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Press regulation: it ain’t over until the press barons sign up to it

March 18, 2013

Rupert MurdochOh Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay! they chortled in their joy! The political class seems intoxicated with having finally, excruciatingly, achieved cross-party consensus on regulating the press.

Everyone, it appears, is a winner. Dave has gambled – with losing a vote in the House of Commons, and implicit in it a momentous amount of face – and won a few, paltry concessions on statutory regulation that can only be appreciated in their full complexity by a nit-picking lawyer. Ed, jubilant, with parliamentary plaudits ringing in his ears, has got what he always claimed he wanted: a Royal Charter backed by statutory regulation. And Nick’s just happy to be on the winning side (whichever that is, exactly).

But, resonant of the Cypriot banking crisis rumbling in the background, parliamentary accord in principle may be only the first, relatively easy, step in what promises to be an agonisingly long process.

Amid universal self-congratulation within the first three estates, what has been forgotten is the most important issue of all: the assent of the fourth. An eerie silence has settled over the land as the press barons – the mighty Murdochs, Rothermeres and Barclays – weigh up their options.

This is not the endgame they had in mind at all. The merest hint of statutory sacrament is abhorrent. And their objections to it are by no means groundless. Being men of the world, none expected to get away with a light slap on the wrist this time round (in other words, the moribund Press Complaints Commission being given a new set of falsies). What they have been served up, however, is enough to cause apoplexy.

Granted, the new press council will be self-regulatory in a manner of speaking: for instance, editors will still play a principal role in drawing up their own code of conduct. But the fact that this code is to be enshrined in law (however statute-lite) means – horror of horrors – the Street of Shame will for the very first time have to abide by it.

And there is worse. Newspapers are being expected to pay for this new regulatory body with their own hard-earned (and declining) advertising and circulation revenues. Yet they will be able to exercise no veto over those sitting in judgement upon them.

Now what is the point of self-regulation if you can’t game the system?

All sorts of humiliations beckon. For a start, there will be front-page retractions of a size and proportion equivalent to the original trumped-up story; in other words, no more “See page 94, bottom para, far right”. And then, if the press recuses? “Arbitrary” fines whose eye-watering size might actually get noticed by shareholders, and hit the owners where it really hurts – in the bank account.

Luckily, there are a few time-honoured principles that can be trundled out to muddy the waters, promote dissension and avert the awful day of reckoning. A very good one is our old friend Juvenal’s Quis custodiet custodes ipsos? – which might be loosely translated as: who will watch over the watchdog itself? A question that near two thousand years of repeated interrogation has failed to satisfactorily answer.

Juvenal’s oblique point, as far as I can make out, was that the powerful invariably stuff organs of governance with officials who are like-minded, obligated, compromised or compliant – leading to all manner of corruption and tyranny. A fine contemporary example would be the PCC, the illustrious members of whose committee quite recently included Tina Weaver – former editor of the Sunday People – who is now helping police with their inquiries into phone-hacking.

However much fog surrounds the future workings of the new press regulatory body, one thing is beacon-clear: the regulator will no longer be guided by the wisdom of serving newspaper editors with an axe to grind. But if not editors, then who? That is the question. Friends of politicians? The Good and the Wise from the upper house? Well-meaning but naive members of the judiciary, like Brian Hutton who was walked all over by the Blair government? Former senior civil servants who, like most lawyers, are instinctively inimicable to the whole concept of “unauthorised” leaks of information into the public domain? The publicly-wronged but narrowly-focused, like the McCanns, Dowlers, John Prescott and, er, Hugh Grant?

Who, in short, can – hand on heart – present themselves as an uncompromised and objective judge in the court of press ethics?

Without the compliance of the three aforementioned proprietors, whose newspapers account for the vast majority of national readership, these new Leveson-spawned regulations are going to go nowhere. Should they choose to prevaricate, Murdoch & Co will have ample opportunity to rail against disguised censorship. Real, or imagined.

