A note on Nick, free press and politics

Last week Nick Cohen wrote an important column about the scandal of blacklisting in the building trade, whereby casual workers identified as being union members or having made complaints about on-site working conditions were spied on, monitored and barred from employment by building firms. It’s a horrendous, troubling and under-reported story.

Which for some reason Cohen decided to put into an awful-a-thon contest with the Leveson inquiry:

Readers would not guess from the “national conversation” that the construction industry is sitting on a story as grave in its implications as the phone-hacking affair – graver I will argue…

As with News International, there are reasonable grounds for suspecting police collusion…

At this point, comparison breaks down. Hacking hurt reputations but it did not threaten lives…

It says much about Britain that the loud voices that boom across our media cannot talk about a scandal that is in front of their eyes.

The implication to be taken from this is that we are talking too much about Leveson and consequently not enough about the building blacklisting. But really, it’s only Cohen’s imagination that makes one the consequence of the other – and there’s something opportunistic about this discovery of something more awful than phone hacking, given that Cohen has a long track record of criticising the Leveson Inquiry on free speech grounds. He thinks the Leveson Inquiry should not be happening, and the juxtaposition with the blacklisting scandal is a chance to convince his readers of the same.

But there doesn’t have to be a rivalry between Leveson and blacklisting for media time. Cohen’s already suggested two ways in which they are alike – surveillance culture in private industry, police collusion – and so could be looked at as manifestations of the same corruption. Later in the piece, he gives another: “The blacklisting puts conservative protests about ‘elf and safety’ and ‘political correctness gone mad’ in their place.” Those aren’t just conservative concerns. They’re concerns created and promoted within the conservative press, and particularly through the incredible vortex of churnalism that is Littlejohn’s column in the Mail.

A wide-ranging inquiry into press ethics, of the kind that Cohen has declared himself against, is the perfect place to investigate the journalistic disaster of the couldn’t-make-it-up columnist and his brethren. There’s a chance to look at the way untruths are promulgated via propagandist star writers. We could get an idea of the opportunity cost of a press that got used to filling pages with stories scraped off mobile phones, rather than investigative journalism of the kind that could expose building companies running their own stasi on the sly.

But apparently, Cohen is so averse to scrutiny of the press that he’d rather set the Leveson Inquiry into a dogfight to the death than use it to understand the building scandal. Well, maybe: this week he’s complaining re Johann Hari’s rehabilitation that, “In publishing as in finance, professionals have the same aversion to punishing fellow members of the middle class. British gentlemen should be regulated with a light touch, they believe, and not bound by regulation.” So who knows what he thinks. Maybe if Leveson were to launch a special subcommittee into instances of sockpuppet slander against Observer columnists, Nick Cohen would feel more able to support the inquiry.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012; photo by Ben Sutherland, used under Creative Commons

2 thoughts on “A note on Nick, free press and politics

  1. Nick’s attitude to many issues is usually defined by his opinion of the principal actors.

    On that note, Nick previousl had a fairly embarrassing run-in with Nick Davies, who led the Guardian’s phone hacking inquiry. A few years back, Nick C. accused Nick D. of printing stories about the Observer’s pre-Iraq coverage that D knew to be false. That’s a serious allegation and the episode ended with Nick C. issuing an apology.

    Which may or may not explain Nick C.’s opinion on Leveson.

  2. Excellent piece. Nick Cohen’s tendency for conflation and erroneous comparison in pursuit of his own hobby horses can lead him to some pretty bizarre conclusions. Leveson bashing is just one example.

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