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Friday, 15 July 2011

A corporate aristocracy: obfuscation, disrespect for personal data and collusion - let's fix the root cause of hackgate

Why would a local council or police force need to employ public relations specialists or image consultants? Transparency of public bodies is important, and gloss and spin are the tools of obfuscation.

What is the role of a press office in a public organisation? To facilitate enquiry and access to information, or dress the good news and hide the bad?

And what about favouritism? Are some organisations more worthy than others when it comes to relations between the media and public organisations?  Even the mighty ITV was banned from a police press conference after a critical report on News at Ten during the investigation into the murder of Joanna Yeates.

I hope the forthcoming inquiries in the wake of the News International hacking scandal look closely at the concept of media plurality, and hopefully make recommendations that will end favouritism or discrimination of any news organisation.

It's clearly unacceptable to have a news organisation effectively holding MPs and the government to ransom, yet it's equally unacceptable to have public bodies threatening news organisations who refuse to toe the line.

And what about innovation, regeneration and regrowth of the news sector?  That itself could be hard if, as I've found over the last few years on the various blogs I've written, bloggers are effectively frozen out by the press offices of many organisations with a public service role.

Dabbling on various blogs I've been told by organisations such as the BBC (in 2010), South West Trains (SWT, in 2009) and several government departments that their respective press offices would not answer questions from bloggers as a matter of policy; although things are already changing for the better, as the BBC, SWT and notably the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have since answered my questions.

The smelly, messy, yet fertile ground that is the blogosphere may see new serious news organisations evolve from its mire. 

If I had to choose one thing to blame for the hacking scandal it wouldn't be the Press Complaints Commission, Labour's pandering for support from News International in the Blair years, David Cameron, Andy Coulson, Rebekah, the Met Police, Mr Murdoch (Jnr. or Snr.) or even Goodman and Mulcaire...

I blame the system.  The system that allowed one news organisation to dominate the political landscape for so long.  

And how can this be fixed? By doing the exact opposite of what governments do by instinct: pander-up to the established, dominant forces - whether major banks, industrial giants, global tech corps or media conglomerates; effectively freezing-out all but the largest players.

We've created a corporate aristocracy, where the largest corporations in their sector get to play a key role in making the rules; rules which may seem like a good idea but end up erecting huge barriers to new entrants, cementing the position of the dominant corporate artistocrats.

And then bad things happen, like the banking crisis or phone hacking, and a mad scramble is started to find a scapegoat.

I really believe the solution to so many of today's problems lies in fair and open market competition, supported by a strong but lean framework of rules, ensuring:

  • Large corporations, industrial giants or media moguls don't get privileged access to ministers.  All meetings should be open to public scrutiny
  • Public organisations are required to make information open by default:- open to all - from members of the public, to bloggers to News International and BBC news
  • It should be a criminal offence for any public official to threaten a news organisation with exclusion if they don't toe the line, just like it should be an offence for any journalist to threaten a public official with a smear campaign if they don't do what the journalist wants
  • Government policy should be focussed on creating an environment for open and fair competition, not supporting any organisation at the expense of another, except maybe positive discrimination for smaller businesses
  • Promote open criticism and transparency of corporate behaviour through reform of corporate privacy and defamation rights, effectively prevent corporations applying for press injunctions or starting defamation proceedings except where anti-competitive 'malice' can be proved
  • Bring in separate criminal penalties for public organisations that divulge or misuse personal data (and private organisations handling statutory records)
  • Give the public a clear, legal right to film and record at all public meetings
You might note I haven't mentioned protection for personal data held by private corporations.  There is some data we are obliged to hand over by law or through everyday necessity.  A free market can't solve the problem of officials handing over private details we're obliged to provide.

For all other data privacy issues the market should by and large self-regulate.  That is, corporations who show a disregard for our private information will, if the market is allowed to work - absent of favouritism or libel chill, be penalised by customers.

After all, it's the public reaction that finally brought down the News of the World.


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