Transparency, what transparency?

Justin SchlosbergThis post was written by Justin Schlosberg, Lecturer in journalism and media, in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

In 2011, as the phone-hacking scandal unfolded, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged a new era of transparency in the government’s dealings with the media. All meetings between senior government and media figures were to be recorded and published on a quarterly basis and a major public inquiry was launched – partly with a focus on the relationship between press and politicians.

The Leveson hearings that followed cast an unprecedented spotlight on the intimacy of these relations complete with gossip, threats, family get-togethers and texts signed off with ‘lots of love’ and kisses. It had very little to do with the day-to-day interactions between politicians and journalists – both on and off the record – which are an intrinsic part of the political newsgathering process. It revealed instead something over and above those interactions – an exclusive club at the heart of the establishment that seemed to undermine the very fabric of British democracy, and underline the growing public mistrust of both politicians and the media.

Within this dynamic, Leveson was pre-occupied with the flow of influence from media owners to politicians. The founding premise of his inquiry was that press power was out of control, undermining the integrity of government, parliament and the police, whilst severely infringing on the privacy rights of individual citizens. Leveson’s detractors, on the other hand, perceived the gravest threat to democracy as operating in the other direction. It was creeping state control of the press – supposedly heralded by his reform proposals – which threatened to fatally undermine the independence of the fourth estate. In the intense debate that followed, a fundamental truth was obscured: media and political elites are not rivals but partners in a relationship that works ultimately to promote the shared interests of power. This was vividly demonstrated when Rebecca Brooks – former editor of the News of the World – told Leveson that the Prime Minister had sent her a consoling text during the height of the scandal, apologising for not being able to be more ‘loyal’ to her in public.

And as the spotlight began to fade, business as usual resumed – behind closed doors – and the hollow rhetoric of transparency was laid bare. For a start, it soon became clear from published data that the government had no intention of divulging any meaningful details about its meetings with media bosses. Whilst the nature and purpose of other external meetings are often specified, when it comes to newspaper editors or execs, we rarely get anything beyond ‘general discussion’.

Of course, this spectacle of transparency is nothing new. After taking office in 2010, Cameron renewed the commitment to openness that is typical of incoming governments, promising to pour light into the darkest corners of policymaking. In a nutshell: ministers would be ‘transparent about what [they] do and how [they] do it’ and ‘above improper influence’.

Less than one year later, then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt was at pains to reiterate this commitment in respect of News Corp’s aborted take-over of BSkyB. He stressed the unprecedented openness of the bid process both before and after he waived it through (only to then be withdrawn by News Corp amidst the fall-out from the phone hacking scandal). But the folly of Hunt’s assurances was exposed after he told Parliament in 2012 that he had no unofficial contact with News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel during the bid process. A series of texts disclosed shortly afterward suggested otherwise, with cringe-inducing awkwardness.

Perhaps not surprisingly in the wake of phone hacking, the Prime Minister appears to be steadily curtailing his personal contact with senior media figures, based on data released by the government for 2011-13. Interestingly though, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is more than picking up the slack, with ten recorded meetings with the media in 2012 and fourteen in 2013. In contrast, Jeremy Heywood’s predecessor Gus O’Donnell had just two meetings with the media in 2011, one of which was a ‘reception’ hosted by the Financial Times.  This raises the possibility that some of the business of media management by the government (or vice versa) is increasingly being conducted through the civil service, perhaps in an effort to remain under the radar. In any case, given that Leveson’s focus was elsewhere, the spike in contact between the Cabinet Secretary and the media warrants scrutiny.

The first thing to note is that like his ministerial colleagues, the Cabinet Secretary’s contact with the media is overwhelmingly concentrated in the national press: of the twenty four meetings in 2012-13, just three were with broadcasters (BBC and ITN). This could be because of a received wisdom in government that the national press remain leaders of the wider news agenda. Or it could be because newspaper editors and proprietors are more active than broadcasters in lobbying the government for influence and/or ‘scoops’. Or it could also be because the government is conscious of the broadcasters’ regulated impartiality, whereas newspapers may be seen as more malleable targets in agenda building strategies.

In any case, the imbalance illustrates how much newspapers still matter to Whitehall, for all the talk of their demise. But it is not just newspaper bosses in general who occupy a disproportionate amount of the Cabinet Secretary’s time. Again, in line with ministerial colleagues, a significant majority of the meetings were with representatives of the right wing press. Of the ten meetings Jeremy Heywood had with the media in 2012, seven were with the Times, Telegraph, Mail and Spectator, all openly aligned with the Conservative party; two were with non-partisan outlets (the Economist and ITN) and one with the left-leaning Guardian newspaper.

