Manchester Arena, Monday 22 May 2017. At around 10:30 pm, a suicide bomber detonated a homemade device packed with over two thousand bits of shrapnel in the foyer of the arena. 22 innocent people, many of them children, were killed; over 500 were injured. 14,000 concert goers were scarred for life.
Among the first on the scene, alongside the emergency services, were the media. In stark contrast to everyone else involved – with the notable exception of local media – they harassed, deceived and manipulated the victims and their families. All for a story, a quote or a “reaction” picture, both in the immediate aftermath of the attack and the days that followed.
Here’s what the Kerslake Review into the Manchester bombing says in its final report:
“The Panel was shocked and dismayed by the accounts of the families of their experience with some of the media. To have experienced such intrusive and overbearing behaviour at a time of enormous vulnerability seemed to us to be completely unacceptable. We were concerned to identify what might be done to prevent this happening again in any future terrorist event.”
At the hospitals, families had to frequently force their way through scrums of reporters who ‘wouldn’t take no for an answer’. One person had to be taken into hospital to see their injured child via a staff entrance because of the behaviour of media representatives at the main entrance. Another anecdote in the report is that a note offering £2,000 for information was given to the staff on one of the hospital wards, via a biscuit tin.
Repeatedly, photos were taken through windows of families being given news of bereavement. There were stories of people having to run to cars with coats over their heads to escape. The families consulted by the review often told of the constant physical presence of crews outside their homes. One reporter even tried to forcibly enter a home by ramming a foot in the front door. In one case, the child of one family was given condolences on the doorstep before official notification of the death of her mother.
In another, one family was subjected the harrowing scenario whereby a reporter at their home gave the daughter condolences on the death of her brother, whilst her parents were at the Etihad Stadium. They were not told that their son was likely to be among the fatalities until later that day. There were also reports of children being stopped by journalists whilst making their way to school.
All in all, this was certainly a indefensible breach of professional and basic moral standards by a significant proportion of national media representatives. And it wasn’t just a few bad apples; the amount of incidents should have journalism as a profession in a state of disrepute.
The (lack of) repercussions
Surely the Independent Press Standards Organisation – the self-proclaimed “toughest press regulator anywhere in the developed world” – responded to the Kerslake inquiry with big fines, front page apologies and other forms of sanctions on the national press, who we all know are no strangers to wrongdoing.
After almost two months since the report, nothing has happened. Nothing of any significance. Not even a fiver’s worth of fines.
You see, IPSO isn’t very good at its job. It was set up by several press giants in the wake of Leveson – another, much larger-scale inquiry into press ethics, behaviour and culture. In July 2011, it was revealed that News of the World reporters had hacked the voicemail of murder victim Milly Dowler. It was a scandal that sat within in a wider culture of corruption and malpractice that caught up Murdoch, his top editors and even Prime Minister David Cameron.
The News of the World was shut down as a consequence. But this was largely symbolic: the only way to bring a rogue industry in line is to better regulate it. Leveson’s report recognised this; and a new regulator – Impress, which adheres to the recommendations of Leveson – was established. Every single major newspaper point blank refused to sign up to Impress, however, attacking it as “chilling” state-regulation of the press. Most instead preferred to set up IPSO and today’s members include The S*n, Times, The Telegraph, Trinity Mirror, the Daily Mail and all the other titles their parent companies own.
Yet IPSO will always struggle to have any shred of credibility, because all of its key people are from the higher echelons of the same media empires it claims to regulate. There’s a strong argument that IPSO “cherry-picks” which complaints to deal with. Moreover, it’s lack of proper sanctions on press malpractice since its formation in 2013 suggest IPSO is at best passive and at worst an enabler of the sort of behaviour that led to phone-hacking, collusion with corrupt police and politicians in the case of Hillsborough, and its unhealthy relationship with the UK’s shady lobbying world.
In effect IPSO appears to be little more than a public relations function operating under the guise of “free speech” – protecting the vested interests that dominate British media and thus avoiding the serious questions this tainted national industry evidently needs to ask of itself in the wake of Leveson, and now Kerslake.
Impress has its own shortcomings too. But when every major UK news outlet dresses these up into hyperbole such as “Press Freedom Hangs By A Thread” – we fail to see that most are in fact myths. It is true that the benefactor of Impress is Max Mosley, though as he funds it via several trusts, he has zero control of influence over the organisation. Yet in any case, he’s not somebody you want to be associated with if you’re striving for credibility.
In contrast, IPSO won’t even disclose how exactly it gets its money. It’s funded by the murky Regulatory Funding Company whose only two national board members work for Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Sun, Times, Sky News and of course Fox News – and Jonathan Harmsworth, owner of the Daily Mail and Metro.
The fundamental point is this though: Impress was set up because of the historic Leveson inquiry, IPSO was set up in spite of the report’s calls for effective regulation as in any other industry. It’s crucial to understand this as we visit last week’s Section 40 vote.
What’s ‘Section 40’ and why did it have the press sh*tting themselves last week?
Section 40 was an amendment to the Data Protection Act proposed by Lord Attlee. The vote took place last Wednesday and lost by a really narrow margin.
Essentially, Section 40 would have forced the media to sign up to a regulator approved by the Press Recognition Panel (PRP), an official body which was set up as a direct response by the government to the recommendations of Leveson inquiry.
Crucially, if a publisher refused to sign up then they would have to pay all legal costs on any case brought against them by members of the public – win or lose.
It was the potential death of journalism, given that in the eyes of most editors signing up to Impress or setting up a new regulated also approved by the PRP was out of the question, due to the apparent threat to free speech and a free press. The prospect of this had the media up in arms, second amendment-style.
