2021iii10, Wednesday: Will the press ever change?

Another instalment in that popular game, “Questions to which the answer is no.”

Yeah. Right.

Short thought 1: Hearing this afternoon, so a genuinely short thought this morning prompted by the above announcement.

There’s an old rule in journalism: any time you see a headline ending in a question mark, assume the answer is “no”. On the whole, it’s a cheap sub-editor’s tactic, to get controversy into a headline and attract readers to a story with a good deal less to say. A bit like the inclusion of “quotes” in a headline: it usually means the quote is unsubstantiated, but makes for an attractive top line. If the paper thought it was true, after all, they wouldn’t need the quote marks.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the media and the royals. 

I have very little interest in the royal family. I recognise I live in a constitutional monarchy. As a lawyer, I am fascinated and concerned by the effect that has on how the law works, and doesn’t (the prerogative, for instance, bothers the heck out of me – particularly with our current government’s attitude to it). 

But the people? I’m no more exercised by them than I am by the thousands of celebrities whose names pretty much always escape me. I have impressions of them, but I realise they’re informed by very little actual information, as opposed to a mixture of propaganda and hit pieces.

Which brings me to the point. I’m painfully aware, as an ex-reporter, of just how poisonous the British press can be. How full of itself. And how utterly devoid of any ability to reflect, own its errors, and acknowledge any need for change.

You might say: a bit like the Bar, in some ways. True. But I think we’re finally facing up to our faults; not fast enough, but with a widespread realisation that our trade has been too white, too male, and too posh for far too long.

The press, on the other hand? It’s hard to read the “defence” of the media against charges of racism by the Society of Editors with anything other than incredulity. The difference in treatment of Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle tells its own story, for anyone with eyes to see. And there’s plenty more where that came from. SoE director Ian Murray’s comment that the Sussexes provide “no supporting evidence” doesn’t come close to passing the giggle test. Any half-way decent editor would red-pencil a line like that from copy they were handed in a hot second.

All institutions in the UK are tainted by bias and discrimination, built into their DNA. All institutions have a choice: face it, deal with it, do better. Or stick your fingers in your ears and shout loudly in the hope the problem goes away. 

I’m happy that apparently the SoE is riven in response to this self-satisfied, indefensible special pleading. And glad to see the letter by more than 200 journalists highlighting the SoE’s statement as a sign of “an industry in denial”. Although I’ve no great hope that anything will change.

(Incidentally, I saw in John Naughton’s newsletter last week that Bob Satchwell, an earlier director of the SoE, has just died. I didn’t know Bob well, but I knew him enough to think that he’d never have sanctioned anything as tone-deaf or simply ignorant as this. He was good people. He’ll be missed.)


Short thought 2: Some smart person (I wish I could remember who) said that the single most important job a leader has is hiring. Who they choose, to do what, tells you more about their priorities and values than anything else.

Which is why the hiring of Tim Wu and Lina Khan by the Biden administration in the US is fascinating. Tim Wu has done as much as anyone to put the principle of net neutrality and the dangers of what he termed information empires in the public eye. Lina Khan, meanwhile, wrote a seminal paper while at law school called “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox”, and is widely seen as one of the most thoughtful critics of the narrow, “antitrust is all about prices to consumers and nothing else” idea which has crippled competition law in the US for decades and arguably allowed the tech giants to dominate as they have. 

Their hiring is a very strong indicator that the anything-goes days for tech are over in the US. Watch this space.


(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)

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