This may simply reflect the market dominance of the right-wing press in Britain. It is perhaps understandable that if the Cabinet Secretary is going to meet regularly with the press, he would want to prioritise those titles that have the biggest audience reach, regardless of their political colours. But it doesn’t explain why most of his meetings are with the elite press – broadsheets and periodicals – with very limited exposure compared to the mid-market and tabloid titles. Again, there are a number of plausible explanations here. It could be that mid-market and tabloid editors and executives aren’t very interested in talking to government bureaucrats. It could be because the ‘serious’ news sector is particularly valued in Whitehall for its opinion-leading reputation and its elite audience capture. Or it could just be because these titles have the capacity to cover political issues with greater depth and complexity than their lower brow competitors.

Whatever the reason, the opacity of these meetings appeared to take something of a sinister turn in 2013. After the Guardian began publishing details of mass surveillance by the security services in June 2012, revealed by NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden, the Cabinet Secretary unusually held two meetings in short succession at the Guardian’s offices. A Freedom of Information request for details of these and other meetings with the senior newspaper figures has recently been refused and is currently under review by the Information Commissioner. According to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in an interview with the author, he was explicitly threatened with legal injunctions during his meetings with the Cabinet Secretary, unless he agreed to destroy hard drives of the leaked material. The only account we have from the government is the notes recorded in the meeting data. The first meeting was described simply as a ‘discussion about handling information’ whilst the follow-up apparently moved on to ‘discussion about international issues’.

In the end, the newspaper acceded to the government’s demands, confident that destruction of the hard drives would not curtail reporting. Copies of the material lodged with US publishing partners would apparently ensure the story’s endurance. Glen Greenwald, former lead journalist on the story for the Guardian and now with the Intercept, recently claimed that the biggest story relating to the leaks is yet to be published. But he made no mention of what or when, and we are left wondering whether the government’s actions had really been as futile as Rusbridger suggested.

Rusbridger himself opted initially not to make public the threatening nature of his meetings with the Cabinet Secretary, or indeed the unprecedented event that followed, with security service personnel entering the Guardian’s offices to oversee destruction of the offending hard drives. A month later the Guardian despatched David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, to meet Laura Poitras (another Snowden confidante and co-architect of the story) in Germany, perhaps in an effort to get around the loss of direct access to the material.  According to Rusbridger, the rise in international travel was due to the necessity of face to face meetings as ‘we assumed everything was being at that point intercepted’.  But on his return to Brazil, Miranda was arrested and detained at Heathrow Airport under anti-terror laws, prompting Rusbridger to publicise the extraordinary lengths the government was going to in order to restrain the coverage.

But what about the other meetings that took place around the same time between the Cabinet Secretary and the national press? Apparently, the purpose, nature and outcome of these meetings are also exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, partly in order to protect policymaking. But the use of this exemption (under Section 35 of the Act) raises more questions than it answers, perhaps the most obvious of which is what policy exactly do these meetings concern? In apparently typical fashion, the Cabinet Office made no attempt to explain why exemptions under Section 35 were engaged, or provide any detail as to the public interest test that is required under law.

It is fundamental to a functioning democracy that the media are seen to be free from undue influence or interference by the state and, conversely, that government and policymaking is free from undue influence or interference by the media. Over the last two years, these twin and sometimes conflicting concerns have become matters of acute public interest, fuelled by Leveson and Snowden alike. But the government’s refusal to disclose information about these meetings speaks to a wider problem. It exposes the gap between transparency rhetoric and substance which ensures that the real workings of power remain off limits to public scrutiny. It is a gap now so wide that official talk of transparency in media policymaking is tantamount to double-speak.

You can find links to the correspondence between the author and FOI authorities in the following places:

http://www.lse.ac.uk//media@lse/documents/MPP/First-Reply-to-FOI-request-on-Cabinet-meetings-with-media.pdf

http://www.lse.ac.uk//media@lse/alumni/documents/Appeal-on-FOI-319677—request-for-internal-review.pdf

http://www.lse.ac.uk//media@lse/documents/MPP/Response-to-appeal-on-FOI319677-for-Cabinet-meetings-with-Media.pdf

More blog posts by Justin Schlosberg:

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Why Rupert Murdoch’s plan to rule the media world still needs newspapers more than TV

Justin SchlosbergThis post was written by Justin Schlosberg, Lecturer in journalism and media, in Birkbeck’s Department of Media and Cultural Studies. It was originally published on The Conversation.

