The printing of naked photos of Prince Harry by The Sun exposed nothing very interesting about the prince but it did dislodge some very muddled thinking about the future of newspapers.
The short-term future for newspaper editors is dominated by the Leveson Inquiry, due to report in the autumn. The Inquiry’s chairman has been sending provisional summaries of his views to editors and they don’t like what they read, claiming that it hints at statute-backed press regulation. The government sounds wary. The opposition Labour Party is sitting on the fence on that issue, preparing to jump off on whatever side will cause the government most trouble, while keeping as much attention as they can muster on the issue of media plurality and ownership. These are all pre-publication manoeuvres. Nobody yet knows what Leveson thinks and positions will be amended or even abandoned when his views become clear.
The Prince Harry pictures gave editors a chance to rehearse their defences, which came in two varieties. The first is a broad press freedom argument which asks for licence to disclose anything which they deem interesting and which is within the law (and maybe a few things which aren’t). As a defence in court – prosecutions of News of the World journalists for phone-hacking and related offences are churning through the system in parallel to the Leveson Inquiry – this is unlikely to work (see this from the HuffPo by one of those arrested). We might christen this the “spacious elbow room” argument; popular papers need space to do what they do and to survive. A tincture of anti-establishment language is usually thrown in. Hence the ex-editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie:
“I’m unsure why the establishment hate newspapers so much but what I’d like to see is editors get off their knees and start pushing back against these curtailments in what will eventually, I promise you, lead to the closure of newspapers”.
There’s a hint at the end of that soundbite of the second defence argument: you have to allow popular papers to survive if you don’t want to be left only with a combination of the unpopular (aka quality) papers and the internet. Patrick Smith of the sharp-eyed MediaBriefing pointed out a remarkable line in the Sunday Times leader (£) defending The Sun’s Prince Harry pictures which echoed a point made by Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail four years ago:
“Newspapers are fighting for their lives in the toughest of economic climates combined with technological changes that weigh heavily against traditional print. If they are not commercial they will die and they cannot let the internet become the prime forum for communication.”
No question about the tough economic climate, but is that what this is about for these gentlemen? The second sentence is extraordinary, both for the assertion and the implication. Publishers of news don’t determine what is or isn’t the “prime forum” for communication. They may, if they are shrewd, influence that choice. But it will be shaped by a number of things and most of all by consumers. If news organisations (rightly) exist in the private sector to preserve their independence, they are vulnerable to shifts in taste, fashion and technology. For many people, particularly younger people who have given up or never acquired a regular newspaper habit, the internet is – right now – the prime forum for communication. The implication seems to be that whatever Lord Leveson might say, the government should rig the market and regulatory system so as to preserve the internet as just another publishing system subsidiary to print. Heaven forbid that the internet should be any sort of opportunity for change.