Wed Mar 27th, 2013 at 06:35:16 AM EST
Over the past several months we have had the [UK] press complaining bitterly about the introduction of new regulation. This is both unnecessary and unwanted in their eyes. Depending on the argument deployed, either an outrageous attack on investigative journalism to hide the crimes and misdemeanours of the rich and powerful (which several investigative journalists have said is untrue); or, if you follow their other line of reasoning, entirely unnecessary because due to the loss of readership, there will be no papers in ten years. So any legislation will be a waste of time, and we may as well not bother.
This second argument has a particular, painful moral flaw. As the readership numbers have been falling, the tabloid press has slowly shifted its story-generated attack from those with cash and and expensive publicity machine to those without. Simply put it is easier and cheaper to train their sights on those unable, unwilling, or too far out of their depth to fight back.
This week we have had the Lucy Meadows story as a prime example of the apparent destructive effects of the press, although this link is as yet unproven. But looking at any daily tabloid would find you with the forces of moral opprobrium facing the damaged or despairing as an example of social failing. Single mothers who haven't lived up to the standards of the press, who live in a house that costs too much, or too little, who go out to work and so don't spend enough time with their children, or don't and hence are scrounging scum. Disabled people who aren't disabled enough, because having struggled to overcome a lack of facilities, any success is obviously proof they aren't disabled. And there are casualties of this callous attack beyond the more obviously headline grabbing examples. Newspapers are pushing the line that a large number of disabled people claim benefit fraudulently. This line has been pushed for many years, even though independent assessment has followed the DWP's own figures that say fraud levels are only 1 in 200 claims. Newspapers have pushed a false perception that fraud is widespread to the extent that we now have reports of disabled people being harassed and attacked in public.
The effect of this is that politicians are then taking this line of harassment as an example of "what the people want" when it is in fact little more than what the papers' accountants and lawyers say will be that which will minimise legal costs. Politicians should have the moral backbone to stand up to the press, but as we have seen recently, back room meetings have resulted in them bowing to the press's demands to exclude group complaints from any legislation. Something that might at least make these attacks more expensive. The effect on the balance sheet being the only thing the newspapers appear to understand or take seriously.
Once these stories are published, a single mother or disabled person is far less likely to take a wealthy newspaper owner to court. Firstly it doesn't seem an option to most, unless they are connected into a solid support network, or campaigning group, secondly, it just seems incredibly expensive and thirdly, under the weight of bile pouring from the desks of journalists, many will begin to think this attack on themselves is actually justified.
Is it legal? Yes. Is it anything other than the morals of a schoolyard Bully? Most definitely not.
In the long term, we will see more and more people picked on, for no good reason, as finances get tighter, and as this downward readership spiral continues and there is less cash available to pay for both real journalism and the lawyers to fight off those that can afford to fight back, and those who should be the proper subjects of journalistic investigation.
Arguments that this type of action by the press must be allowed because the press must be free, and without this unethical action it cannot afford to be society's watchdog cannot be allowed to stand. If a paper consists of nothing other than PR stories from companies and celebrities re-written, plus scurrilous attacks on defenceless citizens, then how is the paper fulfilling the purpose of a free press? How is it holding the powerful to account? Even if this did in fact fund investigative journalism, can we justify these citizens as collateral damage to the hunt for immoral politicians? Are we any more civilised than the Aztecs if we allow the weak in society to be a blood sacrifice on the altar of tabloid journalism?