HOW WOULD I FEEL IF MY SONGS WERE SUBJECT TO STATUTORY REGULATION? Some thoughts on the Leveson Report

After months of public hearings and deliberation, Lord Justice Leveson yesterday delivered his report into the culture, practices and ethics of the (British) press.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20543133

Over the past days, the print media have heavily trailed their opposition to any form of statutory regulation, claiming that it would amount to an attack on their freedom of speech. This morning we’ve witnessed the hypocrisy of newspapers such as the Mail, Sun, Telegraph and Express, who constantly complain that victims of crime never get redress, suddenly become cheerleaders for the rights of offenders.

As someone who considers themselves to be a defender of freedom of expression, I’ve found myself wondering how I would feel if there were statutory regulation of songwriting.

Lets imagine that the government passed legislation requiring any song sung publicly in the UK to be first cleared with Ofsong, the independent regulator for the music industry. I very much doubt that ‘Never Buy the Sun’, my song attacking the collusion between News International, the police and MPs that led to phone hacking and the cover-up at Hillsborough would be passed for performance.

This legislation would clearly be an infringement of my right to freedom of expression. I oppose such draconian measures, whether they’re applied to songs, performances or newspapers. So why then am I in favour of Leveson’s recommendation for statutory regulation of the press?

I am concerned that when the media speak of the freedom of the press, they are confusing liberty with licence. The body tasked with holding the press to account, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), is both funded and run by the press. Newspaper editors have jurisdiction over complaints about the bahaviour of their fellow editors from members of the public. Leveson described this form of self-regulation as allowing the newspaper industry ‘to mark its own homework’.

The PCC has given tabloid editors so much licence over the past 20 years that they have become a law unto themselves, wielding power that has, until now, been unaccountable to private citizens who have been subject to their glare. There are many examples of how the tabloids have bullied people into giving them stories against their will, but here’s one from today’s papers:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/nov/29/leveson-hacking-victim-tulloch

John Tulloch was a victim of the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London. He claims that in 2005, on the same day that the police returned the blasted remains of his clothes and shoes, he was bullied and harassed into giving an interview to a tabloid and posing for a photograph he later bitterly regretted.

To return to my Ofsong metaphor for a moment, the treatment that Mr Tulloch received at the hands of the media is not the same as me performing ‘Never Buy the Sun’. If I were to match the heinous behaviour of the tabloids, it would involve me standing outside the homes of those I mentioned in the song for days on end, shouting through their letterboxes, pestering their neighbours for gossip, taking photos of their children – keeping all this up until they gave me what I considered to be a satisfactory response to the accusations I made in the song.

It’s this kind of behaviour – the bullying of private individuals by newspapers – that Leveson aims to curb, not the free expression of opinions. That’s why I support him and why the media barons hate him. They fear that statutory regulation will inhibit their ability to get away with invading the privacy of people such as the Dowlers and the McCanns – families vulnerable at a time of great grief and loss.

Leveson seeks to address this problem by calling for a regulatory body that is independent from the press, able to sanction newspapers that fail to follow their own code of conduct, but balanced by legislation which enshrines in law for the first time a ministerial duty to uphold and protect the freedom of the press.

The media barons, realising that this means that they will be held accountable for their actions, are seeking to dress their narrow self-interest in an argument about freedom. In their expressions of outrage against any form of statutory regulation, they seem to have forgotten that freedom comes with a price and that is eternal vigilance, not just against those who would threaten it, but also against those who constantly abuse it.

Brian Leveson seeks to arm us against that abuse. He deserves our support.

13 Responses to “HOW WOULD I FEEL IF MY SONGS WERE SUBJECT TO STATUTORY REGULATION? Some thoughts on the Leveson Report”

  1. alan brooks says:

    Billy
    I dont want a controlled press, I want a responsible press, a campaigning press. not a scandal sheet where simon cowel is more important than a war,
    i want my paper to tell news not tittle tattle, a paper which will fight for the working man not show is a pair of tits on page three (not dave and nick)
    Bring back the likes of paul foot

  2. Russell Manson says:

    “sweet moderation, heart of this nation. Desert us not”

  3. J Roo Newman says:

    As with many similar arguments, the key issue seems to be about power. Those who wield the power to influence the masses with lies & propaganda want to protect themselves, while the innocent victims are often powerless to defend themselves.
    The regulations Leveson is recommending will go some way towards redressing the balance and still allowing a healthy freedom of the press, as long as it doesn’t break the law by harassing, bribing or lying, ruining lives to sell papers.
    Never Buy The Sun! JFT96.

