaret Thatcher, Murdoch’s titles have been critical in helping Governments win elections. So not surprisingly, Rebekah Brooks was back as Head of News UK in September 2015, less than 15 months after the end of an eight-month trial for her role in the hacking scandal. And in 2018, the Theresa May Government formally reneged on the second and all-important part of Leveson’s recommendations known as “Leveson II”.
The fight for Leveson’s legacy
Notwithstanding, The Hacked Off Campaign and a cross-party group of parliamentarians – notably Ed Milliband, Kenneth Clarke and Lord Atlee (grandson of Clement Atlee) – fought hard to put Leveson II back on the statute book, only to be narrowly defeated (twice) in the House of Commons during the course of 2018.
Recently, Hacked Off sounded the alarm that the Government plans to go further in attempting to destroy Justice Leveson’s legacy, by repealing Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. Briefly, Section 40 is expected to have the following impacts:
It encourages legal disputes with the press to be resolved through cheap and speedy arbitration instead of the courts, which are slower and much more expensive. If a newspaper refuses to offer cheap arbitration through an independent regulator, it must instead pay the costs of any court action. If, on the other hand, a claimant refuses the offer of arbitration it must cover its own costs of bringing any claim, regardless of outcome.
Both newspapers and claimants are thereby incentivised to resolve claims through arbitration and, as the arbitration system is part of an independent regulator, newspapers have an incentive to join such a regulator.
The government has never activated Section 40 but, if enforced, its arbitration provision would make legal redress accessible to victims of press abuse without the means to pursue private litigation. Prince Harry has, just this week, secured an apology from the Daily Mirror for “unlawful data gathering”; but such remedies are unavailable to people without very deep pockets.
Section 40 would also have provided newspapers with the incentive to register as members of an independent regulator like IMPRESS rather than the so-called Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) which is the creature of the press barons. Section 40 would, moreover, have protected newspapers from SLAPPs, i.e. wealthy litigants’ attempts to chill investigative journalism by bringing meritless claims. It would do so by protecting newspapers from paying claimants’ costs, where the claimant could instead have used low-cost arbitration.
Hacked Off wants to keep Section 40 intact “until we have a Government prepared to end corruption between politicians and the press”. Readers may ask whether a Starmer-led Government will wish to end this collusion. As we explained in this article, the press and broadcasters have given Keir Starmer and his dominant faction a free hand to ruthlessly purge left-wing rivals within the Labour Party. However, we think that even a Starmer-led Government is unlikely to repeal the legislation as the Conservatives are seeking to do, and for this reason we wholeheartedly support Hacked Off in its mission to keep it alive.
Please consider contributing towards its “Leveson Defence Fund”.
Press reform will impact the whole media landscape, including the BBC
Gary Lineker’s tweet criticising the Government’s asylum policy caused waves in the BBC and throughout our mainstream media. In its 18th March edition, Al Jazeera’s ‘Listening Post’ broadcast describes it as plunging the BBC into chaos and having “exposed so much about British politics and journalism”. You can see this in the first 11 minutes of this video: The BBC vs Gary Lineker: An own goal?
Britain’s press is dominated by right-wing papers. Former BBC correspondent Martin Bell describes it as “without precedent almost anywhere else in the world” with most newspapers proclaiming a shrill right-wing narrative almost day-in-day-out. They see the BBC as a rival they wish to bring down, working in alliance with a Conservative Government, which has appointed political supporters to the top jobs, and which, by virtue of its power over the BBC’s funding streams holds a sword of Damocles over the corporation. However, Al-Jazeera points out that by attacking Gary Lineker, Government-appointed bosses fuelled a public outcry that threatened their own jobs (and since then, Chairman Richard Sharp has had to resign because of his role in securing a large loan for Boris Johnson).
Lineker’s tweet has also exposed inconsistency as to what “non-news broadcasters” like him are allowed to say. Nobody at the BBC took issue with him when, at the recent World Cup, he denounced human rights abuses in Qatar. There was likewise no controversy when prior to the 2019 election, Alan Sugar, business tycoon and star of The Apprentice reality TV show, advised people to vote for the Conservatives, not Jeremy Corbyn, and tweeted an image of Corbyn next to Adolph Hitler. In the words of Al Jazeera, this is because the BBC is dominated by the narrative created by right-wing newspapers, and it is these that drive perceptions of UK politics.
This dependence further underlines the need to reform the press, in a way that makes it easy for the public to challenge tendentious and untruthful narratives that BBC executives feel bound to follow. This is, therefore, something CAMPAIN is committed to supporting, by endorsing Hacked Off’s appeal and other means.
The author of this blog is Jonathan Coulter, Secretary of CAMPAIN. See here for short bio.