spiked: proud to be unlicensed

Lord Justice Leveson has proposed a kitemark system to distinguish which press and online outlets are 'trustworthy'. spiked doesn't want it.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill

Topics Politics

One of the key proposals in Lord Justice Leveson’s Proust-length moan about the state of the British press is that there should be a kitemark system for ‘trusted journalism’. ‘I recommend’, said the one-man Vatican Council, ‘that a new regulatory body should consider establishing a kitemark for use by members to establish a recognised brand of trusted journalism’.

That is, a new regulatory body – which should be empowered by law, says Leveson – should set about establishing a way of signalling which media are acceptable and which are not. This suggestion that the press be effectively split between the trusted and the untrusted, between the good and the bad, cuts to the heart of what is wrong with the authorities’ Leveson-led meddling in the press. Essentially, Leveson is proposing a new, less brutal, more PC-sounding licensing of the press, where some publications – those that obediently adhere to a new ethically informed code of conduct – will receive a licence of respectability from the new regulators, and others will not.

Leveson and his cheerleaders say this is simply a way of demonstrating to the public which press outlets are ‘trustworthy’, in terms of how they obtain their facts and stories and how they package them up. Yet the more explicit Crown licensing of the press in the past, which so outraged yesteryear’s agitators for freedom, was also focused fundamentally around ‘trustworthiness’. As one study of the birth of the printing press put it, ‘[W]ords were first transferred from type to paper under licensing of writers and printers the Crown deemed trustworthy’. Today, too, judges and their backers in the cultural elite and Celebville wish to license, provide with a kitemark, only those whom they deem trustworthy, ethical, respectable.

The proposed kitemark system shines a light on the coercive mindset that has fuelled the Leveson showtrial of the low-rent press. One suggestion is that those publications that have been awarded a kitemark – that is, who have satisfied the new regulators that they are respectable – will get certain perks: access to essential press information, wire stories, key political revelations. As Mike Gannatt of the UK Press Card Association said, such a system is effectively an attempt to ‘coerce compliance with self-regulation’. It’s stiff moral pressure, a threat to deny disobedient hacks access to information in lieu of being able to pack them off to the Tower, as the Crown’s licensers would have done in the past.

Of course, if certain, un-kitemarked, allegedly unethical journalists were denied access to information, they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs properly. Their livelihoods would suffer. This, too, echoes the crueller licensing systems that pertained in the past; as the World Press Freedom Committee pointed out in a 2002 report, under those old systems ‘de-licensing often meant loss of livelihood’.

But worst of all, Leveson’s system of kitemarks-for-goody-two-shoes would implicitly demote the reader, the public itself, in the realm of political and media debate. Trust would no longer be an active thing, given by readers to press outlets they like or believe in or agree with; trustworthiness would not spring from the judgements and attachments of the reading public; rather it would become a brand, a seal of approval, handed down from on high by a new regulatory caste that decides who is ethical and who isn’t. Trust would no longer have to be won from a demanding public, but rather would have to be begged for from a new ethical elite. Figures of authority, and not the reading rabble, would get to define the worth and import of a press outlet.

This is why spiked will never seek a Leveson-style kitemark, why we will never don what is referred to in the Leveson report as this ‘badge of honour’ – because we don’t need a seal of approval from officialdom, or their permission to speak and stir up debate and try to convince the public of our arguments. We don’t need a licence. It is our readers and our readers alone that should decide whether we are good or trustworthy. We don’t want Leveson’s kitemark of trustworthiness because we don’t trust him or his chums in the chattering classes to decide the parameters of the press; we trust the public to do that.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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