The storm surrounding the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press has been brewing for at least 30 years. This is certainly not the first time society has collectively revulsed against the ethics of the popular press. As Lord Justice Leveson has himself remarked, it is only 'the latest in a long sequence of spikes in public concern about press standards' (Leveson, 2012b, 25).
The history of the twentieth century is littered with attempts to strengthen press regulation--including three Royal Commissions in 1947, 1962 and 1974, the Younger Commission of 1972, and the two Calcutt Reviews of 1990 and 1993. The Leveson Inquiry is the seventh such attempt in less than 70 years. Yet every British government to date--many of whom were responding to reports that they themselves had commissioned--has failed to put in place anything more stringent than variations on the theme of self-regulation. This article gives one account of why this has been the case, and why we are unlikely to see a departure from form in our present situation.
The remit of the Leveson Inquiry is extremely broad, taking in the relationship of the press with the public, with politicians, and with the police; commercial issues like press concentration; and the future of press regulation. Yet only one of these strands--the relationship between politicians and the press--may ultimately hold the key to all the rest.
This article locates the genesis of a new kind of relationship between government and press with the extraordinary intimacy Margaret Thatcher cultivated with the tabloids during her term in office. In 1979, the year she came to power, The Sun was described by The Observer as 'Mrs Thatcher's missionary outpost to the working-class voter' (6.5.1979). By the time she left office a decade later, The Sunday Telegraph was willing to accept that, 'the support of The Sun can make or break the fortunes of the Tory Party' (24.6.1990).
Every subsequent Prime Minister, whether Conservative or Labour, has had to come to terms with this doubled-edged aspect of Thatcher's legacy. Thatcher's relationship with the tabloid press was a powerful weapon for any successor to inherit--but as the scandal-driven collapse of the Major administration vividly demonstrated, it came with a dangerous degree of vulnerability to an ever-mightier media empire.
Together, Thatcher and Major set a double precedent for New Labour in 1997. Whilst Thatcher demonstrated the rich rewards to be reaped from the relationship she constructed with the popular press, Major's fall illustrated the devastating consequences of disregarding its rules. Against the backdrop of this cautionary tale, it is hardly surprising that subsequent leaders of both left and right have come to accept the terms of this power relationship as a fundamental premise of British political culture.
Backlash: how the sixties set the scene
The relationship between Thatcher and the tabloid press was authentic in a way that none of her successors--not even Blair--were ever able to emulate. In part, this is because their affinity was not the conscious product of any official mechanism, but stemmed from the immediate social and cultural context of previous decades.
Britain in the 1980s was a society ill at ease with itself. Despite the much-heralded 'revolution' in social attitudes that came with the 1960s, the vast majority of the British public regarded the sexual liberation movements and 'permissive' reforms of that era as the work of a remote political and intellectual elite. As one Sun editorial put it as late as 1994: 'It doesn't bother MPs that a consistent 75% of the British people want vicious killers to be hanged. It doesn't impress them that most of us feel deeply uneasy at condoning acts of teenage homosexuality. Parliamentarians prefer to rely on their own consciences' (12.1.1994, emphasis in original). Evidence from the British Social Attitudes survey shows that the proportion of respondents who believed homosexual relations to be 'wrong' actually rose to 74 per cent in 1987, up from 62 per cent in 1983. Similarly, the proportion of respondents who believed extra-marital sexual relations to be 'wrong' rose to 88 per cent in 1987, up from 83 per cent in 1983 (Smith, 1994, 51).
Recent contributions in the field of media and cultural studies have demonstrated the important function that popular journalism plays in 'cultural reinforcement'. As a form of ritual communication, it allows us to consolidate a shared identity, and to 'rehearse our moral sensibilities' through the constant iterations of repetitive journalistic tropes (Gripsrud, 2004). For the tabloids, the uneasy cultural inheritance of the 1960s opened up a market for stories and tropes which served to bolster and reinforce the 'traditional' values that were perceived to be under threat. For Thatcher, popular unease about permissiveness presented an opportunity for her to position herself as the...