Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A quick point about Leveson

Please don't waste your time defending the 'independence' of the press, or a 'free press'.  The 'independence' of the press is an ideological conceit.  In liberal ideology, the state is here, civil society there - and never the twain shall meet, except on election day or on those unfortunate occasions when an officer of the law might visit.  In the sphere of civil society, the 'private' sphere for the purposes of this discourse, there are pubs, biscuit manufacturers, trade unions, peep shows, chess clubs, the brownies, car dealerships, families, nudism, and of course newspapers, magazines and other sorts of publications.  In the sphere of the state, the 'public' sphere, are courts, cop shops, parliament, the Ministry of Defence, Jobcentre Plus, the Queen and her entourage, the NHS, and probably the BBC.   

Well, that is the ideology as I say, the legal image of the state as a sort of 'night watchman' that must be prevented from going beyond its strictly designated limits.  The rational core of the conceit is the relative extrusion of political violence from exploitative relations under capitalism.  Whereas the feudal exploiter bears arms when collecting tribute, the capitalist exploiter works by contract, and rings the police if there's any trouble.  It thus appears that there's a sphere of 'civil society' organised on the basis of contract, in which the state's primary purpose is to uphold contracts - including the primordial contract between citizens and state which delegates sovereign power to the latter.  This trope can be useful, inasmuch as it mobilises opposition to the state in several areas where its oppressiveness can be most keenly felt.  It provides liberals with a philosophically grounded basis for saying 'don't censor him, don't lock her up arbitrarily, and don't obstruct our demonstration'.  

But you begin to see the limitations of such an approach when, as Leveson proposes a relatively mild form of regulation, the cries of Stalinist censorship are sent aloft - North Korea, Zimbabwe, in Britain tomorrow!  Woe for us!  The reality is that there is media regulation of different types in every capitalist formation, and this extends to the press which, among industries, is neither sacred nor unique.  There are limits to what may be published, or broadcast, or narrowcast, in every capitalist state in the world.  The state's presence in the constitution and regulation of every field of social production and reproduction should be taken as a truism.  It should also be a truism for the left that there can be no a priori opposition to state intervention: it depends on the circumstances.  

There is also this to say.  The state's presence in the media is not purely 'negative' in the sense of repressing it and limiting its output.  It actively produces certain types of media and certain types of content.  The close networks of collusion between Murdoch, the police, the Tories, leading Blairites and other businessmen and women, can be read as an abberation, a singular pathology of a very distinctive type of power.  But it can also be interpreted as a corollary of the structural, relational interdependence between the mass media and the state.  It literalises a structural fact, which is that the mass media is an active element in the formulation of policy, in the prosecution of criminal justice, in the dissemination of the dominant ideology.  It is not so much intruded on by the state as interlocked with it.  (Yes, this is the 'ideological-state apparatus' hypothesis, which certainly deserves renewed attention following Hackgate).  Journalists and pundits who routinely seek their information from Downing Street, or the White House press spokesperson, or a ministry PR sheet, or a policeman, judge or other figure of authority, must be very well aware of this imbrication, and their particular role.  The very notion, purveyed by shriller-than-thou polemicists and pundits across the spectrum, that a piddling regulatory body with a piddling 'dab of statute' would constitute an unprecedented abridgment of the free press is, forgive me, a so much horseshit.

This is emphatically not to say that complacency is a good response to state intervention, nor to say that the specific proposals of Leveson are such that we should cheerlead them.  The soft left, in whose ranks I should probably include Hacked Off, Liberty, most trade unionists and Labour members, are generally positive about the measures.  Liberty argues that a regulatory body that is independent of the press, underpinned by law and capable of imposing real penalties, would offer tabloid victims a low cost and plausible means of pursuing a grievance - away from the minatory ranks of lawyers, private detectives and bent cops.  In principle, I have a great deal of sympathy with this idea, and it's obvious why Murdoch and his allies would oppose it.  But there may be a sting in the tail. Certainly, this is the position Socialist Worker takes this week, arguing that the radical press could be seriously hurt by Leveson's proposals.  I merely raise this to indicate the possible dangers and the fact that there is and must be a debate about the concrete details rather than just the principle itself.

Nor is this to defend what Leveson has actually produced in his report - so far from it.  As far as I can gather, Leveson diverts the subject away from the underlying issue of press ownership with a perfunctory note about 'greater transparency' in mergers and monopolies.  He whitewashes the police and the main crooks, while (so I gather) wasting energy attacking Piers Morgan and other less relevant figures.  He leaves unexamined the forms of ruling class power that Murdoch's global media empire is involved in, and the networks of criminal conspiracy that it cultivated.  Most scandalously of all, he ignores the murder of Daniel Morgan.  

As I mentioned at the start of this process, Leveson was close to the Murdoch clan, or at least well within their social circles.  He was and is an establishment man, appointed for that reason.  He was never going to do anything other than cleanse and absolve the main culprits of the main crimes.  Not only that, but such public inquiries tend to have a constructive role as far as the ruling class is concerned.  They arise because there is a problem, a dysfunction, one that threatens the general interests of the ruling class, and one which needs to be resolved in the interests of that class, but also credibly as far as the population is concerned.  They take "the heat out of controversies, by slowing the pace of revelations to a manageable speed, and stifling it in parliamentary language."  Through this process, a great deal of important information may be gleaned.  Some rational prescriptions may emerge from the procedure.  Many journalists have expressed cheer at the 'conscience clause', for instance.  But the wider effort of gathering evidence, having hearings, questioning witnesses, deliberating, and all the usual rituals of the state, is governed by the overriding imperative of conservation.

Still, taking all this as read - could we really have expected much better? in truth, I expected even worse - there really is something quite precious, quite unbelievably self-cherishing, about those innumerable opinion pieces asserting that Leveson and his politically correct supporters have just hacked 'free speech' to death.  All that has happened thus far is that a conservative bureaucrat has recommended modestly adjusting the relationship of the state to the press, in such a way that the worst abuses of the worst newspapers might conceivably be limited.  And any critique of Leveson that starts from the myth of press 'independence' has already lost.