If you could go back in time and nobble the architects of some of the greatest disasters in history, would you do it?
Luckily we don't have to time-travel to ensure press control does not pass into the hands of the government, ending our tradition of a free press — we're already here and staring at the far bank of the Rubicon. Leveson's recommendation for press regulations to be backed by statute — with harsh penalties for guilty parties — is no answer to the appalling corruption of sections of our Fourth Estate.
Lord Leveson's exoneration of both the police, who failed to enforce existing laws, and former Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt, who made all the noises that he was hell-bent on pushing through Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of BSkyB, giving him an even bigger unaccountable monopoly of our media, does not fill me with confidence.
It's impossible to look at the Hacked Off platform of press victims without feeling heartfelt sympathy: the traumatised McCann's traduced as child killers while searching for their abducted daughter; Chris Jeffries picked on because he reads books and looks like a "weirdo" (read: intellectual); and of course the Dowlers whose murdered daughter's mobile phone was hacked by the News of the World, kicking off the scandal that led to the Leveson Inquiry.
However, their treatment could have been dealt with by the police and the courts. Phone hacking is illegal. Young women like Sienna Miller and Charlotte Church should not be hounded by baying packs of aggressive men just because they're famous. Why did the police protect their masters — their paymasters in some cases? How can Leveson seriously say that the police have no case to answer?
How did we get to the point where one powerful man's companies could do such damage to British society? Why has Leveson recommended laws controlling the press, when this looks like bolting the stable door after the nag has run, and not given the same emphasis to the dangerous monopoly of our democracy's media by a handful of ruthless press barons?
A brief history
The government has controlled the press before, granting licenses to those unlikely to alter the status quo. After licensing collapsed in the late 17th century, there was a mini-golden age that produced writers of the calibre of Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and the Spectator's Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, who sought, "to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality ... to bring philosophy out of the closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffeehouses".
Twenty years later, the imposition of a stamp duty tax hampered widespread readership by the masses until 1850s. The radical press had to operate without state legitimacy and remained vulnerable to harrassment.
The first of the big press barons, 1st Viscount Lord Northcliffe, Alfred Harmsworth, set up the Daily Mail in 1896 (before his ennoblement and two years after buying the Evening News), which became the first mass-selling daily paper. Prime Minister Lord Salisbury described it as, "written by office boys for office boys". Alfred wrote the editorials as a hands-on proprietor.
Along with his brother, Harold Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere, Northcliffe became richer that Croesus and would have told a nation what to think if it hadn't been for the existence of the quality Daily News (founder: one Charles Dickens) and the Daily Chronicle, both popular liberal papers. The Northcliffe/Rothermere empire bought up the ailing Observer (1905) and Times (1908), among others, and launched the Daily Mirror (1903).
Alfred Harmsworth launched the Daily Mirror as a paper by women for women (hence the name!) but, when it didn't work, the lady journos were sacked. The new editor, Hamilton Fyfe, said it was "like drowning kittens". He turned it into the first picture tabloid and it became a runaway success.
Such influence in the press by one man and his brother was unprecedented. Then along came Beaverbrook.
Already owning the London Evening Standard, Anglo-Canadian tycoon Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, acquired the Daily Express in 1916. He was said to have operated a blacklist of famous people who had offended him including Sir Thomas Beecham, Paul Robeson, Haile Selassie, and Noël Coward. He was awful but at least he didn't support Hitler like the Daily Mail proprietor, Rothermere. Rather, Beaverbrook's papers were an important arm of Britain's war machine, shaping and disseminating government propaganda during World War II.
The big three press barons of the first half of the 20th century, Northcliffe, Rothermere and Beaverbrook, were all very right-wing, though otherwise very different. Northcliffe was originally a Liberal Unionist, fanatically jingoistic and pro-Empire. Unlike his brother Rothermere, a fascistic bean-counter who supported Hitler, Northcliffe hired a range of talented writers from Rudyard Kipling to inter-war pacifist Norman Angell.
But power will always out. Flexing their political muscle, Beaverbrook founded the Empire Free Trade Crusade in 1929 and in 1930 briefy joined Rothermere in his United Empire Party (a bit like UKIP) to campaign for free trade against the protectionist Tories. It was a union which Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin condemned as "Power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages".
They benefited from the tabloid style of journalism (only the Mirror was actually tabloid in size). Attracting advertising, they were able to subsidise sale price, and increase cheap mass-circulation in an upward spiral — more ads made for cheaper papers but depended on a move downmarket. The Daily Chronicle and Daily News followed this model with some success by World War I, and merged as the Liberal News Chronicle in 1920s, later sold to the Daily Mail in the 1960s.
The most notorious episode was probably Rothermere's Daily Mail backing Hitler and the Black Shirts until Moseley's boot-boys beat up the audience at a rally in London's Olympia.
