There’s a lot of talk about the freedom of the press at the moment, and for the first time in the history of the UK, parliament seems to be seriously considering putting the obligation upon itself to protect that freedom – against the wishes of the majority of the press.
The British press has proved time and time again over the past decades that it is incapable of regulating itself, and after recent revelations about the lengths to which tabloid newspapers will go just to sell copies, one thing is blatantly obvious: not that the freedom of the press needs to be curbed, nor that it needs to be balanced with other rights, such as the right to privacy, but that the press itself is anything but free.
It turns out that the original claim of the News of the World and its proprietor – that a few instances of phone-hacking were the isolated actions of a single rogue reporter – was something of an understatement. The “News International phone-hacking scandal,” as it has since become known, extends to thousands of victims and numerous forms of technological surveillance, as well as acts of bribery and what is referred to as blagging (illegally obtaining someone’s personal information without their consent), undertaken by many people employed at that newspaper, as well as by people at other media outlets not owned by News International (NI).
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The media frenzy in July 2011 of almost daily revelations about the extent of phone-hacking at the News of the World, affecting not just public figures such as politicians and celebrities, but also private figures such as the victims of crimes and their families, raised questions about the efficacy of press regulation and the robustness of UK law. But the reluctance of the police to properly investigate the matter, and the ubiquity of conflicts of interest (with investigating police officers subsequently taking up jobs with NI, and likely suspects at NI moving on to work with the government) also raised more profound questions about the relations between the media, the police and politicians. It seems that no one apart from a few stubborn, persistent and outspoken journalists and backbench members of Parliament wanted the story to come out. Therefore, the scandal should also raise questions of a more theoretical nature about the role of the media as a form of public opinion, its importance for liberal democracy and the nature of this principle that we call “press freedom” (see Dawes, 2013; 2014).
The scandal itself led to the closure of a 168-year-old newspaper, the abortion of its proprietor’s attempt to take total control of satellite broadcaster BSkyB, multiple police investigations, House of Commons Select Committees and the setting up of the judge-led Leveson Inquiry, a public government inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.
From the witness statements given to the Inquiry and Select Committees, we have learned about the surprising (certainly to the rest of the media) level of contact between News International and government ministers via their respective lobbyists and special advisers, particularly around matters of cross-media ownership, as well as the close relationship between the Murdoch family and ministers (especially prime ministers) from both of the main political parties. One former prime minister, Tony Blair, who also happens to be the godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch’s daughters, advised the Leveson Inquiry that ownership was not the issue. Yet we also learned from Murdoch himself – whose memory of anything of relevance, such as a backdoor meeting with Margaret Thatcher which helped pave the path for his purchase of The Times and Sunday Times in 1981, was frustratingly hazy – that, should we wish to know his opinion on any matter, we need only read The Sun. Such a prompt suggests quite loudly that despite his long-held denial of any proprietorial influence over editorial content, that particular newspaper, at least, is little more than the mouthpiece for his own personal opinions and private interests.
But is this what we understand by press freedom? The freedom of one man or corporation to hold such sway over national and global media and politics, for the distinction between public opinion and the vested interests of powerful corporations to be so unclear?
Since the publication in November 2012 of the Leveson Report, politicians and newspaper editors have been debating and negotiating the policy fallout. While David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, has expressed a shift from his initial reticence at “crossing the Rubicon” of writing press regulation into law to a possible willingness to accept “a bit of statute,” Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labor opposition party, remains willing to embrace wholeheartedly each and every proposal made by Justice Leveson, including the necessity of enshrining press freedom in legislation. Between the two, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister, has reluctantly sided largely with the opposition in accepting the need for statutory underpinning of an independent regulator to simultaneously commit Parliament to protecting press freedom and to ensure protections for the public.
To be sure, press freedom is something that most of us in liberal democracies take for granted, that pretty much anyone would agree is a good thing, and that all of us should want to protect. And we’re certainly lucky to have the levels of press freedom we currently enjoy – although countries like the UK and the United States are perhaps not as exemplary as they would like to think, ranking 28th and 47th in the world, respectively, on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. As of only a few weeks into 2013, the global media death toll has already risen significantly. So far, seven journalists have been murdered (two in Pakistan, one each in Brazil, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Syria and Tanzania), either because of their reporting or simply because they were journalists, making it likely that this will be the fifth consecutive year in which more than 100 journalists will lose their lives as a result of the risks inherent to their profession, as chronicled in the International Press Institute’s Death Watch. Other examples, such as targeted attacks on journalists in debt-ridden and austerity-hit Greece and suspicions of arbitrary arrest of journalists in Somalia and India, remind us of the enormous risks that can go with merely being a journalist, particularly in unstable times or in countries where press freedom is little respected.
