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Published on July 21, 2011

Hacking Scandal: Where are the people?

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

The issue of reform of press regulation is too important to be left to the establishment; citizens must be at the heart of any process to sort out the mess created by the current phone hacking scandal.

I’d not been intending to comment on the News International hacking story. Given the acres of news print, hours of TV footage and reams of Twitter comment (is ream the right measure?), I didn’t think I had much to add, either in terms of the crimes that have been committed or in terms of their implications for our institutions of government and democracy itself.

Yet in the few short weeks since the Guardian first broke the story that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked I think that the debate about the implications for British democracy have missed one critical element; citizens.

We have now had an emergency debate by a recalled Parliament, select committee hearings, the announcement of a judge led inquiry with the powers to summon witnesses, and a heavily resourced police investigation.

I feel like I’m repeating myself. In my very first blog post for Involve, I asked where citizens were in the debate about cleaning up Parliament after the expenses scandal. My underlying point was that the institution, and members of Parliament weren’t well placed to deal with the problem, because the key issue was one of lost trust. I think the same is true about the reform of press regulation.

It seems like the whole of the establishment is implicated in the ever growing scandal of illegal behaviour by sections of the British media. Given this it is hard to see how any institution – least of all Parliament or the media – can claim enough authority and distance to be trusted enough to ensure this sort of mess doesn’t happen again.

While we clearly need a more robust system of press regulation, there are dangers of devising a press regulation system that restricts the ability of the press to investigate and report. The upshot of that outcome will be more abuses of power somewhere else in the system.

The objection will be of course that: “this is all too difficult for the public to do”; “they won’t understand media law”; “they don’t understand how Parliament works”; “they will only give the mob’s reaction and we’ll end up with an even more restrictive system than you’ve just warned us about.”

Attempt to engage the public in a rushed way and without giving enough thought about what you are asking them to debate on and these prophecies will come true. However, long experience shows that if you spend time listening to what citizens are already saying by taking time to go to the spaces that matter most to them, then you will already have got out of your institutional bubble. In cases as important as press regulation, what government then needs to do is to take time and money thinking about how to use this, and explicitly involve citizens in developing a new system of regulation. If we do this, we will get a system that experts alone couldn’t have devised and one that actually meets the needs of the people this country.

The issue of the reform of press regulation is too important to leave to Parliament or a Royal Commission – one of the foundations of our democracy is at stake. It would be criminal to leave citizens out of the decisions that are about to be taken.

Image credit: Mwezibou

I’ve already blogged a number of times on ways to involve citizens that gets the most out of them without downgrading the critical role of experts. See here and here for example.


7 Responses to “Hacking Scandal: Where are the people?”

  1. July 21, 2011 at 11:20 am

    Good point. I’ve been watching a lot of this thinking it’s a fight between two groups which claim to speak for the people – the politicians and the press. Where the actual people are thinking is another matter.

    I suppose all the discussions on twitter might well be what some would count as public involvement with the issue. This doesn’t really cut it in my view and is probably referenced too much in the mass media and political coverage of this.

    • Simon Burall
      July 21, 2011 at 12:04 pm

      Alice, thanks. Twitter is clearly one of the spaces where citizens are debating the issues thrown-up it isn’t the only one, and as you say, it is referenced to much in the media and political coverage (and references this back again in worrying circularity). I agree with you though that it doesn’t cut it and our leaders need to listen to much more outside their bubble, and find ways to bring voices into the debate in a way that will properly involve us in the decisions that are taken.

  2. July 21, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    It’s interesting that you seem to have already taken one decision. That more robust press regulation is required. I’m open to accusations of naivety, but the problem to date doesn’t seem to have been press regulation, but press adherence to the existing law.

    It also seems clear to me that most people in the country were not too worried about the law breaking they knew about up until 3 weeks ago. Whilst it was mostly publicity seeking celebrities (& royals) and “powerful” politicians the public didn’t care. In fact you’ll probably recall that the public (and the Twitterati in particular) were very blatantly breaking the law by exposing Ryan Giggs (whilst the majority of papers obeyed it).

    The exposing of the Milly Dowler hacking changed all that. Very quickly. NI knew the NotW was doomed once public opinion was assessed. They knew that readers would desert them. And that advertisers would be close behind. They closed the paper not as a result of regulation, legislation or even as part of their corporate plan (they most certainly would have had the replacement Sun on Sunday ready if that was the case – as an ex-publisher I know not to leave a gap on the news-stand for someone else to fill).

    In summary, the public already have a voice on this matter. The ex-NotW journalists have heard it loud and clear. Other papers and broadcasters that have crossed that undefinable line that people find unacceptable will feel it if and when they are exposed.

    If there is a way to stifle that public voice I suggest it would be to start a conversation about “Press Regulation” – most people won’t get involved or have an informed opinion. “Public opinion” will not reflect the masses. Contrast that with the action that any tabloid reader can take. The decision not to buy that paper again.

