Chariots of Ire – a lecture on media regulation

An unmediated hero of London 2012

With little over a week until the findings of the Leveson Inquiry are released, on Wednesday evening Lord David Puttnam delivered Cardiff University’s Hadyn Ellis Distinguished Lecture: “The Lessons of Leveson – The future of media regulation in the internet age”.

The address to a Business School lecture began gently enough, with an explanation that the media debate is all about trust.   But Lord Puttnam’s words quickly grew caustic, laden with a powerful drama befitting his film producer credits.  Indeed these credits rather than media regulation seemed to be the subject of most chatter in the reception before the lecture, Chariots of Fire excitably mentioned several times.

He spoke of a small but powerful clique of media people who behave like the Stasi and employ a systemic pattern of behaviour.  This behaviour, Puttnam said, had leeched into British police, politics, and “every nook and cranny of public life”.  From where it was leeched was not qualified, no precise source was identified.  There is an intricate and interrelated ecology which is contemptuous of some systems, he continued, making it impossible to come up with effective penalties.  Once police and politics collude, a judiciary is powerless and the game is up.

Puttnam berated epidemic levels of memory loss apparent in the press during the Leveson Inquiry, claiming the security system of an entire country had been stolen – presumably unless you had a lock on your voicemail.  Developing a head of steam, he elaborated that white collar crime was designed to line pockets of the already entitled.

This jarred somewhat, coming from a man who was appointed Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1983, knighted in 1995, and created a life peer in 1997 as Baron Puttnam, of Queensgate in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Perhaps the firmly established social strata of gentrified British society means there will always be an element of this dark mentality lurking in the depths, seeking unfair advantage.  And it could be that those used to fraternising with all elements of the elite are more aware of their menace, therefore more inclined to this kind vitriol.

From here we moved rather handily, almost as if seeking for A Counterbalancing Good Thing, onto the Olympics – 2012’s torch of hope.  Lord Puttnam spoke stirringly of the volunteer ‘gamesmakers’ – their efficiency and effectiveness.  He floated an idea for a 4th podium plinth, for those who have exceeded their personal best time by the largest margin.  (Good luck with that one).

It was disappointing that barely anything was said about the media in relation to London 2012.  The gamesmakers were important and excellent media coverage was critical to the success too.  Yet it was possibly the authentic, unpretentious appearance of athletes that resonated strongly with the British public; the fact that these new heroes were largely unmediated, running primarily on blind emotion rather than PR strategy and pound signs.

Perhaps Puttnam didn’t need to say much here; fondly reminiscing about the Olympics was enough to lighten the mood.

The optimistic Olympic tone was carried through in speaking of Prime Minister David Cameron, who was applauded for his treatment of, and apologies for, the events of Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday.  This handling had begun a process of “recovering the common purpose”, according to Puttnam – not a political man or a Conservative supporter; a purpose helped by the spirit of the Olympics and buttressed by the findings of Leveson.

We were told that what happens next will depend on the Britain Leveson “comes into bat for”.  Statutory regulation would be an arrow to the heart of democracy and mean newspapers could buy themselves out of regulation, although the backstop of any regulation can only be as robust as its most reluctant participant.

On these points I wanted to linger.  Enough of the superficial and slightly fluffy sounding “being better” please. What did statutory regulation effectively mean?   What would or could change media behaviour?

Instead we pushed on to an aspirational, motivational sounding rhetoric.  The British press and editors have to become as accountable as the public, accepting that they are capable of better.  Evoking the London 2012 spirit once again, Puttnam said that nothing would change unless politicians themselves want to be part of the new spirit.

When later questioned about his faith in David Cameron, who employed the now much maligned figure of Andy Coulson, Puttnam responded that it serves all purposes to believe in a better Cameron, to essentially hope.

Lord Puttnam spoke eloquently and affably throughout, as informed and assertive as you would expect for a man of his standing.  But in terms of new insight or speculation, beyond his elegant flourish about a corrupt system, there seemed to be little compelling substance.  While a broad audience clearly had to be catered for at this lecture, a greater focus on the detail of practical regulation changes – however fleeting, would have been welcome.

Detail shouldn’t be in short supply when the findings of the Leveson Inquiry are announced next week, particularly given the length and breadth of the operation.  But even then, those details might not be the most important thing. Arguably most significant is how media practice and culture now evolves, in terms of both production and consumption.  As well as being the most vital, this will probably take the longest time to discover.

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