The press and the election: four things we already know
Here are four things we already know about the general election.
1. The corporate national press, and especially the Sun and the Mail, will be hugely influential and perhaps decisive in determining the outcome.
2. They will not feel constrained in their reporting by any requirement to be honest, fair or accurate.
3. If the Conservatives win they are likely to hand the big newspaper corporations even more power than they have now, with even less accountability.
4. So far as possible, the press will prevent or marginalise any discussion of these matters during the campaign.
Let's look at those more closely.
The Sun and the Mail, and to a lesser extent the Express and Telegraph, played unexpectedly powerful roles in both the 2015 election and the referendum – not a matter of persuading people through their editorials, more of shaping general attitudes and determining which subjects would be debated and which would not.
For example, their sustained, dishonest denigration of everything European prepared the ground for the Leave campaign. then during the referendum their relentless focus on immigration, once again dishonest, blocked meaningful discussion of the nature of Brexit.
With the 2017 election called, we can expect another round of sustained hysteria, front-page lies and stubborn denial of reality, all designed to excite hatred and stifle serious debate.
These papers want the Tories to win, partly because they are mostly run and owned by Tories and partly because the Tories are the party in their pocket, the party that has been most ready in recent years to give them what they want. And what they want is a lot.
The election has arrived with decisions pending on three press-related matters of huge importance – matters which will determine what kind of country this becomes almost as surely as Brexit does. And if the corporate papers can get the Tories back in government they will be far more confident those decisions will go their way.
The first of these concerns regulation, libel and privacy – the issues at the heart of the Leveson Inquiry in 2011-12. Even though Parliament approved far-reaching reforms in 2013, the big papers have since manoeuvred the government into a position where those reforms are close to being entirely erased.
Until the election was called we were expecting a decision within weeks: would the government abandon attempts to secure meaningful press self-regulation of a type capable of protecting people from press abuses? And would it at the same time perpetuate a position were almost no one but millionaires can afford to defend themselves against libel and intrusion?
Alternatives are readily available, as legislated for in 2013 – effective, independent regulation and a new right for every citizen to affordable justice in libel and privacy. But if the Tories win and the press have them by the throat, will they deliver that?
The second decision concerns the second part of the Leveson inquiry, always planned but now stalled. It should look in detail into the many unanswered questions about press criminality – hacking, bribery, data theft and more. The papers are terrified of it, and desperately hoping it never happens.
And then there is Sky. Rupert Murdoch wants to buy total control of Sky television and with it both a huge revenue stream for his empire and a vehicle for the possible transformation of the entire UK broadcast sector. The question is whether such a man, indeed such a family, is fit to have such power in this country and whether it is good for our democracy.
So, whatever we may think about the state of the press today, the likelihood is that this election will be decisive for its future. Without regulation, with past wrongdoing swept under the carpet and if radical steps are not taken to improve access to justice, big national papers will be unconstrained as never before. Unless you are rich you will have no redress of any meaningful kind. (And don’t believe that only celebrities suffer from press abuse. That is another lie these newspapers like to spread.)
Worse still, their power to pollute every national debate with misinformation will actually be enhanced, meaning that we will be even less capable of discussing defence, the NHS, education, crime or any other important issue without them drowning out every sensible thought.
There could hardly be more at stake, but will any of it form part of the election debate? Will politicians be tested on what they say on these issues? Will voters get a real say? Of course not. And that’s not because it’s a complicated or dry issue – lies, criminality and the bullying of vulnerable people are hardly boring. It is because the papers won’t allow it.
Like somebody joining an argument who speaks only through a megaphone, they make rational discussion impossible. And if there is one subject more than any other that they are determined to drown out it is how much more powerful they stand to become after the election.