A really important distinction between IPSO and regulators approved by the PRP is that the PRP is independent of all its associated publishers, nor is it funded by any. And in response to the idea that the government could simply control the PRP and its regulators – effectively censoring and controlling the press, a sure sign of unhealthy democracy – the PRP states:
“The Charter can be only be amended by a two thirds majority of each of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament, and with the unanimous agreement of the PRP Board.”
The press also voluntarily agree to be censored every time the government issues a mystical “D-notice” on stories which would allegedly impact on the deliberately vague concept of “our” national security. It sounds like James Bond but it’s a real thing; the editor of Channel 4 News referred to one just last month concerning the Skripal poisoning:
About the only decisive public move by the authorities has been to censor MSM via a D Notice last week from fully identifying Mr Skripal’s MI6 handler living nearby…
— alex thomson (@alextomo) March 12, 2018
The argument that PRP approved press regulation is tantamount to a slow decline toward a Chinese-style model of media repression is therefore flimsy at best. And the idea that Britain’s national press is an example of world class journalism is pure fantasy. Besides, Britain ranks 40th in the World Press Freedom Index, between Trinidad and Tobago and Burkina Faso, so who are we kidding anyway?
So is it a tragedy that the Section 40 vote didn’t go through?
Yes and no. The likes of the Daily Mail and the S*n, who spew borderline and sometimes blatant hate speech on the regular would probably suffer, which is invariably a good thing. But local media would fold virtually overnight, should they be compelled to pay legal fees win-or-lose.
It’s worth remembering that it was the Manchester Evening News, who raised over £1 million in the 24 hours after the attack, and other local outlets who were applauded in the Kerslake report. Why should the local press suffer for the crimes of their national counterparts?
Just this month Birmingham Live, formerly the Birmingham Mail, has put on a major city-wide drive to help under resourced food banks and has also coordinated the first #30Under30 scheme in Europe’s youngest city. Far from a reflection of entrenched privilege, the winners are true representatives of the city’s diversity and untapped talent.
I spoke to the Editor-in-Chief Marc Reeves shortly after the vote. The day before, he had put out a series of Tweets that profoundly challenged my own perspective on Section 40 and made me think about the effects it would have on local journalism, both in the long and short term.
THREAD: My open letter to every MP: I know you're getting pestered on this a lot, but I did want to write to you with my latest thoughts on the data protection bill, even though this is one of the most downbeat lobbying letters you'll ever receive. Downbeat because life
— Marc Reeves (@marcreeves) May 8, 2018
Regarding how the press now moves forward, he told me: “I think the challenge now is to find some common ground with Tom [Watson] and other Leveson advocates, but I do fear some are too far gone down the path with Mosley to be persuaded to compromise.”
But what about IPS – surely in its current form it’s not fit for purpose? “I agree that IPSO needs to do a lot more work, and I hope they’ll use this period to engage with Tom and others. I’m doing just that; I’m meeting with Liam Byrne MP tomorrow.”
Perhaps the most poignant part of Reeves’ thread was “I realised the other day that for a fair chunk of my career in regional and local newspapers, I’ve been making people redundant and closing titles.” When local news outlets lose journalists, who are well trained and often dedicated to their local community, the profession itself loses the investment it has made in that person. It’s wrong to pretend there are enough jobs out there for all journalists as it is, never mind if local news was to collapse.
Communities would lose one of their only (admittedly imperfect) channels to power. Local papers do have a voice and sway with local politicians and decision-makers; and many are much more loyal allies of their readers than the national tabloids and broadsheets.
Section 40 would have been a Brexit-style decision for local media; aside from abandoning their definition of a free press, there was little in the form of a contingency plan. But one way or another it seems inevitable that this dominant culture in our media will have to widen its perspective in order to avoid disaster.
The media has one final chance to hold up a mirror to itself
Last week was a big enough warning for media leaders to either commit to their stance of maintaining the current apparatus of a “free press” (and with it, face potential collapse under a future section 40-style law), force IPSO to at least meet the standards required of the PRP, or set up one or several bodies of self-regulation akin to the Guardian’s model, which was exempt from Section 40.
There desperately needs to be some myth-busting done around Impress and the PRP. The paradox is that we won’t be able to rely on the media to do this – yet you could argue that it’s precisely people in the media who need to engage with it the most. Owen Jones struck a nerve when he suggested group-think was endemic in the media and that it was one of the most exclusive socioeconomic professions (it is).
From Brexit to Trump to Corbyn, the media by-and-large has struggled to explain and predict major political events. Indeed, the current level of analysis we watch, hear and read every day doesn’t bode well for hopes of introspection and change within the industry itself.
Close inspection of IPSO’s record conjures up the image of the national press digging its own grave and dragging local titles in with it. For periods last week, the latter looked buried – yet the failed vote has given the industry as a whole one final chance to hold up a mirror to itself.
Today, the BBC did its best to frame a statement from IPSO about the Kerslake Review into something semi-serious – Ipso probes Manchester Arena attack press ‘hounding’ – but ultimately IPSO’s wording was vacuous. It said that it’s conducting a “thorough investigation” and says it will take it all very seriously. But as we now know, IPSO says a lot of things. The problem is that in this case, as with all of IPSO’s history to date, it will be the people with the most invested in the current arrangements who have the final say.
IPSO will fail on Manchester unless headline apologies, proper compensation packages and multi-million pound fines are given out (Murdoch, Rothermere and the Barclay brothers can afford it). If the press just walk away from this with another slap on the wrist, IPSO’s advocates will be forced to either have their cake or eat it before the next section 40-type proposal comes along.