The Times were a changing. Northcliffe died in 1922 and most of his empire went to his brother, Rothermere (who had already taken over the Daily Mirror and various other papers). In the 1930s, the Labour Daily Herald hit 2 million circulation, outstripping the Daily Mail. Rothermere lost interest in the Daily Mirror and sold his shares; the paper came under the control of his nephew Cecil King, acquired cartoons and moved leftwards to become an increasingly pro-Labour working-class paper and the biggest seller from the late 1940s to the 1970s.
King did not share his moneyspinner's politics, but it was a cash-cow.
The Daily Herald — co-owned by the Trade Union Congress and Odhams Press — took the reverse route and eventually became ... the soaraway Sun. How'd that happen?
In 1960, the Mirror Group bought up Odhams, including the Daily Herald and created the International Publishing Corporation (IPC). It now owned the two competing bestselling Labour-supporting dailies.
In 1964 Mirror management relaunched the Daily Herald as new mid-market white-collar paper, and renamed it the Sun for the new non-right wing middle-class. It didn't work. The new paper was too similar to the old one, and its target readership was already gravitating towards the Guardian. (Watch the beleaguered Guardian make a similar error with its new young digital target market.) It lost money so the Mirror sold it in 1969 — the choices were Robert Maxwell or Rupert Murdoch. In their wisdom, the Mirror Group unions thought they'd get a better deal from Murdoch and thus gave him his second base after his purchase of News of the World. Maxwell eventually bought and ransacked the Mirror and the rest is history.
It dived downmarket and by the 1970s the Sun was outselling the Daily Mirror. Murdoch backed the little known milk-snatcher in the 1979 general election. This paid off handsomely when he used his huge profits to buy the troubled Times and Sunday Times. His ownership of two major newpapers should have precluded him from the purchase but Thatcher's government failed to call in the monopolies and mergers commission over his growing domination. It can be argued that there was an absence of alternative buyers, although editor Harold Evans was attempting to find backers for his own buyout. Murdoch's Sunday Times eventually lost Harold Evans and, later, the investigative Insight team. Murdoch bust the unions through changing technology, destroying lives, but also revitalised the newspaper industry.
From the late eighties to 2008, the newspaper industry thrived, but Murdoch's influence via the Sun, the News of the World and much of the rest of News Corp has been deeply corrosive: Hillsborough, hacking, creepy sexualisation of human beings for commercial gain, police curruption, politicians' terror, trade union bashing and, across the Atlantic, Fox News. His pay-TV channels in the UK now dominate sports coverage and broadcasting of films and top American series.
We look at Fox News and give a collective shudder. Jeremy Hunt nearly pushed through Murdoch's bid to take 100 per cent ownership of BSkyB, giving one man and his family even more of a monopoly over our culture. Without the depraved actions of Murdoch's own news hounds hacking into Milly Dowler's mobile phone, it could all be so different. And that's only one of many reasons to remember the tragic young woman who's death kicked this all off.
ADDENDUM Sunday 2nd December 2012
A journalist compadre — Kate Belgrave — reminds me that grassroots journalists like her are thwarted in their bid to hold the powerful to account at every turn. How much more difficult will her job be with a new law, the first on statute since 1695?
As someone who does the grassroots end of reporting, if you like, I'm very aware of the enormous restrictions that the state (or state in the form of local government) already places on reporting. Plenty of us have been told to stop recording or filming council meetings. We've had our phones, computers and cameras confiscated by security companies which haven't been through the proper security checks (Metpro, Barnet). Massive private sector contracts are decided in secret, or with paperwork being available only in the non-public sections of public meetings, etc. Staff who dare to whistleblow are harassed and hounded - for example, a group of women who supposedly talked to me for a Guardian story I did on a council supported living hostel closure were dragged through the disciplinary process at their council.
I've had letters from council lawyers for publishing links to documents on major privatisation deals. If Cameron's so hot on a free press, he might like to throw some of government's relationships with the private sector into the open. Let's see all the paperwork and every email sent to and from government and G4s. If journalists and media moguls are found to have broken the law, then they must be pursued by the law, as Anna rightly says. I have no time for illegality, or the abuse inflicted on innocent citizens by phone hackers posing as journalists. Just don't imagine for a moment that the press - or, at least, journalists who wish to report, rather than sensationalise - is already free.
The Barnet mass-outsourcing scandal and contracting shambles like Metpro certainly wouldn't have seen the light of day without the five Barnet bloggers there - they're among the best local journalists around. The Atos and ESA scandals were put on the map by bloggers - those bloggers managed, ultimately, to bring the mainstream along with them, but even now, those subjects aren't covered in anything like the detail they should be by the mainstream. People like Johnny Void and Joe Halewood are covering the looming Universal Credit and housing benefit disasters better than anybody. Their range is outstanding. They need more freedom, not less.
Kenan Malik on Levenson