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Tuesday, December 14, 2010 

Richard Desmond and a "fork in the road".

(Hat-tip to Anton.)

The saying goes that you can't keep a good man down. With Richard Desmond, proprietor of the Daily Express and Daily Star, the Television X softcore subscription TV channels and since the summer, Channel 5, it's more that effluent tends to float. Last July, it seemed that Desmond's apparent inexorable rise might finally be checked, and all as a result of his own insecurity and vanity. He had brought what turned out to be a disastrous libel action against Tom Bower, the unauthorised biographer, for claiming in his book on the downfall of Conrad Black that the Canadian media tycoon had "ground him [Desmond] into the dust". Integral to the case was that Desmond had played the role of a newspaper owner of the old school, interfering directly in the editorial process, or dropping the most blatant of hints to his journalists as to what they should write, including on his business rivals and enemies. Bower's win seemed to open the door to the publishing of his own biography on Desmond, titled Rogue Trader.

Almost a year and six months on, Rogue Trader is still without a publisher. Desmond, meanwhile, succeeded in purchasing Channel 5 with barely a squeak of protest, not even from the usual likes of Private Eye, and has started the same process he carried out at the Express and Star: sacking dozens of employees while cutting costs to the bone, with the focus to be on the pumping out of celebrity obsessed content, cheaply produced and piled high. Desmond, who has long cited Rupert Murdoch as the person he would most like to emulate, has gone even further than his idol in wholly owning a terrestrial British television channel. He even supposedly recently offered Murdoch a billion for News International, something the Australian-American regarded as a good price, even if he had no intention off selling.

It's not therefore much of a surprise, flush with cash as he is, that Desmond is once again objecting to paying the annual fee to the Press Standards Board of Finance, the body that funds the Press Complaints Commission, having previously spent nearly two years refusing to pay the bill, supposedly as a protest against the editor of the Daily Express having to leave the board after the payout to the McCanns. Whether this is just the usual prevarication from a businessman who objects to any variety of oversight concerning his dealings, or signals that the end of his patience has been reached with the frequency with which the Daily Star especially has been referred to the commission is not entirely clear, although if it was the latter it certainly wouldn't be a shock.

While it would certainly be a stretch to describe the Star as ever being a newspaper of repute, increasingly over the past few years it's became little more than a daily version of OK!, Desmond's downmarket version of Hello! The front page lead article is invariably more inaccurate than it is accurate; today's cover, speculating on Katie Price being pregnant for the umpteenth time is for instance completely false. When the cover hasn't been dedicated to the entire industry that seems to follow the antics of a couple of permatanned half-wits, it's been given over to even more inflammatory material, such as this story from earlier in the year on "Muslim-only" toilets in a shopping centre in Rochdale, according to the paper funded by the local council. The only problem was that they weren't Muslim-only, as anyone could use them, and they weren't put in place with the use of public money. The Star, without apologising, was ordered to recognise these facts in a clarification on page two, after the Exclarotive blogger complained to the PCC. Numerous other recent examples of the Star and Express either deliberately misleading their readers, displaying a wholesale lack of normal journalistic ethics or just a complete lack of care abound.

Should Desmond carry through his threat to withdraw funding, it's not immediately clear whether or not the PCC would just continue as it did previously: still taking complaints against the papers, simply without the ability to force them to publish adjudications or corrections. Far more serious would be if he actively took the papers out of the PCC's oversight, something which as Roy Greenslade explains has only happened previously once. Even then, it's hard to see this as being the "fork in the road" or the threat to press freedom some have already put it down as; rather, as all the other newspaper groups are dedicated to keeping up the pretence of self-regulation, almost nothing would change. Any blame would be put purely on Desmond continuing to operate as a rogue proprietor, with doubtless the other owners and editors privately trying to persuade him to rejoin. We've already seen recently how terrified government ministers are when they start to even think of taking on the likes of News International; the idea that a form of state regulation would be imposed now in the social networking age, especially when David Cameron is just as hand in glove with the Sun as New Labour ever was, is unthinkable.

More pertinently, the PCC always has been and remains a cartel rather than anything approaching an active and concerned regulator, as even a glance at their piss-poor investigations into the phone-hacking at the News of the World demonstrates. The PCC's code is hardly set in stone, and changes to it are more than possible. Extra allowances could be made for publications that dedicate themselves almost solely to the discussion of celebrities, where the facts are far more difficult to establish and where rumours are actively encouraged by the stars themselves, so often complicit in much of the content printed about them. After all, how can they possibly operate under such onerous restrictions when gossip blogs, often operated from America, only answerable to their courts can put up almost anything they like? We should never underestimate the ability of organisations under apparent terminal pressure to adapt, regardless of how their actions appear to anyone outside the industry. As all the polling undertaken has shown, trust has never been lower in the tabloid press. The readers almost expect to be lied to; why should a regulator prevent that from happening when it's almost what they want?

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