Had this been any other institution – the police, perhaps, or the National Health Service – there would be no shortage of pious articles in the press to call for stronger, probably legally backed, regulation. But the institution in question today is not any of these public services. It is the institution of the press. The privately owned, unregulated behemoth that strides unchecked across the landscape of Britain. So fearsome is the power wielded by this institution that the Prime Minister quails before the very thought of taming it. The man whose government is happy to attack teachers for not doing their jobs, or health professionals for failing in their duties, has steered well clear of even muttering the idea that the press might be in need of serious reform.
The phrase that leads the vocal defence of the press of itself is “freedom of the press”. Without this crucial freedom, we are told, the country is in danger of descending into dictatorship and oppression. Really?
There was certainly a time when “freedom of the press” meant something. When journalists and papers would risk everything to expose the corruption of political systems or highlight injustices in society. Then, indeed, “freedom of the press” was an important freedom. But today? The reputation of the print media is so low that today’s front page of the Sun, quoting Churchill’s stirring defence of a free press in 1949, merely provoked laughter amongst friends who saw it. Churchill, himself a journalist whose income was dependent on the munificence of press baron Lord Beaverbrook, was no impartial observer, but it can at least be suggested that his words came after the great battle against tyranny that was the Second World War. Not that British papers even then had covered themselves in glory, with the Daily Mail parading its pro-Nazi sympathies until close to the outbreak of war itself. And, of course, the press was anything but free during the war itself, agreeing not to publish details of military operations lest they compromise the British war effort. No wonder Churchill was so grateful in 1949.
Today, though? Let’s have a look at what press freedom it is that is so significant and crucial to our society that the newspapers claim they should be the only institution in Britain not subject to proper, external regulation.
The Sun’s defence of English liberty, outside of its cringing use of selected quotes from Winston Churchill, John Wilkes and Gandhi, includes a story detailing the friendship between Harry Styles and Rio Ferdinand; a report of a bust-up involving David Beckham; and the shock revelation from Gwynneth Paltrow that her marriage to Chris Martin is not perfect. Stuff to defend the foundations of British liberty indeed. More seriously, last Thursday – 14th. March – the newspaper had to again publish an apology to Gordon Brown for having lied about what he said concerning that paper’s unethical use of Brown’s infant son’s medical records. This was the fifth apology to Gordon Brown for falsehoods in under 5 months. A real record of rigorous and accurate reporting, well worth defending with the words of Churchill.
The Daily Mail is equally loud and self-righteous in its demands today that MPs do nothing to control the nation’s foreign-owned newspapers. The freedoms that the Mail wishes to see continue unfettered include its right to publish misleading information on health issues (for example it printed a false claim that e-cigarettes caused cancer – another in a long list of things the Mail announces as a cause of cancer); to publish false information about such prominent individuals as Christine Hamilton (apology published 4th. March 2013); or to cover-up letters pointing out the frailty of its stories with regards to European Union directives (it made a false claim that the EU was planning to ban Famous Five books). Today’s paper, alongside such investigative gems as Beyonce’s new track, Kim Kardashian’s difficulties with pregnancy and Khloe Kardashian’s holey jeans, offers up at least three different articles about press freedom, together with a self-serving leader. Whether or not we really will be losing “something precious altogether”, as columnist Dominic Sandbrook suggests in the Mail today, might remain a matter of severe dispute, particularly from those whose lives have been ruined by the Mail’s peculiarly malicious brand of reporting – those such as Juliet Shaw, or the innocent Deputy Headmistress accused of having sex with a teenager.
The issue before parliament is not one about freedom of the press. It is about abuse of its responsibility by the press. For years now newspapers in particular have operated with impunity, and it is their over-mighty power that now needs curbing. They have not used their power for the greater good. They have not been the crusading campaigners for justice that they are portraying themselves today. They have been craven, trivial, malicious, lazy and downright dishonest for the most part. They give acres of space to opinionated and inexpert columnists whose carping, self-serving and often vindictive judgements are meant to stand as definitive testament to the work of thousands, millions even, in public service and elsewhere.
The Leveson Inquiry wasn’t just about the extraordinary abuse of phone hacking, an abuse which now sees two of the once most powerful people in British media stand before criminal courts, but about the overall ethics of an industry which harried and persecuted all manner of people without any regard to the public interest of its stories. The Leveson Inquiry revealed too much of the British press to have been warped by its monstrous power. Of course it needs trimming. The tragedy is that the cosy relationship between politicians and the press will stymie any attempt to seriously control it, whatever anaemic deal may finally be agreed between the parties. The “freedom of the press” trumpeted today is simply the freedom to continue on a path of abuse.
Two blogs which do sterling work on publicising the frequent distortions and untruths that unaccountably find their way into our free media, are Tabloid Watch (who highlighted some of the examples I have used above) and the Media Blog. It is writers and editors of blogs like these who are now the ones seeking to 'speak truth to and about power', not the over-mighty print media with its foreign domiciled owners. I commented on the contrast between good and bad journalism here.