The Leveson Inquiry continues, and more sordid details of the dubious practices employed by the press are coming to light. People often say that we should not trust the stories in the papers, but it is quite shocking to learn that, in some tabloid papers, stories were simply fabricated, regularly. Sometimes, the most tenuous links or wild rumours were sufficient to publish materials. Images and photographs were routinely manipulated or captioned in a manner that was misleading or false.
It is incredible that papers have managed to get away with printing manifest falsehoods. This is partly because the PCC process takes time, and the sanctions are rarely painful. Corrections and apologies are often buried in somewhere almost no reader would notice in a minuscule print. There are no proper sanctions, so that the risk associated with printing a fictitious story is outweighed by the benefits in terms of circulation or the profile of the publication. Another reason is the preceived strength of the press: individuals will have to risk a lot, not least financially, if they were to take legal action. Despite all the cries about libel tourists, pursuing a case in the courts is not a cheap or feasible option for many. And there is the bullying tactic: the press can threaten to blacken someone’s name, and make a life misery for longer.
Yet, like politicians, it may perhaps be argued that a society only gets the press that it deserves. While I do not think that the British society is any more prurient than others, it does seem to be very relaxed about the press noseying about other people’s business and lives, even though most Britons would not be so nosey about people in real life. May be it’s the social stricture that does not allow prying into others’ business that drives people to read about the doings and undoings of the rich and the famous. Readers may not believe a jot of the stories in the papers, but they nevertheless can be extremely callous and hurtful to the people concerned.
Also, the press can shape a caricature of a person. Once there is a caricature of a person is established, even if it is totally fictional, readers are more inclined to believe stories that fit well with the caricature, even if that is totally different from what the person is actually like. Perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, some people in the public limelight play that caricature, since that is what is expected of them.
This Inquiry alone may not kill tabloid papers, but in conjunction with other factors such as the internet as a source for news and wild gossip, it may well herald the end of the popular press that has been part and parcel of British media landscape. The worst outcome for the press is that it gets regulated, while the internet remains untamed: hamstrung by more regulation, the tabloids will lose their readers to the unregulated and the unregulatable internet.