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Cameron The Brand Slayer

January 25, 2013

BorgIf it weren’t for the fact David Cameron watches so little television, I would be forced to conclude he has been modelling his recent behaviour on Borg, the Viking Himbo now fronting Tesco’s advertising.

How else explain his assault on multinational brands in recent days – which has all the subtlety of Thor laying about him with his hammer after a particularly drunken binge?

Last week, it was Coca-Cola that got stomped all over, when Cameron told the House of Commons that he regarded it as his solemn paternal duty to prevent his children consuming “excessive” amounts of the sugary beverage.

This week he was at it again, telling the World Economic Forum in Davos that brands which avoided paying their fair share of corporation tax needed “to wake up and smell the coffee” – an unvarnished reference to Starbucks and those other egregious “tax dodgers” Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google (and, er, Coca-Cola). And the tirade didn’t end there: so sick and tired is the British public of the multinationals’ fiscal chicanery that Cameron has decided to make clamping down on corporate tax-avoidance a central plank of our G8 Group presidency later this year.

Whoa, Dave. Is this your idea of a soft close? Britain shut for business before you oblige us to pull out of the EU?


How long before Leveson is kicked into the long grass?

November 29, 2012

LOL – now he knows what it means – must have been David Cameron’s reaction after reading Lord Leveson’s report on the culture, practice and ethics of the UK press. First came an audible sigh of relief over the vindication of his own reputation, which– despite inappropriate platonic text dalliance with La Brooks, now awaiting Her Majesty’s Pleasure on several criminal charges; oh, and former prime ministerial comms director Andy Coulson, let’s not forget him – received not a brickbat; then a guffaw over the exoneration of his health and former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, once he realised Leveson had whitewashed his role in the BSkyB/Murdoch saga at the expense of Hunt’s mendacious adviser, Adam Smith.

But the biggest laugh of all was surely reserved for Leveson’s keystone proposal: a statutory “underpinning” to press regulation. Over Cameron’s dead body. The introduction of any such measure, however camouflaged, would be tantamount to the Tory leader committing political suicide.

This “underpinning” business is the crux of the report, and the reason why it  – like the 7 inquests into the power of the press over the last 70 years preceding it – will be kicked into the long grass as soon as dignity allows.

Let’s be quite clear. Neither Leveson nor any of the 300 or so witnesses called before the inquiry demanded explicit intervention by the state or politicians in the conduct of British newspapers. The debate is a lot more nuanced than that and concerns not whether – that is a given on all sides – but how the current, flaccid, self-regulatory apparatus – known as the Press Complaints Commission – should be given independent coercive force.

The newspaper proprietors and editors want PCC-Plus – no surprise there. While there are shades of difference between the Hunt/Black proposals (both these peers are prominent members of the PCC) and the axis represented by The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Independent, the press is united on one vital prerequisite to reform. Under no circumstances should there be any statutory element – direct or indirect – in the new, toughened regulatory framework, whatever final form it takes.

And that’s just where Leveson disagrees with them. His point is that no form of self-regulation can be credibly independent when newspaper proprietors – whatever their pious assertions about newspaper ethics in public – continue to pull the strings behind the scenes. PCC-Plus might enable them to do this in a number of ways. Though serving editors would now be excluded from any committee of the Good and the Wise, proprietors could exercise covert influence over the selection of those sitting in regulatory judgement over them through financial manipulation. One of the prime principles of self-regulation is, after all, the inalienable right of the industry being regulated to pay for its own regulation. Lack of financial love might well be shown towards any candidate considered even mildly resistant to the idea of uncurbed press freedom, in the form of a threatened funding boycott.

And that’s just for starters. What about speedy redress of wrongs? What of punishment that actually fits the crime – as opposed to a self-administered slap on the wrist, or impractically long and expensive court cases which are beyond the means of most would-be litigants?

