I was reading the latest on the Leveson inquiry, which is the British investigation into the sometimes horrible excesses of Britain's tabloid newspaper culture. Front and center in the investigation, headed by Lord Justice Leveson, is an examination of how much damage was done to individuals who were spied upon and betrayed by the tabs. In a more general way, the panel examines how much damage these newspapers have done to British culture. Among other things the Lord Justice is tasked with is determining what, if anything, needs to be done to bring these entities to heel.
It's the type of situation that cries out for a good dose of irony, and it came in the form of a website called “Guido Fawkes”, which published the formal statement of a witness scheduled to appear before the inquiry, three days before that scheduled date. The judge is demanding that Paul Staines, the owner of Guido Fawkes, reveal the source(s) that leaked the statement to him, and is considering what punishment is appropriate to the case, which violates the law much in the way revealing empaneled grand jury deliberations is in America.
Where the irony comes in is that Guido Fawkes, better known to English children as Guy Fawkes, is the man who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605, had his plot discovered on November 5th 1605, and was executed several months later. The fifth of November is commemorated in England as “Guy Fawkes Night,” a cheery holiday – considering – that features bonfires and fireworks and combines Halloween and Fourth of July. It is the Guy Fawkes mask that was worn by Prisoner #5, better known as “V” in “V for Vendetta” and has since gone on to become a symbol of Anonymous and Occupy.
It all comes at a time when America is trying to crush Julian Assange and Wikileaks, and is trying to strip the web of anonymity, and make it easier for major corporations to shout down small, independent journalists and political writers through such things as “Net Neutrality” and “Protect IP” acts. (When Republicans introduce a bill, the name of the bill is usually the exact opposite of its intent).
I don't envy Leveson. Murdoch and his gang, and some of his competitors, are a truly sleazy and morally bankrupt pack of liars and defamers. They have spied on private individuals in ways that would have toppled any British government daft enough to do such things, and hurt individuals, often for no other reason then they were victims of terrible crimes and Murdoch and his ilk wanted to pander to the sleazy public interest such crimes engender. Thanks to that lot, celebrity became an utter living hell for some people. As a result, the public is outraged as only the British public can be, and they are demanding that Something be Done.
From Leveson's perspective, the actions of the website Guido Fawkes just reinforce the notion that the press is out of control.
It's anyone's guess what Leveson will recommend. British law regarding the press is already sometimes bizarre, and can lead to situations in which a newspaper may not mention a case in which it is the defendant.
In Britain, the problem with the media is that some of it turned vile and malignant. As in America, a segment of it always was, but it's worsened in recent years.
In America the main problem is that the mainstream press has been neutered by corporate control, both through direct ownership and indirectly, though manipulating revenues and getting their trained lackeys in Congress to exert political pressure. As a result, TV networks and major newspapers are, at best, only sometimes trustworthy, and quite often not trustworthy at all.
There really isn't much difference between “sometimes trustworthy” and “not trustworthy at all”. There's a technical term for a newspaper that deliberately lies to its readers just once, and that term is “worthless”. The main difference between Fox News and the New York Times is that Fox News is easier to judge. I can assume Fox is lying.
And Fox does lie. They even got dragged into court, sued by two reporters they fired for refusing to lie, and the court held that Fox had the right to lie to its viewers. (Google Jane Akre, Steve Wilson,WTVT, Fox News for details).
It seems like an appalling decision, and from a moral and ethical standpoint, it is.
In fact, I can only think of one decision the court could have made that would be even worse.
They could have ruled the other way, and said Fox did not have the right to lie to its viewers.
They could have ruled that the government had the power to determine if a news outlet was being accurate and factual, and awarded or punished that news outlet accordingly.
Imagine if the GOP had the power to shut down any newspaper they decided was lying. They probably wouldn't even wait for papers to commit factual errors in their reporting and call those “lies” but would just start shutting them down en masse.
It's a power that should never lie in the hands of politicians. It would only take a few corrupt politicians (and there's no shortage of those) to force the media to heel, and become the handmaiden to whatever party was in control at the time. You don't want the government to control what papers may print, and you don't want legislators to have the power to determine if a paper is honest or not.
There are laws that constrain newspapers, that can be handled in America by civil cases. Papers may not libel or defame. If they cause someone damage through reckless disregard of the facts, they can be sued, and found liable.
Most people don't realize that for much of America's history, the “free press” was controlled by yellow journalists such as William Randolph Hearst. Most newspapers were owned by millionaires who didn't hesitate to use their podiums to advance their own interests. William Randolph Hearst campaigned tirelessly for the prohibition of hemp because he owned lots of softwood forests and paper mills. He also hated Mexicans and blacks, and surmised – correctly – that making marijuana illegal would get disproportionate numbers of those two groups thrown in jail. Another major yellow journalist of the time was Joseph Pulitzer, he of the eponymous prizes given out for exceptional journalism today.
The New York Times can point out that long before they let Judith Miller sabrerattle America into Iraq, Hearst managed to con the public into the Spanish-American war.
Yellow journalism died down in the US only after Hearst received considerable blame for the assassination of President William McKinley, something critics accused Hearst of promoting before the fact. Pulitzer appeared to have a genuine epiphany, and his papers became bastions of solid journalism.
Even during the golden age of journalism, 1940 through about 1980, there were concerns raised over the control only a few outlets had over what Americans heard and subsequently thought. Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America” and while he generally deserved the accolade, the fact is the American people didn't really have much choice in the matter. If “Uncle Walter” had decided to take up fibbing for his own amusement, who was going to call him on it?
These days, it's getting harder and hard for a press baron—or even a government—to control what the population hears. Fox News still lies to the public each and every day, but even without Jon Stewart and Media Matters, there are hundreds of sites on the web that gleefully deconstruct every sin of omission or commission that Fox commits. Same with the other well-paid liars on the airwaves: Bartcop was originally named “Rush Limbaugh-Lying Nazi Whore”, a title that informs his approach to this day. He just has a wider variety of targets to shoot down now, is all.
It's the same in Britain, of course, and they have a secret weapon besides that helps keep the Scaifes and Murdochs and Conrad Blacks of this sad world in line: public-owned media. The BBC, which is directly owned by the public, and the Guardian, a non-profit public-owned corporation, don't depend on advertising revenue and sales, and so have a lot less self-interest swamping their coverage. These entities (and in Canada, the CBC) act as an ongoing series of innoculations to the body public against yellow journalism. They aren't perfect, and they don't work perfectly, but they help immensely.
We have the web, and a growing independent media voice that contains the power of the corporations to control our news.
If I had to choose between a government agency in charge of media truth telling, and an army of citizens willing and able to chant “liar!” at yellow journalists, I feel much safer with the army of citizens. I don't feel at all safe with a government truth-telling panel.
Guy Fawkes can also stand for “V for Voices”.
Posted: December 2, 2011