The United Kingdom is lucky to have a free press. At least in theory. However, freedom is not in itself a good thing. Freedom can be abused in any number of ways, which is why in most instances the government retains the right to take away the freedom of those not using it appropriately. In the case of newspapers we are constantly told that the freedom of the press is paramount – this is why no government dares regulate the press with David Cameron the latest Prime Minister to praise the PCC for being a wonderful example of self-regulation. Except that it has utterly failed to regulate the press in any way.
The press is free to pursue any stories that they want, just as the public is free to purchase any newspaper that prints the kind of content that they are interested in. The press are free to criticise any aspect of the political system, but they are also free to tell us how to vote and to lie about important issues, run smear campaigns and generally fight for a political end that suits their own purposes. In real terms the press is only free to be moulded by the free market and free to be the plaything of powerful owners.
The only defence the newspaper has for its behaviour is freedom. Freedom of the press seems so paramount that it is raised as an unquestionable defence as soon as anyone raises a critical eyebrow towards the collection of putrid paper that passes as a newspaper industry in the UK. As soon as press freedom is questioned we hear the same tired arguments about how it is vital for the press to be free to hold politicians, corporations and powerful individuals to account. The beauty of this argument is that just occasionally this is true.
It is also a complete nonsense when you consider what newspapers actually spend the vast majority of their time doing (and how many of them actively work in the interests of politicians, corporations and powerful individuals or are indistuingishable from them). As the Daily Mail notes today when gleefully reporting that Max Mosley has lost his bid to ‘gag the press’:
Today’s judgment observed that the private lives of those in the public eye had become ‘a highly lucrative commodity’ for certain sectors of the media, and publication of news about such people contributed to the range of information available to the public.
The dissemination of such information was ‘generally for the purposes of entertainment rather than education’ but it undoubtedly benefited from the protection of ‘freedom of expression’ rules.
You then scroll to the right-hand side of the screen and see what the judge is referring to – and what the press is doing with its freedom:
This is a product of the free market press, a press that exists to make profit rather than inform a population – which is why we have such a poor democracy: our press serves only to empty our pockets rather than fill our minds with the information we need to be informed citizens. However, the free market only functions to keep alive those newspapers that have a large enough customer base. We get crap newspapers because enough of us want crap newspapers. We get crap governance because not enough of us are prepared to do something about it.
Almost every public debate is reduced to mindless simplicity. Max Mosley makes a hugely valid point that people deserve the right to privacy and the press should respect that right when the ‘news story’ is not in the public interest. Max Mosley is then said to be attempting to ‘gag the press’. He isn’t. He’s just pointing out that if the press had to respect the genuine privacy of others they might have to work bit harder to find stories that are actually in the public interest, rather than simply of interest to the public.