What about a #Leveson looking at society?


Regulating the press is generally a shitty thing to do, but our press is generally shitty. This puts me in something of difficult position. Leveson looked into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press, but what about looking at the British people who maintain that press? The vast majority of the time the vast majority of the people get the press they want.

I have actually read the draft Royal Charter, beware those who haven’t (which is everyone, because it’s so dull). I dislike the regulation of the press on principle, but that there isn’t anything particularly dangerous in the charter other than this principle. It may ultimately be unworkable, but it isn’t currently oppressive. You can read my live tweeting of the Royal Charter here.

In principle a free press is vital to the functioning of a free society, but the press we have actually agitates for a more authoritarian world – war, misogyny, xenophobia etc. The Media category on this blog is not a nice place. But the basic problem isn’t that the press and journalists are evil. Its a problem of a system not a problem of individuals. It is also a problem of supply not demand.

You see, I largely read the Financial Times and lots of blogs (many of which cross check one another). This is because I want reliable, truthful and insightful writing. Most people don’t want this. They want digestible infotainment that reinforces their prejudices and are largely indifferent to whether it is true or not.

People might not say they’re indifferent to the truth, or that they enjoy being lied to, but one look at what sells reveals what people actually want. Consider two statistics: On the one hand, The Sun outsells the FT 10 to 1. On the other, there are 150,000 online only corporate subscriptions to the FT and I cannot even find a comparable number for The Sun.

This is because companies and people face different trade-offs. It really doesn’t matter to the public whether or not their political opinions are correct or whether their prejudices are challenged or reinforced. The costs of becoming less wrong are high (between work and leisure I spend thousands of hours a year on this), whereas the benefits are very small. I mean, have you read this blog?

For a company though the calculus is reversed. The FT provides a very good value service of high quality, well sourced, reliable news. The benefits of this are concentrated within the firm in the form of a better informed, more productive workforce. Regulation won’t make the FT a more truthful paper but it might make The Sun a less entertaining one.

I am highly sceptical of the pursuit of social progress through press regulation. Legal and social censure of explicit racism and sexism worked, but the regulation we are moving towards isn’t taking aim at anything so easily targetable. Stories like Zoe Margolis‘s libel by The Independent need to become less rare and there are provisions within the Royal Charter which should achieve this. But the amount of editorial control required to prevent newspapers meeting the demand for misleading news entirely would be too much to countenance. You may as well shut them all down.

Regulation will change the press, but not much because there is a demand for the press we have. There are no shortcuts, if we want to change the culture, practices and ethics of the British then we have to win arguments. It’s back to the grass roots I’m afraid. Get off this blog and go talk to some people and change their minds.