Journalists are getting angry.
The government is considering bringing in a new law which makes it much easier for people to take media publishers to court for telling lies, distorting the truth, intruding into grief, breaching privacy and behaving in a generally unethical way, the way that many newspapers do. It is called Section 40.
In future, if publishers do not belong to an officially recognised, independent regulator and have refused arbitration with an aggrieved party, then they may be liable for all legal costs, whether they win an ensuing court case, or not.
The measure is designed to make publishers behave themselves by punishing 'newspapers if they force people to use the libel courts without offering a cheaper alternative' according to a BBC report. It was recommended by Lord Leveson following the hacking enquiry.
All kinds of dire predictions are issuing from Britain's less than illustrious 'fourth estate'. Midlands Newsquest (publisher of the Ledbury Reporter), has joined the chorus, calling Section 40 in a recent editorial a 'pernicious and ill-considered piece of legislation'... which 'would cripple the local and regional press. Papers like this could close'. That would be a shame of course. Any jobs lost are always a cause for sadness.
Invoking history, Newsquest's Chief Executive Henry Faure Walker made an impassioned appeal to local readers to lobby politicians on the paper's behalf: 'Our journalism and our newspapers have proudly spoken for our readers since the world’s oldest newspaper, our sister title, the Berrow's Worcester Journal, hit the street in 1690. Now we need our readers to speak up for us.'
Sorry, it doesn't wash. With some exceptions, journalists have never been held in such contempt. Even the BBC is tainted. All the lies, and money-grabbing cynicism, the bias, cruelties and fecklessness of Britain's tabloid media in recent decades is catching up with them. Poll organisation Ipsos-Mori found that just 25% of Britons trust journalists to tell the truth. Apart from politicians, they are Britain's most distrusted profession.
Here in Ledbury, they are no different it seems. Our local rag is known as the Ledbury Liar/Ledbury Distorter; nor is the soubriquet used affectionately. Week after week, the paper serves up a meagre diet of lightweight human interest stories and a political narrative designed to shore up a sleazy and corrupt status quo.
It isn't only dissident politicians who fear garbled or lop-sided coverage. At least one community organisation I know of is actively refraining from sending news to the Reporter, preferring publicity through networks it can trust to get basic facts right.
Thinking about the lot of provincial journalists who are in constant fear of their jobs, working ever longer hours for less pay, compelled to do anything to stem tumbling profits with a Gradgrind employer snapping at their heels, why should we be surprised by the paucity of any guiding morality in their dealings?
Consider the fable of the scorpion and the frog:
A scorpion and a frog meet on a river bank. The scorpion which can't swim, asks the frog to carry it to the other side. Afraid of being stung, the frog at first refuses but the scorpion persuades it by claiming that this could never happen since if the frog was harmed, both of them would drown. It's a clever argument.
Half way across, the scorpion fatally stings the frog. Why did you do that? cries the frog. The scorpion says it couldn't help itself: 'It's in my nature'.
The moral of the story is that those who are fundamentally dangerous are incapable of change. They can never be trusted to behave responsibly, even when it is in their own interests to do so.
The tabloid media is often dangerous. They cannot self-regulate. The problem, as noted by a leading academic, is 'with the culture of journalism, in which editors will do anything for a story and reporters will do anything the editor wants'[i].
Editors and publishers scream like toddlers about Section 40 as an attack on freedom of expression, their freedom that is to traduce, misrepresent and propagandise on behalf of the Conservative Party, their rich publishers, and worse. They like to see themselves as bastions of transparency and truth, but most, demonstrably are as biased and self-interested as any crooked politician.
In the case of local titles like the Ledbury Reporter, its parent company Newsquest has near monopoly coverage of local news - apart from social media (and other online places such as this blog). This puts them in an influential position. They set the tone of local affairs, and create an implicit centre ground for policy and debate.
Just like the national media which presents a wildly pro-Conservative agenda, daily hammering anti-refugee, anti-Europe, anti-socialist rhetoric, this is why deviations in the balance of their coverage, of contextual omissions and distortions of who said what really do matter. The consequence is to create a 'new normal', a narrative which subtly upholds a right-wing status quo. You don't have to be a rampant Marxist to recognise how insidiously harmful is their influence on British society.
