A One-Sided Approach to Press Freedom is Threatening Our Liberty

In an  earlier post I mentioned that the theme of  Levellers Day 2016 was (Un) Civil Liberties.  This covered, amongst other subjects, the issue of press freedom, a difficult topic largely due to the inclusion of the word freedom!  The philosopher Isaiah Berlin identified over 200 ways in which the word ‘freedom’ has been used, leading him to conclude that it had become almost meaningless in practical terms, unless qualified in some way. Even in 1948 the United Nations must have realised the asymmetry of the clause in the Declaration of Human Rights which reads:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers. 

But what about the right of each of us to be exposed or made aware of such ideas? Here is the essence of the problem.

As with most issues involving freedom the first questions to arise include freedom from what or, alternatively, freedom to do what?  These issues lay at the core of attempts following the Leveson enquiry to regulate the press. A balance needed to be struck between protecting the freedom of the press from political interference against the freedom of the general public from unwarranted invasive press intrusion.  In a real sense the press brought the problem on themselves with outrageous phone hacking and payments to officials such as the police. So the insidious activity of phone hacking and backhanders to gain a commercial or competitive advantage was inextricably wrapped up with the laudable aim of furthering the public interest by revealing wrongdoing in Government.  As reported here, many newspapers including the Daily Mail were vocal in opposing the setting up of a ‘voluntary’ self regulating body (Independent Press Standards Organisation, IPSO) via a Royal Charter as it carried the implicit danger of interference from politicians.

But it is now important to ask what the press does with its ‘freedom’. Who is the beneficiary? This has been brought into sharp relief this month (May 2016) when the issue of alleged Conservative party fraud involving election funding has gone virtually unreported by many of those originally crying foul over the Press Charter including the aforementioned Daily Mail, but also Murdoch’s The Sun and The Times, the Daily Express and Metro amongst others  The situation is so ludicrous that ex-Conservative party Minister Michael Portillo claimed on television that he was completely unaware of the alleged fraud.  This is despite investigations by a number of police forces carrying the possibility of forced by-elections which may mean the loss of the Conservative Government Commons majority.  Clearly press freedom does not benefit Michael Portillo!

So there is a serious issue of the press (and other media outlets) telling us what they want to tell and omitting stories which we may need to know about. We can immediately conclude that freedom depends not only on a plurality of voices but on the reach and effectiveness of those voices. The problem is clear when the only in-depth investigation is via a single source (Channel 4 News) and the major public service broadcaster, BBC, is basing much of its content on print journalism. The nightly The Papers feature, for example, means non-coverage in the printed media means no studio discussion.  The situation is worsened by some papers venturing accounts of public opinion which is speculative (such as the attitude to refugees) and aimed at sectional commercial ends. There are even instances of outrageously rigged polling, of particular importance with the EU referendum vote now imminent.

The danger is greatest when the interests of the press coincide with Government interests. Who then holds them to account? Whatever they may claim, Government Ministers control the details of the market place and explains why media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch are so keen to gain the attention of politicians. This is closely linked to another issue which is firmly in the political focus, corruption. Political theorist Celine Spector has pointed out  that the triumph over corruption is one of the major benefits of a free and pluralistic society.  The press plays a vital role in this context and it may be argued that Channel 4 News revelations was proof that the system operates, especially as it has prompted the Electoral Commission and Police investigations.  But that does not adequately deal with the fact that many voters in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections (amongst others)  will not have seen the Channel 4 coverage, knowledge of which may have altered their vote. This is especially pertinent as the newly elected PCC for Devon and Cornwall, Alison Hernandez, is already under possible criminal investigation. The Internet is undoubtedly starting to redress the balance and sites such as OpenDemocracy and The Canary are slowly gaining ground, along with freelancers such as Paul Mason. But many stories require the resources of larger news corporations and  even social media can suffer in those situations if only a few voices predominate.

So what is to be done? Here are just a few ideas  Firstly a tighter restriction must be placed on the scale of media ownership. Next there should be a truly independent review of the BBC charter rather than a highly partisan one carried out by a Government with sectional interests.  Incredibly the Conservatives do not seem to have foreseen the possibility of losing power and an opposition party being able to plant their own Ministers on the BBC board! A genuine community based media with an emphasis on aspects other than entertainment must be encouraged and developed. Finally the idea of deliberative polling or focus groups where a section of the population are tracked and involved over an extended period should be made a compulsory part of the licence for every broadcaster. In conclusion we need a vastly more sophisticated approach to press freedom which covers consumers as well as producers.

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