Regulators have never truly tamed the power of the press

Chris Bowlby takes a closer look at attempts by regulators to curb the power of the press  

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After the phone hacking scandal and closure of the News of the World earlier this year, there has been much talk of a new era in journalism, and in relations between journalists, politicians and police.

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The debate prompted by the scandal was remarkably intense and has claimed some prominent scalps, as well as setting in motion official enquiries into the workings of the media. But for historians of the popular press in Britain, like Dr Adrian Bingham of the University of Sheffield, this cycle of scandal followed by attempts at official regulation has a curiously familiar feel. Fear and loathing of the popular press among the elite in particular goes back at least as far as the foundation of the late News of the World in 1843.

The creators of this and other similar newspapers were consciously attempting, explains Dr Bingham, to “reach a market”. This contrasted deliberately with the traditional idea of journalism embracing politics, business and thoughtful commentary. Railways provided new means of mass distribution; more extensive education created thousands of potential new readers, eager for what new newspaper owners called ‘human interest’.

But “every step of the way”, adds Bingham, there were “countless voices expressing anxiety” about where journalism was heading. The cultural critic Matthew Arnold derided ‘New Journalism’ as “feather-brained”, while Conservative prime minister Lord Salisbury loftily dismissed the Daily Mail, founded in 1896, as “a newspaper produced by office boys for office boys”.

The new press would not yet respond to such figures with the vigorous criticism it might print today. Well-connected figures could simply ring up editors or proprietors and prevent stories from being published. This is how scandals, such as politicians’ mistresses, were kept secret. And the popular press was less able to gather sensational information. Yet that didn’t stop it fully exploiting scandalous court cases when it had the opportunity, providing juicy tales of crime and sexual scandal. In fact, the mid-20th century saw tabloids securing exclusive courtroom access by offering to pay the legal costs of some of Britain’s most notorious figures.

So the pressure on journalists to ‘get the story’, beat the competition and never worry about ethics is nothing new. Nor, for that matter, is close collaboration between journalists and police, or broader intrusion into private lives.

But as the power of the tabloid press grew in the 20th century, politicians’ earlier disdain for such newspapers was replaced by wary respect for what was seen as their potential political power. In the 1920s, the Daily Mail tried to discredit the Labour party with the forged Zinoviev letter, purporting to come from the Communist International organisation.

Labour anxiety about press power can be traced through to The Sun’s campaign against Neil Kinnock in the 1980s and Tony Blair’s anxious courting of Rupert Murdoch in the 1990s. While “no one can measure” the newspapers’ influence on voters, suggests Adrian Bingham, “politicians always fear it might be decisive”.

And that historical fear may still affect how far regulation is pursued today. Various enquiries will make recommendations, but again this is nothing new. A Royal Commission on the Press expressed its distaste in 1949 that many papers now reported “the matrimonial adventures of a film star as though they possessed the same intrinsic importance as events affecting the peace of a continent”. And the Calcutt report, following huge concern about the reporting of Diana, Princess of Wales, advocated the outlawing of some press surveillance techniques and toughening of the Press Complaints Commission.

Yet somehow, says Dr Bingham, “the press have always fended off proper regulation”, often warning that essential journalistic freedom was threatened. And the ruthless culture of journalistic competition remains, intensified now by the internet as well as broadcasting.

However much we hear of a new start, it seems likely that scandalised debate about press behaviour, privacy and freedom of speech will erupt as regularly in the future as it has in the past.

Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history

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This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org