Some thoughts on press ‘freedom’

The Leveson enquiry opened today with Lord Justice Leveson feeling the need to reiterate the tired line that a free press is of fundamental importance in ensuring that public figures and governments are held to account. Therefore what he wants to consider is not whether the press needs to have its freedom curtailed in any way, but rather the inquiry should address the question: ‘who guards the guardians’?

Perhaps equally pertinent questions to be asked along the way – and they all seem linked to me -might be ‘who runs the guardians’ and ‘for what purpose’?
This enquiry isn’t limited to phone hacking – after all, that is an illegal practice that the police will be dealing with in a separate criminal investigation – but it is about the wider behaviour of the press. It is, I feel, crucial that the inquiry properly addresses how the newspaper industry seems to apply vastly different standards to the behaviour of those outside the press industry than it does to those working within it.

Another problem that the inquiry might like to discuss is that freedom of the press is not as simplistic as the newspapers would like you to believe – or even as Lord Justice Leveson implied during his opening address.

For starters, how can a press truly be free when it has owners able to legally and freely insert their own editorial influence over what a given newspaper prints? How can we call it a ‘free press’ in the truest sense when each newspaper has a clear political alignment and often a very clear corporate agenda that often benefits in the whole the wealthy – and very few – owners of the newspapers?

Freedom in this sense is merely the freedom for anyone to set up their own press as an outlet for their own biased and perhaps blinkered view of the world. Or, it is the freedom for corporations to set up their own press to print propaganda that suits their own business interests. This is not actually a bad thing in terms of absolute freedom goes – as this is exactly what an authoritarian government would want to ban. However, it is a bad thing if such newspapers can get away with printing lies in order to support their own version of the world. Or, equally as bad, printing outright distortion or invasive articles merely to make a profit. How can a newspaper truly be considered free when it has to constantly serve up what the consumer wants?

Although a news purist might find it an odd concept to acknowledge, we expect our newspapers to have a clear bias and this is part and parcel of press freedom: they are free to pick a political side just as they are free to pick one side of a particular debate. However, it does not follow that newspapers should therefore have carte blanche to engage is constant lying or distortion to portray this bias as an absolute truth.

A population should never be in the situation where the line between editorial comment (opinion) and news (generally regarded as a factual retelling of a given event) becomes so blurred as to become meaningless. We should not be in a situation where a democratic population is served a constant diet of dishonest propaganda masquerading as news. The Press Complaints Commission and the Editor’s code of conduct exist so that we should not – in theory – ever be exposed journalists twisting the facts of a story beyond credibility just so that it fits in with the newspaper’s editorial line.

But this is precisely the situation we find ourselves in. Public debate and political discourse no longer concerns itself with what stories are in the news, but rather what propaganda the influential newspapers are currently pushing. We therefore have constant inaccuracies or distortions serving as the basis for public, political debate which serves no-one but the press that created them. Or, at least, given how close some relationships between the politicians and newspaper owners / editors are it does make you wonder if the agreement is rather more mutually beneficial than the press would have you believe.

I think the depressing reality is that at the moment the whole power, weight and influence of the press is only challenged by a handful of bloggers and a small media section in the Guardian. The PCC has shown – repeatedly – that they cannot effectively even blunt the torrent of lies, abuse and invasion that is carried out every day in the pursuit of newspaper sales or a political-corporate agenda.

Newspapers have shown that they are quite prepared to destroy people’s reputations and lies and will pick up the legal bill at the end of it rather than behave decently in the first place. They have also shown that it is no longer about the press admitting to making genuine mistakes – which they are often happy to do – but rather that they are happy to make the editorial decision that lies are now perfectly acceptable to be printed as news – whether it be a front page lead story or a throwaway few paragraphs elsewhere in the newspaper.

The real key – it seems to me – to selling newspapers is to lie and to lie brazenly, repeatedly and in order to stir up as much outrage and hatred as possible. It is this that the Leveson inquiry must deal with, because – quite simply – there is no-one else that can.

Press freedom

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.