For these and other reasons, Leveson seems to believe that only the veiled threat of statutory intervention will give the regulator the independence, public respect and muscle that is so clearly required. Most members of the public, according to recent YouGov opinion poll, agree with him. The trouble is, most of Cameron’s party – the party in power – do not. They know that the backing of newspaper proprietors can be vital to a successful election result; and, once in power, it is very difficult to succeed in the face of an unremittingly hostile press. They also know that whatever any future statute book might say, newspapers are a law unto themselves. And, when it comes down to it, they will portray legislative curbs on their activities as incipient tyranny – and brush it aside accordingly. One thing that hasn’t changed in over 70 years is the truth of then prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s observation that newspaper proprietors enjoy “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.” He was referring to Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, whose newspapers had just forced him from office. There’s still a Viscount Rothermere, but nowadays the Beaverbrook clan has been displaced by the Murdoch mafia.

So, statutory “underpinning” – forget it. As for Ofcom being allowed to do the underpinning, don’t make me laugh out loud. Ofcom is out of the frying pan into the fire, in regulatory terms. We can be certain the appointment of its executives will be untouched by the influence of press barons for one very good reason: they are picked by a minister of the crown (currently culture secretary Maria Miller). That aside, what conceivable qualification do a group of career bureaucrats have in passing judgement on press freedom?


Ad industry puts the boot into ‘treacherous’ Chartered Institute of Marketing research

June 8, 2012

An amusing industry spat has broken out between the Chartered Institute of Marketing and just about everyone else over the way the industry has been handling the vexed issue of marketing to children.

One year into the Bailey era, the CIM has released research that apparently shows 85% of parents are unaware of the Government-sponsored and industry-sanctioned ParentPort website – a forum that enables parents to vent their spleen at the way marketers have been commercialising and sexualising childhood. This, from one of its own, is an unforgivable undercut to the belly of the industry, which claims to have made Stakhanovite progress in grappling with an issue in which David Cameron has taken a highly personal interest.

The result has been uproar, with other industry bodies jostling to put the boot into the CIM research.

First to weigh in with apoplectic energy was the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA), the principal trade body for clients.

The riposte from ISBA’s director of public affairs Ian Twinn was masterly in its use of cutting irony: “ISBA is an active supporter of the industry pledge on the use of peer-to-peer marketing, along with many leading advertisers and media, but sadly the CIM remained aloof from the collective efforts of the wider industry.” Which was very silly of it, because now it’s going to enjoy zero support for its views.

Next up, and in similarly sarcastic frame of mind, is the Advertising Association, which represents clients, agencies and media. This week’s newsletter thunders:

“Thank goodness that advertising think-tank Credos has already done some far more thorough work on the same topic. Are advertising and marketing of concern to parents? Yes. But are they the biggest concern? Not by a very long shot. Are parents less concerned when rules and real life ads are explained in context? Yes they are. Should advertising respond? You bet – and we have. Ask (former AA chairman) Mark Lund.”

Industry regulator the Advertising Standards Authority has confined itself to a more diplomatic rebuke: “The work that regulators, including the ASA, continue to undertake in responding positively to the recommendations in the Bailey review (Letting Children Be Children) has been welcomed by government as well as family and parenting groups.” Subtext: ‘So what in God’s name do you people over at CIM think you are playing at?’

I’m beginning to feel sorry for David Thorp, CIM’s director of research. Just trying to help, eh, David?


Advertising industry sheds crocodile tears over Steve Hilton’s departure

March 6, 2012

Few in the ad industry will lament the departure of Steve “Yoda” Hilton, David Cameron’s director of strategy. Indeed, such is the relief that he is going, some would willingly pack the diminutive “blue-sky” thinker’s bags, as he contemplates a year’s ‘sabbatical’ with his family in California. Politically speaking, California is the sunny side of Siberia.

Why good riddance? Well, the word that best sums up Hilton’s relationship with the ad industry is “renegade”.

