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Kitemarks & Red Spots

Kitemarks & Red Spots

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Published by James Watson
James Watson urges readers to beware of kitemarks in the regulation of the British press, suspecting that there is a flavour of the 19th century's Red Spot - a means of controlling free expression, guarding the respectable while outlawing radicalism.
James Watson urges readers to beware of kitemarks in the regulation of the British press, suspecting that there is a flavour of the 19th century's Red Spot - a means of controlling free expression, guarding the respectable while outlawing radicalism.

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Published by: James Watson on Jan 19, 2013
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08/16/2013

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LEVESON IS BARKINGUP THE WRONG TREE
Author of 
Media Communication: An IntroductionTo Theory & Process
(Palgrave Macmillan) and co-authorWith Anne Hill of 
The Dictionary of Media & CommunicationStudies
(Bloomsbury Education)James Watson speaks up for a press free of kitemarks which he seesas potentially a modern version of the 19
th
centuryRed spot, symbol of press regulation and the oppressionof freedom.
BEWARE THE RED SPOT!
Leveson seems to have forgotten that press freedom was not lightlywon; that it took several centuries of defying censorship andestablishment repression to achieve what we have now; that the wordwas always at risk of the blue pencil, or in the case of the 19th century inBritain
the red spot.
Leveson‟s suggestion
of a kite mark for a legitimised press is of coursecouched in the language of moderation, but it rather gives the gameaway. What was the red spot? It was the obligatory sign to be printed onlicensed newspapers of the 19th century.The spot confirmed that a newspaper had paid for permission to print.
It differentiated the „respectable‟, the establishment press, from the
radicals. Its intention was to outlaw and silence papers edited by suchpioneers of liberty as William Cobbett, Richard Carlile, HenryHetherington,
Bronterre O‟Brien
, Earnest Jones, George Julian Harney and
Feargus O‟Connor who demanded reform of parliament, democracy and a
free press.
Invitation to the great and the good
No one would argue today that a kite mark might constitute a tax on
knowledge as the red spot certainly was. It would „merely‟ be a symbol of 
a press that did not abuse celebrities and members of the public, did notlie, and was accountable for its sins, honouring such journalistic principlesas truth, objectivity and impartiality (assuming society could achieve aconsensus on their definition).What Leveson says the modern press requires, seemingly with thewholehearted backing of Ed Miliband, J.K.Rowling, Hugh Grant and theHacked Off movement is a regulatory body that would be the custodian of such principles.
 
 
Alas one person‟s objectivity is another‟s prejudice and, as with the
task of recruiting the members of all committees, commissions andinquiries, the nature of that recruitment instantly breeds suspicion: whoappoints the judges and according to what criteria? What is rarelyconsidered in the selection of the great and the good is you and me; theflorist at the corner, the Mum with her kids waiting for the Number 9 busor anybody at the Darby and Joan Club autumn bazaar (much less thereaders of the old
News of the World 
).No, the names to regulate whatever is deemed regulateable will beselected in the age-old manner
as Judge Brian Leveson was, exercisingnarrow criteria not a little to do with being distinguished, part of theestablishment
 
and „safe‟. It does not take three guesses to envisage theconstitution of a body to regulate the press. A few moments‟ deliberation
might lead to the conclusion that as far as regulation is concerned wehave been here before, many times in many different forms, but alwayswith the same intent
control.
Elephants in the newsroom
Writing in the UK edition of the
Huffington Post 
(3 December, 2012),Jame
s Alan Anslow states that „in many ways the Leveson Report is an
impressive piece of work; it is a detailed, political and expedient response
to‟ (here Anslow suspends his approval) „an absurdly amorphous andpoorly considered brief‟. He cites what he considers Leveson‟s „twoshowstopping misjudgements: two ignored elephants in the newsroom‟.First, Leveson „neglects, almost to the point of dismissing itssignificance, the Internet, deeming it a “moral vacuum”. It is almost as if 
the power and reach of the Internet did not exist, scarcely impinging on
the present and future of the traditional press‟.
 
Yet in the UK, the US „and most other parts of the developed world,‟ says Anslow, the Internet „is responsible for the irreversibly accelerating
demise of prin
t newspapers‟. It is both the elephant in the room and, for
mass communication via print, the enemy at the door.Anslow considers that Leveson fundamentally misunderstands thenature of news journalism. He states:
Journalism operates in society's borderlands
it is liminal; that is to say it can only fulfilits function if it can move between structures, without being in thrall to any of them(including media moguls). For example, journalists must find operational space withinwhich to conduct off-the-record conversations with contacts be they police officers orpoliticians; good hacks have always plied their trade by being less than straightforward.
In other words, subversion is both natural to the trade and inescapable.The publication of news is, says
Anslow, „always, to one extent oranother, "loaded" and provocative…There will always be times that
 journalism tests and even breaks the law: whether to expose corrupt MPsby buying stolen data or to unveil royal hypocrisy by procuring atranscript of an a
dulterous phone conversation‟.
 
 
‘Quicksand of moral relativity’
 
Like many other Leveson-doubters Anslow believes that there are already
in Britain criminal laws in place to deal with press abuse if „those laws areapplied with vigour and probity‟. Invoking
 
 „public interest defence or
mitigation invariably plunges the process into the quicksand of moral
relativity so beloved of expensive lawyers‟.
What we need in the opinion of journalist Mick Hume is more freedom,not less. Author of 
There is No Such Thing
 As a Free Press…and we need 
one
 
more than ever 
(Societas, 2012), Hume believes that freedom is no
exemplar of order but „an unruly mess‟. He writes:
 
We should defend press freedom and freedom of expression as a bedrock liberty of acivilised society
and defend the right of a free press to be an unruly mess. That someabuse press freedom, as in the phone-hacking scandal, is no excuse for others toencroach upon it. Press freedom is not a gift to be handed down like charity only tothose deemed deserving. It is an indivisible liberty for all or none at all.
Calculated gain
It was to be expected that commitments to such liberty, expressed bypoliticians including prime minister David Cameron, would be seen bymany as calculated to curry favour with the press. After all, Leveson andthe public learnt much about the cosying-up between governmentministers (and those of the previous, Labour government) and high-fliersin the Murdoch empire such as former
Sun
editor Rebekah Brooks(affectionately referred to as
 „Country Suppers‟). Cameron had actually
appointed ex-
News of the World 
editor Andy Coulson his press secretaryuntil revelations about phone-
hacking forced Coulson‟s exit from Downing
Street.Two QCs, Ben Emmerson and Hugh Tomlinson in a UK Guardian article
 „No threat to freedom‟ (4 December 2012) conceded that „The politicians
who oppose Leveson will be able to rely on the support of the media in
future‟, adding, „The whole point of Leveson was to expose this sort of patronage, and bring it to an end‟.
Even so, forgetting for a moment where the comment is coming from,
Cameron‟s doubts about regulation are valid. His swiftly
-expressed view
was that „We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation which has the
potential to infringe free speech and a free
press‟.
 He went on:
The danger is that this would create a vehicle for politicians, whether today or some timein the future, to impose regulation and obligations on the press, something Lord JusticeLeveson himself wishes to avoid.
Cameron‟s position
would be worthy of support if it were not for thefact that his government was concurrently launching draconian plans toput Internet communications under further legal surveillance.

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