Rupert Murdoch’s latest bid for empire expansion has fallen on deaf ears. His offer to buy Time Warner for US$80 billion was resoundingly rejected by the owners of CNN, HBO and Warner Brothers. But despite the setback, Murdoch’s apparent willingness to sell off CNN to satisfy regulators (should a bid be accepted by Time Warner) reveals something significant about how he values news assets. It is reminiscent of a similar undertaking he made in respect of Sky News, before the phone hacking scandal got in the way of his plans to gobble up BSkyB.

The curious question is this: why is Murdoch seemingly so willing to do away with broadcast news channels that are both profitable and growing, yet so insistent on holding on to his newspaper assets dogged by scandals such as phone hacking or the collapse of the Tulisa Contostavlos drug trial and showing no signs of turning the tide of structural decline? Clearly, this is not a commercially-motivated decision. It’s more likely something to do with the perceived political leverage that newspapers continue to wield, in spite of dwindling advertising revenues.

This much became abundantly clear at the Leveson hearings when even the former UK prime minister, Tony Blair – who, like his predecessor Margaret Thatcher, managed to avoid ever falling out with Murdoch – acknowledged that “certain of the newspapers are used by their owners/editors as instruments of political power, in which the boundary between news and comment is deliberately blurred”.

But it’s not just about Murdoch, and it’s not just about the tabloids. The Russian billionaire owner of the Independent and Evening Standard wrote the following tweet after giving testimony to Leveson:

Unlike his British peers, Evgeny Lebedev is evidently less coy about the nexus of corruption that exists between the press and politicians.

Yet in their submission to the Lords inquiry into media plurality earlier this year, News Corp noted that “the significant proliferation of direct channels of communication for information, consumers are exposed to an increasing variety of [news] sources”. Indeed, newspaper owners have long argued that they neither seek nor possess political influence through their titles. They regularly commission research by marketing consultants to “demonstrate” that media plurality is vibrant and ever more so, and the days of press baronism are a thing of the distant analogue past. Both the Murdochs and Daily Mail owner Viscount Rothermere were at pains to stress to Leveson that they considered editorial independence to be “good for business”.

Amid this rhetorical trickery, digital disruption is hailed as at once the biggest threat to the commercial news industry and the greatest saviour of media plurality. It is a kind of double speak that political spin doctors would admire and is being used to argue against tighter regulatory scrutiny of media ownership.

But in reality of course, newspapers do still wield immense power. Most national titles are reaching greater audiences than ever before courtesy of their online editions. Digital intermediaries like Google may have attracted advertisers away from newspapers, but they are not competitors when it comes to the news agenda. Rather, newspapers have become dependent on search and social media as drivers of traffic to their websites.

Measuring actual influence – rather than traffic numbers – is a very difficult thing to do in practice. Decades of audience research has consistently found media influence to be uncertain and variable. But we do know enough to know that the extent of media power cannot be ascertained from the rather shallow survey data cited by commercial media lobbyists. They tend to infer, for instance, declining influence from the proliferation of news sources. But survey respondents might cite Google as a news source even though they are actually consuming content provided by established media brands that appear as snippets on Google’s listings. Nor can such data account for subtle distinctions in the ways in which people consume news which can have far reaching consequences for the extent of influence. I might get my news first from social media but only form my views once I read about it in the Daily Mail or on the BBC. Does that mean that my diversified consumption reflects a waning of traditional media influence?

Ofcom’s own data shows that news consumption online is heavily concentrated around dominant media groups. Moreover, we know from Leveson that there is a strong perception among political actors that newspapers do still matter and continue to have, in the words of Tony Blair, “a very deep penetration” among the British public. It is simply not sufficient for newspaper groups to argue against fixed ownership limits on the basis that politicians’ estimation of media influence may not tally with their own. The damage to plurality and democracy is caused by the perception itself which is directly related to size and clearly exploited by media proprietors.

