Back in the 1960s, the UK and the Commonwealth had to deal with what was rapidly becoming a rogue state, the then Southern Rhodesia, ruled over by the George Wallace of southern Africa, Ian Smith. Actions against Smith and his Government in what was then called Salisbury were meant to show strength, but when Smith made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), it instead highlighted weakness.
Now, the Fourth Estate has experienced its own rogue state declaring UDI: today, the Desmond press was ejected from the oversight of the already weak and ineffective Press Complaints Commission (PCC) after refusing to stump up its levy to the body. In reality, exclusion from the PCC was already a given, the decision having been made by Richard “Dirty” Desmond rather than the regulator.
Will anything change? Only for those not of sufficient means to force Desmond and his decreasing band of hacks to atone for their routinely inaccurate copy in court. For everyone else, it will be writs all round as before, and the way that papers such as the Daily Express and Daily Star are produced nowadays shows why media lawyers everywhere are readying themselves for an increased case load.
Back in 2008, dozens of sub-editors – the usually senior hands who shake verbiage out of copy and check it for accuracy – left the titles now under the control of Desmond’s Northern & Shell (N&S). Hacks would now be expected to input their stories directly onto page templates, which would allow them to use a variety of styles, as one might do with any report generator. Copy would supposedly be checked by lawyers.
That last does not seem to have worked particularly well: as Roy Greenslade has noted, the Express and Star titles are top of the league for libel payments. Moreover, Desmond’s reputation for vanity and aggressiveness (the N&S website demonstrates that someone has retained their sense of humour by juxtaposing his face and the phrase “benchmark of excellence”) does not augur well for the future.
So, while the Desmond press may get away with less than totally accurate and honest copy when ordinary folk are concerned, the better off – and those able to interest a no-win no-fee lawyer – look set to keep the N&S logo in the public gaze for many years to come.
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