The price of a free press can be uneasy choices

As the last-minute late night deal between political leaders and Hacked Off sinks in amongst publishers and people consider whether to sign up to the yet-to-be-finalised regime of press regulation, people have been pointing out the crucial confusion that lies at the heart of the proposal. The use of legislation to support the device of the Royal Charter to set up regulation seems to make no distinction between the various roles that the press perform, and in particular its essential role as watchdog on the political process seems to have escaped those that advocate state-backed regulation.

The press as watchdog in politics

The media have for long been the UK equivalent of the US “Fourth branch of government“, one of our “checks and balances” within our unwritten constitution. Two recent examples come to mind, both likely to be relevant to the current furore. First, the “Daily Telegraph” ran a lengthy expose of dubious expense claims by members of Parliament, as a result of which many made re-payments, some resigned and a few were prosecuted. Coming as it did just before the 2010 general election, it probably reinforced in the public mind a very low level of trust towards politicians in general. Then, the “Guardian” ran an expose of News International’s activities, focusing on mobile phone hacking, corrupt relationships between journalists and public officials including the police, and finally revelations about the very cosy relationship between political leaders and Rupert Murdoch’s empire. The first two of these are now subject to a set of prosecution cases under various laws, although the third, while making public just how close to our leaders press moguls can get, has not been seen as illegal. The revelations led to the Leveson enquiry and the proposals currently before Parliament.

From the point of view of being a watchdog, we have two excellent examples of how a vigilant media can expose wrongdoing. However, it isn’t just that. What many call “serious journalism”, in an effort to distinguish themselves from “tabloid journalism” as seen in the hacking scandal, journalists are able to subject the activities of government to detailed scrutiny. So important is the media that in turn politicians pay great attention to the management of news and to the presentation of their activities. Thus different aspects of public policy get wide-ranging discussion and there is plenty of criticism from different angles of what is being proposed, enacted and implemented in our democracy.

An ambiguous relationship

This freedom of the press dates back to the end of licensing in 1695, although other restrictions such as taxation were more slowly removed, and two world wars have seen emergency restrictions in the 20th century. Politicians for long have had to endure sometimes virulent treatment at the hands of sometimes very outspoken individuals, and in turn have sought to influence and manipulate them. You can, for example go into old British pubs and hotels and see on the walls reproductions of sometimes quite obscene cartoons of early 19th Century personalities who were ridiculed in ways that today would be seen as distasteful, such as those of Gillray. It is a long tradition.

The danger of the current proposals for regulation is that they strike at this long-standing tradition of independence. As was being argued last week, one view is that we need to be able to live with this level of freedom in order to maintain this “higher-level” freedom, and that the law is capable of serving as a remedy as it stands.

The bane of the celebrity

Another angle is that behind the headlines of the issue is the activities of the powerful, and as not untypical of a policy-making process we have for example a very well-financed and organised campaign by a pressure group, Hacked Off, which was so successful that it was even involved in political deal making. Not even since the Trades Unions in the 1970’s “beer-and-sandwiches” meetings with Prime Minister Wilson have a pressure group got this level of access. However on the other side we heard plenty in the Leveson enquiry of the ways in which Murdoch and his team had easy access to the Prime Minister of the day, and was nearly successful in using it to engineer the take-over of Sky recently. Cameron it emerged was a near neighbour of the then-boss of News International, Rebekah Brooks, who is now being prosecuted for her alleged part in the hacking scandal, and they met socially and for example he borrowed her horse for riding. Successive political leaders regarded being on good terms with Murdoch as key to electoral success and the “Sun” had a skillful ability to back the winning party, both Conservative and Labour.

This tendency for media barons to cosy up to politicians, and visa versa, has a long history, and you only have to look at for example Rothermere (Daily Mail), or particularly Beaverbrook (Daily Express) who became a minister, to see how crucial this can be.

Thus one might think, “they would, wouldn’t they?” when one looks at how readily all the party leaders have signed up to a form of state-backed regulation. While one might believe the protestations of the current team, the issue is perhaps what a future group of people, under different circumstances, might feel tempted to do and the relative absence of constraints on their ability to act.

Equally, with regard to the activities of Hacked Off, if you read some of the blogs they are allegedly backed by some powerful people with plenty of money, and have a good celebrity backing. They have the public sympathy vote and a general popular dislike of journalists at present, and so are in a powerful position. Thus can pressure politics work. However, it is worth reflecting that celebrities, like politicians, have an ambiguous relationship with the press. They court publicity, pay PR people to represent them, and will scour the papers and online to see how they are being reported. They too have to live with expose and risk having their private life delved into. Very many have for example felt outrage at certain activities, such as the coverage of the royal family and Princess Diana in particular. Yet with this will come exposures of less healthy activities. Thus there has been a continuing debate about what constitutes “public interest” in such reporting. However, here too there is powerful motivation for curbing press intrusion, and one writer has presented the current situation as “a victory for the rich, the celebrated and the powerful“.

Uneasy choices can be the price of a free press in a democracy

As a counter-balance, advocates of press freedom have argued for enhanced self-regulation, although defenders of state-backed regulation have countered with the view that journalists so far have not delivered in this area. It might be that, under pressure of state intervention a more effective regime will be set up, although policy makers are not holding their breath.

As some have argued in the last few days, it might be that we pay this kind of price in an open society. Others will not be so easily satisfied. Yet it is worth arguing that in whatever process is eventually agreed upon, a distinction is needed between mechanisms and remedies for abuse of power, as in personal press intrusion, as against a state-backed scheme that is such a catch-all that clumsily scoops up and effectively neuters the very important matter of the scrutiny and watchdog roles of a free press.

Some other links

A detailed journalistic critique

Academic paper on arguments against statutory underpinning of press regulation

An alternative view

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