With a circulation of just two thousand four hundred copies, including the few hundred freebies handed out at estate agents, the lowly Ledbury Reporter has a declining readership and a surprisingly low penetration into its population catchment of about twenty thousand adults. Working on ever more tightly squeezed profit margins, it cannot afford to lose even just a few hundred readers.
For this reason, weeklies don't usually like to be seen as partisan for fear of alienating sections of their fickle local customer base. And yet, just like the fabled scorpion, the Ledbury Reporter seems oblivious to these business realities. It can't help itself.
A great swathe of the people who buy the Reporter are those same people who vote for people like Liz Harvey, Andrew Warmington and Andrew Harrison, the perennial objects of their insistently negative coverage. These three it will be recalled swept the board at the 2015 elections.
Meanwhile Mr Gary Bills-Geddes' town council sweethearts, his rent-a-gob politicians of choice - Barnes, Eager, Bradford, Baker and Crowe - limped in at the bottom of the poll, successful only because there were insufficient other candidates willing to risk winning a seat in Ledbury's benighted council. For County Council seats, Conservative Debbie Baker was trounced by Andrew Warmington while Liz Harvey blew away Tory veteran Phill Bettington.
The Reporter does its best to pander to populist elements in the town by quoting regularly from Voice of Ledbury and dutifully posting its front page there each week. Even so, the 'Born and Bred' brigade continue disinclined to pay their 95 pence for a paper that is seen as mainly Malvern news and gossip.
Dying for a leak.
Deputy editor John Wilson stands proudly above criticism of his paper and its main journalist Gary Bills-Geddes.
When I set out a detailed critique of the paper's recent biased political coverage and its unwillingness to expose a range of serious Council misdemeanors, I was told I had 'very entrenched' views about Ledbury Town Council. 'I am happy' said Wilson, 'that we are adequately and fairly holding Ledbury Town Council to account.'
The constant complaint that Gary Bills-Geddes habitually quotes just a favoured few town councillors, but largely ignores others, is repudiated. John Wilson says any apparent prominence for some is because the paper is allowed only to report what is said in meetings; briefings - whether on or off the record - are not covered by legal 'privilege': 'we try to restrict our reports to what is said in the meeting. We have important protection under the law for our reports of public meetings, and it does not apply to things said outside it'. To quote a recent editorial penned by Mr Wilson himself, 'what twaddle!'
Town councillor Andrew Harrison challenged this specious argument by noting that Gary regularly benefits from 'off the record' leaks from his chum Cllr Tony Bradford. Complete with a Trumpesque exclamation mark, Wilson responded by saying 'you too, are free to leak!'. So much for being ethical and transparent.
So to recap, if councillors make outrageously controversial statements in meetings (often centring on Bob Barnes), they will be headlined. See 'censorship' debate here and here; 'tolerance' motion here.
Intelligent, rational, evidence based contributions which explain or contextualise debate from more thoughtful or informed members of the council can expect to be ignored. It's boring. It doesn't fit the narrative.
Similarly, councillors who might debunk false or misleading stories will be overlooked, in favour of a cabal of loud mouths and attention seekers who can be relied upon to whistle up a fine political squall when needed. See Armed Police in Ledbury, also here and here.
Lastly, Ledbury councillors are encouraged by the local press to leak sensitive or confidential information to the local newspaper.
It all points to an editorial team at Newsquest which is ethically no different - no better nor worse - than the tabloid dreadfuls like The Sun, Mail, Express and Star. They are scorpions. It's in their nature.
This is why readers and non-readers of the Ledbury Reporter should respond positively to the Government's Section 40 consultation. Send in your thoughts on media regulation, and while you're at it, copy them to Mr John Wilson (email@example.com). Here is the place to do it:
[i] Cohen-Almagor (2014), Press Self-regulation in Britain. P21. http://www2.hull.ac.uk/fass/pdf/Press_Self_Regulation_in_Britain.pdf