In 1991, David Calcutt refrained from giving any statutory powers to the Press Complaints Commission and gave self-regulation a new lease of life. But, he did turn very pessimistic within two years. In his 1993-review of Press Self-Regulation, Calcutt pithily said: “Nothing that I have learnt about the press has led me to conclude that the press would now be willing to make, or would in fact make, the changes which would be needed.”
To understand what was happening in the U.K. media in the early 1990s, one has to look at what happened in the 1980s as the first real change in the media ownership happened in that decade with the active support of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In 1981, she permitted Rupert Murdoch to takeover two important British titles — The Times and The Sunday Times — without referring to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC) by an executive cabinet decision. Harold Evans, who had been the editor of The Sunday Times for 14 years and of The Times following Murdoch’s take over, in his deposition before the ongoing Leveson Inquiry describes the takeover as the “seminal event” and that it was “ridiculous that a takeover that was that important in British press history did not go to the MMC.”
In 1985, another significant British title was taken over by another trans-Atlantic businessman — The Daily Telegraph by Conrad Black. Both Murdoch and Black were essentially seen as businessmen rather than promoters of media values.
The U.K. media traditionally had a fine demarcating line — public broadcasting represented by an independent trust that was in-charge of the BBC, the mainstream Broadsheets that represented quality journalism, and the low brow, yet popular, tabloids. The arrival of these two entrepreneurs in the U.K. media scene led to a sort of blurring of the lines.
Eroding the gloss
The 1990s also witnessed the power of the “paparazzi.” The death of Princess Diana was solely blamed on the media. Her brother, Earl Spencer, said: “I always believed the press would kill her in the end. But not even I could imagine that they would take such a direct hand in her death as seems to be the case.” Former editor of The New York Times and a celebrity columnist for that paper A.M. Rosenthal wrote: “Someday, I believe, the words of Earl Spencer will hang in the private offices of publishers, network chiefs, and print and electronic editors worthy of any respect or trust.” Then came the new charge against the media that it was in the tight, vice-like grip of spin doctors. The unparalleled power wielded by Alastair Campbell, also described as the super spin doctor, as the Director of Communications and Strategy for Prime Minister Tony Blair, further eroded the gloss on media. The Teflon coat was slowly wearing away.
But, what took away the moral authority was the way a section of the British media reported during the Hutton Inquiry in 2003-4, which was looking into the circumstances leading to the death of David Kelly, a weapons expert. David Kelly was identified as the source for the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan’s devastating report that said that Iraq dossiers were “sexed-up” to claim that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction.
Hutton gave the government a clean chit and criticised the BBC. The report said that Gilligan had made “unfounded allegations,” the editorial and complaints processes in the BBC were defective, and its Governors had not been diligent. This forced the Chairman of the BBC, its director-general and Gilligan to resign from the BBC. All subsequent follow-ups did prove that the dossiers were indeed “sexed-up” and that there were no signs of WMD when the U.S.-led forces captured Iraq. While papers like The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Mail stood by the journalists and the BBC and accused Hutton of whitewashing, the publications owned by Murdoch and Conrad Black — The Sun, The Daily Telegraph and The Times , unleashed a studied attack on the BBC.
Media’s fear about external, state-controlled regulation flows from the flawed nature of the Hutton inquiry. Its findings accentuated minor journalistic errors but glossed over deliberate propaganda in the form of official dossiers. In his resignation statement, Gilligan says: “This [Hutton] report casts a chill over all journalism, not just the BBC’s. It seeks to hold reporters, with all the difficulties they face, to a standard that it does not appear to demand of, for instance, government dossiers.”