Friday, 22 March 2013

In praise of a free press

Do you regard it as acceptable for a newspaper to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for stolen information relating to the financial affairs of people in the public eye?
How about publishing information obtained from police officers who are not officially entitled to make it available and which is vehemently denied by the parties directly involved?
If you answered No to the first question, that would mean we'd never have learned about MPs' fraudulent expenses claims. (The Daily Telegraph paid a reported £300,000 for a CD containing the MPs' expenses information, which had been either stolen or improperly copied.)
If you answered No to the second question, it would mean we'd never have learned about industrial-scale phone-hacking at the News of the World and elsewhere. (The Guardian got its information from police, lawyers and others, speaking anonymously and unattributably.)
Were we entitled to know about expenses-fiddling MPs and phone-hacking journalists? Of course we were. Is that what we expect from a free press? Of course it is.
It looks this weekend as if the bizarre late-night press regulation deal stitched up by a handful of politicians and a bunch of Hacked Off campaigners in the small hours of last Monday morning has been virtually strangled at birth. For which, I suggest, we should all be truly thankful.
It was the wrong answer to the wrong question. I agree with Simon Jenkins, who wrote in The Guardian on Wednesday: "A few innocent victims of press unfairness may gain redress. But the cheering across town this week is from the rich, the celebrated and the powerful, with parliamentarians in the van."
Of course, I feel for the McCanns, Christopher Jefferies, Charlotte Church, and many, many others who have been shamefully and disgracefully treated by newspapers. (For some reason, I'm afraid I have close to zero sympathy with Hugh Grant.)
But it is never a good idea to allow victims to determine retribution. That's why court-rooms replaced lynch mobs. And frankly, we should be very worried indeed when we see politicians and celebrities united in media-hate and thirsting for legislative revenge.
There is, in fact, a very easy way to ensure that journalists don't break the law: get the police to do the job they're paid to do, rather than taking back-handers, sometimes several thousands of pounds, from reporters looking for a good story. It really is as simple as that.
I have always believed that one of the principal functions of a free press is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That is not easily done if the comfortable are in charge of deciding what can and cannot be printed.
Journalists can be compared to undertakers or sewer-cleaners: it may not be pleasant to watch them at work, but the work that they do is essential for the survival of a healthy society.
Ask yourself this question: who will reveal corruption, incompetence, criminality and injustice, if the press is no longer free to operate without fear? And yes, I know, that for every justified media campaign I can point to, you can point to others that clearly cross the line of acceptability.
But can you have one without the other? Can you somehow have a regulated press, free to expose wrong-doing when it needs to be exposed, but prevented from doing harm to innocent citizens who find themselves trapped in the glare of publicity through no fault of their own? If you can, I have yet to see a way of achieving it.
Many years ago, I met a woman whose son had been labelled in a mass-market tabloid headline as "The worst brat in Britain". He was a child with severe learning and behavioural difficulties, for whom being pilloried on the breakfast tables of millions was a torment he certainly didn't need.
I have also met some of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, who would probably still be languishing in prison, having been wrongly convicted of a series of IRA pub bombings in 1974, had it not been for the work of journalists determined to prove that the police and the courts had fingered the wrong men.
Yes, of course you can file this under 'S', for special pleading. Journalists will always argue for a free press because -- of course -- it's in our interests to do so. But it is also in yours.
A New York Times editorial put it well yesterday: "The kind of press regulations proposed by British politicians would do more harm than good because an unfettered press is essential to democracy. It is worth keeping in mind that journalists at newspapers like The Guardian and The [New York] Times, not the police, first brought to light the scope and extent of hacking by British tabloids. It would be perverse if regulations enacted in response to this scandal ended up stifling the kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism that brought it to light in the first place."
In Tom Stoppard's play Night and Day, a character says: "I'm with you on the free press. It's the newspapers I can't stand." Perhaps you feel the same way. Trouble is, it's a package deal.


Mike Harrison said...

If it not a good idea for victims to design retribution, is it a good idea for the those caught out in wicked behaviour to expect a veto over who the judges are? Can we find a regulator who is not from either the political and powerful nor from the press?

Is it impossible for a wise regulator or legislator to draw a line between the hacking of a missing girl's phone and permitting such activity for good investigative journalism?

Gaye Berry said...

What free press?

Western countries seem best entertained least informed societies. Western societies are fed a steady “news” diet of trivialized, & useless information laden with personal junk, scandals, & gossip. e.g. CNN’s coverage of celebrity Anna Nicole Smith’s untimely death in early 2007 is arguably one of the most egregious examples of an over abused news story.
What else was happening simultaneoulsy?
US ambassador to Iraq misplaced $12B in shrink-wrapped one hundred dollar bills that were flown to Baghdad. This garnered little attention due to the media’s morbid infatuation with Smith’s passing. This is clearly news judgment gone terribly awry if not an outright retreat from journalistic standards. The once trivial and absurd are now mainstreamed as “news.”

The west seems to have a sea of information yet a paucity of understanding. We are a country where over a quarter of the population know the names of all five members of the fictitious family from The Simpsons yet only one in a thousand can name all the rights protected under the first amendment to the US Constitution. Journalistic values have been bought and sold. Important news stories are underreported or ignored entirely by corporate news outlets, especially on television, where @ 75% of westerners get their "news".

Here's what "news" should look like: Website describes the core reasons for continuing hunger. Farmers grow enough food to feed the world, commodity speculators and huge grain traders like Cargill control the global food prices and distribution. Starvation is profitable for corporations when demands for food push the prices up. Cargill announced that profits for commodity trading for the first quarter of 2008 were 86% above previous year. World food prices grew 22%propelled by the $175B invested in commodity futures that speculate on price instead of seeking to feed the hungry.

Or how about: Over fifty years after the US Supreme Court case: Brown VS Board of Education, schools remain separate and not equal. Public schools in the Western states, including California, suffer from the most severe segregation in the US, rather than schools in the southern states as many people believe. Whites often say racism is in the past, that modernity need not think about it today; yet, inequality stares back at society daily from the barrios, ghettos, and from behind prisons walls.

For these important stories to not be reported upon by major media outlets is clearly a matter of censorship and top down information control. A.J. Liebling: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
Shift away from fact-based, socially relevant reporting constitutes a principle form of censorship.
"Inconvenient truths" are buried in junk. e.g. Taboo for corporate media include civilian death rates in Iraq, post-9/11 erosion of civil liberties, levels of violence by side in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the coup in Haiti, election fraud in the US…

Not only do daily newspapers fail to cover the inconvenient truths but even wire service is filled with internal bias. AP is a non-profit cooperative news wire service. The AP, with 3,700 employees, has 242 bureaus worldwide; yet, do westerns really know AP’s reporting of the Israel-Palestine conflict? While there were twenty-two times more Palestinian children’s deaths than Israeli children’s deaths, the AP reported 113% of Israeli children’s deaths but only 15% of Palestinian children’s deaths. In fact, the actual deaths ratios for the three week bombings of Gaza January 2009 were over a hundred Palestinians killed per single Israel death.

George Seldes: "Journalism’s job is to tell the people what is really going on.”