    • Simon Burall
      July 22, 2011 at 7:04 am


      Thanks for the reply. Tackling your core points in order.

      i. It’s not (just) me that has taken the decision that more robust press regulation is required. It’s the leaders of the 3 major parties that have done so – It’s therefore immaterial what my decision is; it’s already happening. So the question is whether the people doing the reforming should be the only ones or not, or whether there is, or should be, a role for public engagement.

      ii. the model you highlight as successfully holding the NotW to account is a consumerist one, but there are others and I think it is at certainly debatable whether it is in the long term interests of the health of our democracy to rely solely on that to hold newspapers to account.

      iii. we are already having a mass ‘conversation’ and I’d suggest – as does Alice above – that it doesn’t really cut it. My suggestion above is that the government needs to listen harder to it, and try to understand it as a first step. However, that mustn’t be the end of it – and it would be the worst possible result if they tried to promote more of the same. That really would have the perverse result of stifling public voice that you are worried about.

      What government needs to do, in my opinion, is identify what it is that the public can add to the debate about reform that it has started and then create spaces where the public can enter this debate in a way that develops greater understanding and perhaps consensus rather than squashing the ‘public voice’ under the noise of the loudest. At the end of the post I point to two recent pieces I wrote exploring how this could be done in the politically contentious area of aid policy and the potentially very technical and very boring, from the point of view of most citizens, area government consultation.

      A quick fix, a smart website with a few fancy apps won’t cut it; it will have exactly the result that you are predicting. Ministers devoting adequate time and political capital to think through how best citizens can support their decision, allied with the spending of public money will have the opposite effect. The tabloids would say the sums of money required are too large; but what price should we place on our democracy?

      • July 22, 2011 at 8:37 am

        I think we agree on the core point – press regulation should not be decided by those with most to gain: the press and politicians.

        That said, let’s continue…

        i. Yes the political leadership of the country have said that more press regulation is required. That’s not surprising. They are in a constant power struggle with the press. That does not mean your decision (that press regulation is required) is immaterial. Being led, by politicians, into the assumption that more regulation is required is dangerous. That is going to be their strategy. Rush to the decision (and it is only 3 weeks since the public really became aware of the story) that regulation is required and then take time to implement that regulation away from the public’s eye. You argue that the public must be involved in that conversation. I’d argue that the public must avoid that being the conversation, because I don’t foresee a good ending because the public don’t have the patience to see it through the 12 months of the Levenson Inquiry never-mind the opaque legalities that might follow.

        ii. the consumerist model worked for NotW. In many ways it’s going to be more democratic than Lord Levenson & Co.

        iii. I agree

        In short, I think the public should be questioning the need for more regulation, and I’m going to be very wary of Govt attempts to involve citizens in their decision making. It doesn’t mean I’ll oppose it but I’ll be very wary.

        Finally, thanks for providing some space to debate.

  3. Glenn
    July 21, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    Good post. I heard a statistic that only 18% of people trust journalists. It’s 19% for politicians. Apparently it’s 63% for the police. Who and where are these believers, I wonder?

    Perhaps one of the few positives to come out of this debacle is that people’s eyes are opened to how the system works. In setting the news agenda, sensationalizing some stories and ignoring matters of real significance.

    It’s time to completey de-couple the media and politicians, certainly when it comes to deciding how and what to regulate or censor.

    And while we’re there, let’s ban tabloid journalism (along with the culture of fear it creates – I include the Daily Mail) and remove the toothless and ill-conceived press complaints commission out of the equation.

    BTW Twitter might be a place to exchange views, but in only 140 characters? This is the buzzword culture that the press is partly responsible for and leaves no room for real consultation or debate.

    • Simon Burall
      July 22, 2011 at 7:16 am

      Glenn, thanks for the comment, and good to see you again!

      You highlight why I think that the public voice is so important – this is about something wider than just press regulation, it is about the interaction between different systems of governance – the accountability that should be enacted by the press, the role of the police, the role of parliament and the role of the government.

      I disagree that we need to decouple the press from politicians – otherwise how do we hear what’s really going on. Even operating outside the space confines of twitter I don’t feel i have space to really explore this and debate with you whether we do hold different views or are viewing different facets of the same problem. I think though that this is a critical point needing real public debate and understanding before we can all reach a proper understanding of what the role of the press is in this regard and what that relationship would look like if it was working properly.

      I also fear that banning tabloid journalism would be the wrong step. They are read by far more people than the broadsheets, and while I disagree with most of what Shane has said above, they are very obviously valued by consumers. To ban them would confirm the real fears of much of the public that there is an elite operating out of London that thinks it knows best. So the question is how we change culture to resist the coarsening of our national debate that is happening across the whole of British media and not just confined to the tabloids.

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