Meanwhile, state control of the media (of print, broadcast and even Internet media) continues to be a pertinent issue in the 21st century, most obviously in China, North Korea and the Middle East, as illustrated not only by state ownership and propaganda, but by examples of restrictive licensing, surveillance, censorship and limits on user access (Curran, Fenton and Freedman, 2012). At the same time, the way in which the major global online payment systems were able to cut off funding to WikiLeaks and consequently, as the Guardian put it, “cut off one of the world’s most famous journalism organizations from the public,” demonstrates the unaccountable power of third-party global corporations (and the influence of the US government over them). Significantly, a problem with the legitimacy of the media as a form of public opinion is that newspapers, TV channels and web sites are often owned by the very corporations that wield such unaccountable power in their pursuit for profit.
In the case of the News International phone-hacking scandal, it was the climate of commercial imperatives within the context of an unregulated market that enabled and encouraged widespread surveillance of the UK public by at least one tabloid newspaper. And it was the unaccountable power which that paper’s owner wielded on public life that led to a complacent and compromised response from the rest of the media, the police and Parliament.
Yet there remains a reluctance to regulate the press, and any proposition that could be interpreted as constituting or leading to state intervention in newspaper content sends shivers down liberal spines. That’s because the default position since the mid-19th century has been for the liberal state to just let the press get on with doing what they do – for better or for worse. Some call this self-regulation, others call it laissez-faire economics. Either way, the emergence of a press that was completely free from state control was a remarkable step forward for democracy, and this particular aspect of a free press – the freedom of journalists, editors and proprietors from the state – remains a crucial requirement. But it’s only part of the story (for the most solid accounts, see Curran and Seaton, 2003; Habermas, 1992; Keane, 1991; Thompson, 1995). As well as freedom of the press from the state, we also need freedom of the press from the market. The state remains a potential threat, of course, but corporations now have unprecedented and unaccountable power. The battle for liberty and democracy has moved on, and the definition of press freedom needs to move with it. The problem is that while the free market is the best guarantee of freedom from the state, freedom from the market can be achieved only by some intervention from the state. While for those who acknowledge this the logical conclusion is that a simple balance between the two is required via some form of independent regulation, it’s hard for liberals to accept the state as a cure for the ills of the market; and it’s impossible for them to consider the market as a threat to a free press.
So, what would version 2.0 of press freedom entail? Well, freedom from the market would most certainly involve questions of ownership and strict limits on concentration. But it would also involve clearer distinctions in types of content: between content that has come from a newspaper’s own investigative journalism and secondhand content that has come from an agency; between stories based on information that has been supplied at no cost and that which has been paid for and solicited; between real news articles and those which have been commissioned as advertisements. And it would require a less inclusive definition of “the press” that would enable differentiation between journalists, editors and proprietors – so that the freedom of journalists from both editors and proprietors, and the freedom of both journalists and editors from proprietors, could be protected. Ultimately, it would necessitate a clear distinction between the private interests of the multinational and multimedia corporations that own newspapers, and the true work of journalists and editors – representing public opinion and holding power (whether political or corporate) to account. (See the Media Reform Coalition’s web site for detailed proposals of public-interest journalism.)
Hopefully the UK Parliament will not back down and fall back on their oft-repeated threat of a final warning. As Miliband has said, “There can be no more last chance saloons.” But those fearful of harming press freedom should rest easy at the thought of legislation. This is not just about punishing the press, or about redressing the balance between privacy and the press. It’s about finally, for the first time since the press was freed from state “taxes on knowledge” in 1855, doing something to protect the press from the powerful interests we expect it to hold to account.
Curran, James, and Jean Seaton (2003) Power Without Responsibility: The Press, Broadcasting and New Media in Britain, 6th edition, London: Routledge
Curran, James, Natalie Fenton and Des Freedman (2012) Misunderstanding the Internet, Oxon: Routledge
Dawes, Simon (2013) “Privacy and the Freedom of the Press: A False Dichotomy” in Julian Petley (ed.) Media and Public Shaming: The Boundaries of Disclosure, I.B. Taurus
Dawes, Simon (2014) “Press freedom, privacy and the public sphere,” Journalism Studies, 15.1
Habermas, Jürgen (1992) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Cambridge: Polity Press
Keane, John (1991) The Media and Democracy, Cambridge: Polity Press
Thompson, John (1995) The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media, Cambridge: Polity Press