I am not suggesting that ownership limits should be imposed simply because politicians “think” that media owners have too much power. The problem is concentration itself which gives rise to the kind of endemic institutional corruption between media and political elites disclosed at the Leveson hearings. My point about perception is simply that concentrated media power can be a problem for democracy in facilitating influence over politicians, somewhat independently of influence over audiences.

The bottom line is this: there is a reason why owners of smaller media groups do not – like Murdoch – get regular invites for tea at number 10 (and leave by the back door), or – like Rothermere – get to spend “private” weekends with the prime minister at Chequers as he did last year.

The reality is that whether or not consumption or exposure diversity is improving or getting worse (and we can cherry pick data to argue the case either way), size matters in respect of media power. If we are to place any value on democratic health as opposed to just competitive health of media markets, then we need real plurality reform to address the real and existing accumulations of that power.

The Conversation

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Lobbying: why is it so difficult to reform?

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics.

Last week David Cameron admitted that Westminster has a ‘problem’ with lobbyists. Governments have long struggled with lobbying. The Coalition has had its own share of scandal around ‘inappropriate’ influence, from former military chiefs to access to the prime minister.

However, finding a solution is tricky. Like many political issues, the solution depends very much on what you believe the actual problem to be.

Now, MP Patrick Mercer and three peers face allegations of misconduct after a lobbying ‘sting’ by journalists. As of Sunday 9 June, the controversy is spreading to Select Committee chairman Tim Yeo , and questions are being asked about Conservative election strategist Lynton Crosby. This is not only a Conservative problem – two of the peers suspended from their party are Labour.

Like ‘expenses’, the word ‘lobbying’ is now synonymous with corruption. David Cameron made this link explicit

“…secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money, and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.”

In 2012, a report by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee pointed out that lobbying is not all bad. Indeed ‘it is a fundamental part of a vibrant democracy’ – lobbying  ended the slave trade and gave us all seat belts. It is also a vital information channel for politicians.

It is the ‘perception of undue influence’ that is corrosive. So, the solution is to regulate and open up the system: sunlight, as a famous man argued, is the best disinfectant. The Coalition government has dusted off suspended plans to introduce a register of lobbyists, requiring third parties lobbying on behalf of others to sign a public register.  But why, given the continued allegations, is it so difficult to do?

How you define lobbying shapes the solution. The government pointed out in 2011 that ‘the scope of the register will in large part be set by the final definition of lobbying’.

In his statement last week Cameron defined the ‘problem’ in a particular way: ‘I think we do have a problem in Parliament with the influence of third parties’ – meaning those lobbying on behalf of others. The Committee had previously said that

“…a statutory register which includes only third party lobbyists would do little to improve transparency…as these meetings constitute only a small part of the lobbying industry. The Government’s proposals only scratch the surface.”

The groups consulted last year also felt a ‘third party’ definition was too narrow. Many ‘could not identify the problem that the register was aiming to solve’.

To further complicate things, any definition is also highly political. Does lobbying include church groups? Charities? And does it include, crucially for Labour, Trade Unions, as Cameron thinks it should?

The Committee overall took a dim view of a third party register:

“We recommend that the Government scrap its proposals for a statutory register of third party lobbyists…the proposals…will do nothing to improve transparency and accountability about lobbying.”

So is there a better solution? For the Committee, a well-functioning regulation ‘would include all those who lobby professionally, in a paid role, and would require lobbyists to disclose the issues they are lobbying Government on’. This would help ‘improve transparency about lobbying, and reduce public concerns about undue influence’ (see more here).

The government should also do more to ensure basic information, such as records of meetings published online, are kept up to date. But even keeping track of when and where lobbying is taking place is difficult. Speaker Bercow has restricted access to passes to Parliament pending an investigation. The site ‘who’s lobbying’ seeks to map who is doing what and where. Yet while having a pass and formal meetings with a Minister can be connected to lobbying taking place, where do you draw the line? Does dinner with an old (ex-minister) friend, who happens to work for company X, count as lobbying?

The key question is whether transparency promotes good behaviour or pushes bad behaviour even further underground. Work by Cornelia Woll and David Coen show how lobbying adapts to new and different systems. For example, the US has some of the strongest transparency regulations around lobbying. Yet lobbying still exerts huge amounts of pressure on politicians – see here and here. The reason is obvious – a study calculated that in lobbying over one tax issue, companies gained $220 for every $1 spent on lobbying, a 22,000% return. With such returns and no agreement on how to define it, no solution or regulation will fully ‘solve’ the lobbying ‘problem’.

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