A Free Press – is it what we really want?
Certain elements of the Press are getting very hot under the collar at the idea that they might be regulated – and the elements that are getting heated are those that most need regulation. It does however appear that they have successfully put the heat on the Government – or at least the Tory element of it.
The Press can still have a huge influence and the market share of the News International and The Daily Mail and General Trust is huge and that share is vocal in its dislike of the Leveson proposals. For large numbers of the population their message floods all others.
Regulation will constrain the “Freedom of the Press” – but to do what? Even today (!) we read:
The Sun newspaper has apologised in the High Court for accessing private information on a stolen mobile phone belonging to a Labour MP.
(ref: Sun apologises for accessing MP’s stolen phone, BBC News Website 18 March 2013)
We apparently need to accept this sort of behaviour as the downside to a “free press” protecting our liberties. Dare we contemplate that the balance is wrong?
What liberties are the press actually defending and are any of these liberties threatened by bringing the press to heel?
The main “Liberty of the Press” that I wish to see is that the Press should not be prevented from publishing “truth lawfully obtained”. The press would seem to wish to see this extended to “truth unlawfully obtained” and would cite issues like MPs’ expenses as examples of a truth “unlawfully obtained”.
I am not comfortable giving the press a license to break the law provided they end up publishing “truth”. If they break the law they should suffer the consequences (which was I believe the thrust of Ian Hislop’s evidence to the enquiry). The Telegraph journalists who handled the leaked MPs’ expenses data should face prosecution if they have broken the law (did they “handle stolen goods”?). It may well be that they can convince a court that, although they are guilty of an offence, they should be sentenced leniently. (Government attempts to reduce judges’ and magistrates’ sentencing discretion does not help this approach.)*
We must be willing to accept the consequences of our actions and we must not give the press an exemption.
* I acknowledge that the above approach seems to say that I trust the judges more than the press – or even the “democratically elected” government. But being democratically elected (or carrying a press card) does not automatically make your views “inherently better” – and review of the behaviour of MPs, Journalists and Judges over the last few years or even decades does tend to indicate that the Judges have it by a significant margin. So am I trading some “democratic accountability” for the wisdom of the judges? I guess I am. Their judgements are reported in all (but secret) hearings and are subject to public opinion. Hearings that are secret (saving the family courts) are those defined as secret by Government definition/guidelines.
The Press also claim that a free press protects us from Tyranny. I fail to see that this is constrained by the Leveson proposals, but I do see individuals suffering the “tyranny of the press”. (And I do not buy the claim that “celebrities” are a sub-species who should suffer the unwanted attentions of the press. Some may be stupid, but that does not justify making you a target of the Press.)
The last chance saloon is now closed and those who wish to continue to drink should realise that there is now a minimum price for doing so. And that is the press should be accountable to a body that they do not control and that the power imbalance between an individual and an organ of the press should be redressed.