  4. andrewb says:

    This is bang on the money – this should be imlmented in full no ifs no buts

  5. Billy,
    I think if you had obtained the information for the lyrics of your songs by harrassing people, invading individuals privacy and telling blatant lies to provoke a reaction then ofsong wouldn’t be such a bad idea. If your desire to sell lots and lots of singles and albums means you are prepared to infringe peoples human rights then ofsong would become essential.
    The fact however, is you don’t. You don’t do any of the above because you have a sense of decency and fairness, a sense of proportion that seems to to be missing from most journalists of tabloid papers. The need to sell news papers at any cost seems to have made corporate journalsim an acceptable face of media publication and broadcast. All of this is very concerning to anyone who doesn’t form their opinions and views on “the Sun Says” or Daily Mail editorial.
    The idea of what basically has been portrayed by the Press (and wrongly in my view) as censorship is always a concern. The biggest concern though is the way that Disco Dave Cameron has obviously decided that the press is just fine and dandy as it is. Murdoch and Co. will eventually get away with all accussations made against them as we choose to forget and other stories enter the minds of the British public.
    I suspect that a few token recommendations (or possibly none) from the Leverson inquiry will be implemented because I guess Disco Dave is relying on his mate Murdoch more than ever in a couple of years, when it’s election time, to try and press gang us into thinking the Tories are the best way forward for the workers … or am I just being cynical?

  6. Dan Smith says:

    I think Billy’s quite right, it’s the behaviour we ought to kerb.

    The first thing we could do is put pressure on the companies that own the newspapers: if pressure was put on The Daily Mail Trust, maybe it would filter down to the editor, and then the rank and file reporter; to get it’s house in order and provide sympathetic stories rather than circulation-boosting horror stories.

    The second thing we can do as consumers and private individuals is not buy the offenders newspapers; this would drive down circulation and maybe put a choke on shock tactics which the papers resort to to put their rivals out of business.

    In my capacity as a company director and a private individual I want to see more sympathetic stories – health, nature.

  7. Amanda says:

    there is already law to cover this bullying, it is access to the courts that is denied.

  8. angela says:

    What worries me most is the question of who will be the regulators? Who will choose such a regulatory body? Will such a body be made up of middle aged, public school educated, marshmallow faced men,? Will such a regulatory body be completely free of government and political and press interference? Will it be staffed by honest and wise people? And where will THEY come from? And if so, it has to be funded by something other than government/taxpayers money? How will that work? Will the government of the day choose the candidate of their choice as the mouthpiece? – a la OFSTED (don’t get me started on that) – or will it be up to the people to choose, if they can be bothered,a la police commissioners? I would be very wary of letting a government minister of any political persuasion uphold the law on anything to do with press freedom. It’s a road I do not want to travel.
    No. I want a free press no matter how shite the reporter or the report is. I think I’ll decide for myself and choose not to read. For every shite reporter there’s another journalist and editor willing to report the truth. Somewhere. Ermm John Pilger, Woodward and Bernstein, Harold Evans, somewhere.

  9. Charlie says:

    An interesting take on this issue Billy, especially with your ‘Ofsong’ analogy! Overall I agree with your viewpoint – the press have demonstrated on multiple occasions that self-regulation is not sufficient to control their lust to deliver stories that are always, apparently, ‘in the public interest’. Not surprisingly, therefore, there is a sustained outcry from many newspapers against the prospect of having to answer to an independent body (or at least one not controlled by them!). I also find the view of a free press somewhat ironic coming from journals owned by media barons with their own agenda to peddle, but that’s another issue…

    One issue where the print media in particular seem to want to muddy the water is in relation to how any new body could in effect become ‘control of the media’. There is a large difference between having a body (‘Ofsong’?) who act proactively to control the output of the media – that would justifiably seen as censorship – and having an independent body who can make it easier for people to take action when they feel they have been libelled or otherwise been mistreated by the press. Such a body should have the power to call the offending journalist/newspaper/broadcasting organisation to account for their actions when it is warranted, but should not act as a barrier to a properly free press. I would like to believe that proper enforcement of the existing laws on harassment, bribery, trespass etc. could be used to prevent situations such as those that happened to the McCanns, Dowlers, and other people in terrible personal situations who were so cruelly mistreated by some organisations. The realist in me thinks that, unfortunately, this process will be slow in materialising. We can only hope that the Leveson Report is a step in right direction.

    Sorry for such a long response, but the whole issue has got me thinking!

  10. Colin says:

    Sorry Billy but I disagree with you on this one.
    The press needs to be free!

  11. Billy Bragg says:

    Colin,

    I agree with you that the press must be free, but what I don’t accept is their definition of freedom.

    They want to be free to do whatever they think necessary to get a headline. They want to be free to define public interest as whatever appears in the Sun. They want to be free to seek influence with politicians. They want to be free to own as big a chunk of the media as they can buy.

    I believe that all these things are inimical to a free society. Leveson offers us a chance to differentiate between freedom and licence. We should take that opportunity, making sure that we protect the papers freedom to speak truth to power.

    Not an easy task, but worth doing, I believe.

  12. toby hayes says:

    I think you need to think a little harder about what freedom really is.

    It is not a relative concept but an absolute one. Freedom is and always will be about the individual – the individual’s right to act freely within the rule of law. Your analysis compares American civil liberty (Freedom) with British social conscious (Nothing to do with freedom).

    Freedom is not about having a NHS (“freedom from treatable illness”). This is just laughable. The merits of the NHS are nothing to do with concepts of freedom. I understand Cuba has a great health service by the way.

    The press behaved abysmally and should be punished under the rule of law for crimes committed. Legislation will open the door for future state control and that is when true freedom is eroded. No doubt we will still have an NHS.

  13. Newman Noggs says:

    There is no such thing as an ‘Independent Regulator’.

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