Although Hilton’s association with Cameron and the Tory party predates the 1992 election campaign, most of his subsequent years were spent in the service of advertising, the career that actually earned him a living. Hilton quickly hooked up with Maurice Saatchi, who professed to see in young Steve a kind of son: “No one reminds me as much of me when young as Steve”, he is reputed to have said. And the admiration was mutual. Steve dutifully followed Maurice from Saatchi & Saatchi to breakaway M&C Saatchi as a kind of intellectual bag-carrier. Hilton’s ability to think “out of the box” or perhaps more accurately, “to get out of his box”, soon became apparent with his contribution to the 1997 election campaign. The “Demon Eyes” poster was certainly visually arresting and highly memorable, but trying to make the then-saintly Tony Blair into the Devil Incarnate probably did more to win votes for Labour than for the party originating it. This episode would seem to underline an abiding truth about Hilton’s career: that high intelligence and original thinking are no guarantee of common sense.

Never mind. After 13 years of hard Labour, which saw the 2002 ban on cigarette advertising followed in 2007 by severe TV restrictions on foods high in fat, salt and sugar, and much muttering about out-of-control drinks advertising, the ad industry seemed to have every reason to pop the corks when it emerged that one of their own was to become the man officially in charge of David Cameron’s brain.

How wrong they all were. Had they done their homework more carefully they would have found our man wasn’t the pragmatic trimmer everyone hoped he might be. A Steve Hilton blog post from as early as 2004, entitled “Will sexual marketing be the next consumer backlash?”, espoused some rather unfashionable, untraditionalist opinions on the matter of “the relentless drive by big businesses to sexualise small children, ageing them prematurely in the process”, while denouncing the “sexual predators of the advertising industry” for good measure.

Ring a bell? “The Bailey Report”, says one insider, “Appears to have taken its brief directly from Steve Hilton’s old blog.” Too right, and laudable though the principles informing Reg Bailey’s report are, what a nightmare they have proved to implement. The regulators have gone into puritanical overdrive, with a zeal reminiscent of the Salem witch trials. Practically any female flesh exposed in a public place (ie, on posters) is now regarded as a potential contaminant of young minds – as the recent case of the Advertising Standards Authority versus Marks & Spencer only too vividly reminded us.

However, the Bailey Report and its aftermath are a mooncast shadow when compared with Hilton’s other bequest to the ad industry. Fairly or not, Hilton’s blue-sky thinking is blamed for the ultimate destruction of the Central Office of Information. For which read a £540m-a-year ad industry gravy-train.

Pinning the blame on a single person for what may yet turn out to be a government-wide communications disaster zone might seem a little harsh. After all, there are plenty of available villains – if that’s what they are – from Francis Maude to half the cabinet office. And yet the suspicion lingers that Hilton somehow gave Maude the intellectual confidence to take an axe to the venerable institution in the first place, with his bizarre proposal for a spare and minimalist Ad Council to displace the heavily bureaucratic COI.


Let’s Raisa stirrup-cup to David Cameron’s poor personal judgement

March 5, 2012

The time has come to fess up to my role in Horsegate. I have ridden a horse since 2010, and more than several times too. It would be a surprise if I hadn’t, you see, because I own one.

Well, two …er, three now I come to think of it, but that was an accident that last one. Yes, I know, inexcusable isn’t it? Also, I’ve ridden to hounds – but long, long ago. Just after the 2005 Hunting Act came in, actually. Not of course that any fox was involved, just a smelly old rag impregnated with urine. Oh, and no more than two dogs …

Did I mention my connection with the Metropolitan Police? Another lapse on my part. It’s all my farrier’s fault really. Until recently, he worked full time for the Met, and he used to shoe Raisa, the police horse that has caused poor Mr Cameron so much trouble with his increasingly defective memory. A bit of a beast, apparently. No end of trouble to shoe, ever since that unfortunate stint with the Riot Squad which made her virtually unrideable. You couldn’t even clench a shoe-iron without the mare rearing uncontrollably.

