20 March
2013

Press Freedom and Press Responsibility

The Royal Charter being set up in the wake of the Leveson Report marks an end to a period of 300 years in which government did not regulate the press. It is unprecedented in this country’s democratic history and should therefore be approached with great care.

One does not have to look far to find support for a truly free press among the great and the good, and in many ways journalism, unregulated by the state, is in effect an unofficial arm of good government. Where even democratic political parties might see mutual benefit for themselves in stitching up a deal at the expense of the electorate, the press remains at liberty to publish the inconvenient truth that would unseat an elected official or support a statesman whose name has wrongly been tarnished for the sake of personal political gain.

The press has no legislative or coercive power of its own and it has no royal charter exhorting it to ‘inform, ‘educate’ or ‘entertain’. Indeed it should have neither of these things, for in possessing them it would naturally become a part of the national establishment and forfeit its ability to remain completely independent from the state and so be fully able to exercise its critical faculties.

But while the press may be a kind of unofficial arm of good governance, this is a long way from saying it can operate outside of the law. No responsible government could fail to implement measures curbing the activities of journalists, newspapers or television where it was clear that wrongdoing was tolerated in the name of ‘getting the truth out’. Violations of privacy, such as the Leveson Enquiry investigated, are and have long been illegal. Press freedom never extended to allow phone hacking.

In a totalitarian regime one can understand a free press as a legitimate form of political resistance, but not in modern Britain. It is plain that the behaviour of the press has, in recent years, been far from commendable. The reputation of the tabloid press has sunk even lower than it was just five years ago and even the broadsheet newspapers are in danger of turning into an extension of daytime television.

There are no winners in the Royal Charter being established to regulate the British media, except perhaps a few celebrities who resent that their fame has brought with it the unwanted curiosity of some unscrupulous journalists. But it is also plainly true that there were no winners in journalists behaving unscrupulously in the first place. For all the moral pomp of journalistic criticism across the political and editorial spectrum, it is difficult to take what ‘the media’ says without a very large pinch of salt. The credibility of the press has been brought low, but not by government. It has been the media’s own abuses of its freedom that have tarnished its reputation for integrity and, most regrettably, harmed its effectiveness to freely criticise the state. The government’s new Royal Charter is a break from a tradition of liberty that we may live to sorely regret, but more regrettable still has been a gung-ho press with journalists more interested in causing a media sensation than in reporting the truth with accuracy.

2 Responses to Press Freedom and Press Responsibility

Father Peter Farrington says: 21 March 2013 at 12:15 pm

As we slip inexorably towards totalitarianism in the UK and the EU it seems to me that the freedom of the press, not simply the freedom of large newspapers but of all those who publish comment on politics and current affairs, needs to be afforded greater protection and not less. And an increasingly oppressive state should not be expected to provide this protection, it must be claimed and exercised.

I don’t think that regulating the press in any way is a proper response to the relatively few criminal actions which a relatively few journalists have engaged in. There are 40 or 50 of these alleged criminals who have been arrested and charged and will face criminal sanctions for their criminal actions if found guilty.

There was and is no need for these actions to result in the regulation of every website and every newsletter of every small organisation or individual. But that is what the Royal Charter proposes. And an increasingly totalitarian state will use these powers with gusto.

How long will it be, for instance, before it is not permitted to disagree with the Global Warming scam on any UK published or directed site? Not long I warrant. How long will it be before concerns about the scale of immigration into the UK is prohibited from expression also? Not much longer.

This is very dangerous territory indeed. Criminals are already liable to criminal sanction. The intention of any state, as it acquires a life of its own, is always to preserve the security of the state apparatus itself, and this is what we see happening here and now.

If we don’t resist this attempt to silence all manner of voices then we do not deserve to complain later on when we are forbidden to speak.

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thomasmoreinstitute says: 22 March 2013 at 11:27 am

Absolutely, legislation is the wrong response to bad behaviour from journalists, but there should be some kind of response. Legislation is straightforward and takes a fairly short time to implement, but it will probably have some nasty side-effects.

A stronger culture of integrity among journalists (and politicians) would probably be more effective. But this is much more difficult to implement and takes a longer time to develop.

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