Wednesday, 20 March 2013


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 March 2013

Now, I'm not going to do this, you understand, but ...

What if I set up a website – let's call it Scumbag – and got it hosted on a web server in the United States. Scumbag would be explicitly committed to publishing stories about UK celebrities obtained by fair means or foul that involved the most outrageous breaches of privacy, would be explicitly racist, misogynist and homophobic, would campaign relentlessly in favour of climate-change denial and reduction of welfare payments to supposed scroungers, and would never allow anyone it traduced to reply (let alone publish apologies). Familiar profile?

Although Scumbag would concentrate entirely on UK stories, as its sole proprietor I would not be resident in the UK but in Sicily. Scumbag would have no UK employees (though it would use UK freelances) and it would not register the website with any UK regulator.

The question is this: is there anything in any of the proposals currently being made for UK press regulation – including the Leveson-lite compromise that seems to have been agreed by the party leaders last weekend – that would stop Scumbag in its tracks?

I don’t think so. Scumbag would no more be published in the UK than the New York Times is published here – but it would be available to anyone with an internet connection. I’d be in Italy, ogling the girls on the beach and smoking big cigars. Scumbag’s UK freelances would be vulnerable to libel actions in the UK, but the cunningly clever ruse of not giving them bylines and refusing to identify them when anyone contacted HQ in Sicily would make them very difficult to sue. They would also of course be subject to the criminal law in the UK, but if they got caught hacking phones or trespassing in the grounds of royal properties it would be their look-out. No (overt) legal support, though Scumbag would reward initiative generously…

OK, that’s enough grim fantasy – though to be honest, we’re almost there already with dreck like the Guido Fawkes blog and Press TV available to anyone with a smartphone. You’d need a good business head for Scumbag to wash its face as an enterprise, but it already looks an awful lot easier than publishing a highbrow leftwing dead-trees weekly or fortnightly.

But if you do want to publish a highbrow leftwing dead-trees weekly or fortnightly – let’s call it Tribune – in Britain, old-style, and you don’t have big money or even small money, and it’s difficult getting it legalled every issue because you’re broke, all of the proposals put up by self-styled reformers post-Leveson are grounds for panic. You don’t have a Scumbag escape.

Most of the reformers are media studies academics who last worked as journalists 30 or more years ago and have had little published – except think-pieces on media reform and dull stuff in academic journals – for more than two decades. They’re all in favour in theory of insurgent journalism, investigations and all the rest, but they’ve not done any real journalism themselves for ages and are pretty much clueless about how the media have changed since the arrival of the internet. For the best of academic reasons circa 1987, they’re focused on the big players of the late 20th-century, the Murdochs and the Rothermeres. But they don’t know about the internet, and they are barely aware of the minnows on the edges of commercial viability.

And actually, it’s the internet and the minnows that matter. Leave grand principles aside. How much is it going to cost to sign up for being part of the regulatory system that would allow participants in a Leveson-type scheme to avoid being subject to exemplary damages in libel actions if you don’t join – something backed by all parties right now? If it’s twenty quid a year, maybe cough up. If it’s £2,000? Well, that’s the difference between survival and death, so bollocks to that.

As for the idea that third-party complainants – people who think a piece is outrageous for one reason or another though it has nothing directly to do with them – should be given rights to reply or to moan at length that can be enforced by a regulator or a court of law? Bollocks again, to the Freedom Association, the East London Mosque, the British National Party, the various publicists for Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Socialist Workers Party, who have no right whatsoever to any kind of reply from Tribune or my blog apart from the opportunity of contributing to the letters page or comments, with publication at the editor’s – in the case of this blog, my – discretion. And if they don’t like that, they can stick it wherever they want.

The would-be regulators are sad old men with leather patches on the elbows of their tweed jackets. Hacked Off, the campaign to support the victims of phone-hacking, has been very successful in getting party political support for its proposals to clamp down on the press as it remembers it in the 1980s. But it should be told to get lost. It’s now dangerously past-it.

Friday, 8 March 2013


Paul Anderson, Free Press, March-April 2013 

It’s a measure of how far the left has retreated in recent years that the best most media reformers can imagine to defend journalists’ independence is a “conscience clause” in their contracts to allow them to refuse their bosses’ instructions to act unethically.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea. The National Union of Journalists has supported it since the 1970s, and it was backed by Lord Justice Leveson in his report on press regulation at the end of last year.

If implemented, it would provide a small but significant protection for journalists.

But it addresses only at the margins the fundamental problem of how little most journalists control what they produce. You get a lot of leeway if you’re a big name – a star broadcaster or a columnist on a quality national newspaper. But journalists are generally kept on a tight rein.

Media organisations are run by managers answering to owners or (in the case of the BBC) political appointees. The bosses set the agenda in every way: the editorial line, news values, what you cannot touch for political or commercial reasons. Journalists do what they are told.

To some extent, this is inevitable: there will always be a tension between the individual journalist’s autonomy and the collective will of his or her organisation. Any journalistic enterprise that’s more than micro, new media or old, needs editorial direction and a division of labour. But it’s quite feasible for the producers to determine both.

Why isn’t anyone today making the case for workers’ self-management in the media? One reason is that it seems unrealistic. The “right to manage” ethos is entrenched even in liberal media organisations (and it’s getting worse). Even the most diluted forms of self-management –workers on the board or a say for journalists in the choice of editor – would be resisted vigorously by those in charge. Maybe, in the circumstances, the priority is defending what little space we’ve got.

But unrealistic is not impossible. The idea that workers’ self-management in the media has been tried and failed and isn’t worth trying again is a canard.

True, there were several examples of self-managed magazines and newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s that failed:

  • The Scottish Daily News, created with the help of a large government loan by former staff of the Scottish Daily Express after it closed, lasted six loss-making months in 1975. 
  • The Leveller, a libertarian left current affairs magazine based in London, managed six crisis-ridden years (1976-82) before folding.
  • City Limits, an alternative London listings magazine, did brilliantly for several years after emerging from a strike at Time Out in 1981 (with funding from the Greater London Council) but started to lose money in the late 1980s and expired in 1992. 
  • News on Sunday, a national left-wing paper launched in spring 1987 with trade union backing, ran out of cash in weeks and closed by the end of the year.

But none of these failures shows that workers’ self-management cannot work. News on Sunday was a farcical demonstration of how not to do it – as chronicled by Chris Horrie and Peter Chippendale in their book Disaster! – and the Scottish Daily News was an attempt to revive a corpse. The Leveller and City Limits both came within an inch of success, however: it was undercapitalisation that did for them.

And times have changed. All those experiments were in print, before desktop publishing and long before the internet. The internet allows anyone to publish for free to a worldwide audience – and today you can do everything online: words, pictures, audio, video.

Yet 15 years into the internet age, it’s notable how little the potential of the web has been exploited by collaborative self-managed journalistic projects in the UK. Yes, there’s Open Democracy, there’s the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there are dozens of group blogs, and plenty of media and campaigning organisations have adapted successfully to the online world. But even at local level there are few independent journalism-led and journalist-run web initiatives that go further than providing forums for the expression of opinion.

Of course, journalism costs money, and no one has quite yet worked out how to make the internet pay. Open Democracy, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the successful group blogs rely for income on fundraising or selling stories to established media outlets. But there are signs that it won’t be long before a robust business model for online publication is established, through a mix of online advertising, subscriptions and micro-payments: it’s already beginning to happen in the US and elsewhere.

And once it is – well, the possibilities for self-managed media are endless. Radical journalists in Britain need to be putting a lot more thought into how, together, we can at last seriously exploit the potential of what was once known as the information super-highway.