No, let’s get a grip. I made that last bit up. Just like Mr Cameron’s advisers – starting with the late, unlamented Andy Coulson –  who have constructed a tissue of half-truths and lies around Dave’s not-very-secret interest in horses, the company he kept with race-horse trainer Charlie Brooks and with Brooks’, er, dear wife, the ever lovely Rebekah.

Oh! What a tangled web we weave, When first we practise to deceive!

And for what purpose? Ex-plod horse Raisa, now sadly deceased, is of course Cameron’s worst political nightmare incarnate. What could more emblematically sum up Flame-haired Medusa, News International, Andy Coulson, phone-hacking, Rupert Murdoch, police corruption, political favouritism and poor personal judgement in just one word?

Yet, in a way, that’s not the worst of it.

Never mind that Charlie Brooks took the near-useless nag on at personal cost and out of compassion, to save her from the knacker’s yard. To the uninitiated – that is, to most of Cameron’s voters, urban-dwellers who may never have encountered a real horse in their lives – it looks like yet more upper-class horse-trading.

Never mind that most horse-owners (in my experience at any rate) appear to live in an economic twilight zone where they can barely afford to keep themselves, let alone what’s in the yard – the horse in this country is an inescapable symbol of poshness and privilege.

And poshness and privilege being unforgivable electoral sins, Dave and his Lord Snooty chum George Osborne have, not without cause, a deep psephological neurosis about them.

Remember that undertaking Cameron made to hold a free vote on fox-hunting in this parliament? No, he can’t either. Another lamentable example of his fading memory.


Willie Walsh uses BA brand power to put a spoke in ‘Boris Island’ airport hub project

January 19, 2012

British Airways may not be the brand it was when the Saatchi brothers landed Manhattan at Heathrow nearly 30 year ago. But, as national flag carrier, it still packs a punch: it’s still the largest UK airline based on fleet size, number of international flights and international destinations.

What’s more, as a founder member of International Airlines Group, BA has with Iberia created the world’s third largest airline service by revenue and the second largest service in Europe.

So when its chief steward (or perhaps that should be pilot), IAG chief executive Willie Walsh, says he doesn’t like something, the politicians have to listen whether they like it or not.

And right now, their ears will be ringing, because Wee Willie is beside himself with rage. Not only has he been denied ‘his’ precious third runway at Heathrow – more or less BA’s individual fiefdom and a world brand in its own right. But to add insult to injury, he has also been dragged into – as he sees it – the Government’s hare-brained scheme to build a mega-airport in the Thames Estuary.

Over his dead body. In a move reminiscent of Fool’s Mate in Chess, Walsh seems to have played a blinder on the politicians.

David Cameron, his Transport Secretary and Mayor of London Boris Johnson (who originally espoused the idea) have seemingly done little else over the past few days beyond eulogising the £50bn hub project at “Boris Island” and the transformative effect it will have on the British economy.

Er, no. Walsh crash-landed their airy delusions with a simple, crushing declaration. He’s not moving from Heathrow:

“I don’t think it can be financed. If I throw my weight behind it, people will expect me to be part of the solution financing it and I won’t. The only way you’d make it financially successful is say you’re going to build it and, as part of that, you’re going to close Heathrow. If you leave Heathrow open and you build this new airport, we’re going to stay at Heathrow.”

According to Walsh, these socio-economic engineering projects cause staggering disruption for precious little return, financial or otherwise. The new hub at Montreal didn’t work when they tried it; nor did the one at Kuala Lumpur.

If BA – which holds most of the Heathrow slots, not to mention exclusive rights to state-of-the art Terminal 5 – is not moving to Boris Island, none of its rivals will be either, for fear of losing what slots they have. Or so he reckons. And who is to call his bluff?

Manhattan may once have landed at Heathrow, but Heathrow will definitely not be landing at Thames Estuary Airport. Ah, the power of a global brand flexing its muscles.


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