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How far is too far when it comes to the freedom of the press?

rupert-murdochI believe in freedom of the press. It’s a seemingly obvious statement for the vast majority of people in this country. And yet it’s a caveat many opposed to the Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch position on press regulation feel compelled to make.

Listening to the hysterical reaction of most UK newspapers as regards the new Parliamentary backed Royal Charter; you’d think John Stuart Mill, John Wilkes and George Orwell were spinning in their graves. They would have us believe the new reforms throw up a question for which there is only a binary answer: Either we have a “free press” free of political interference or we do not and we risk the very end of democracy. But I’m afraid the reality of this debate is that it’s about shades of grey.

Vigilance we’re told is the price of democracy. As Voltaire said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.” That means our democracy must be flexible enough to react to a constantly evolving economy and society. One where the balance of power shifts over time.

If you doubt that balance of power has shifted, just look at what Levenson uncovered. He showed how the Fourth Estate of this country has become an extremely powerful force with commercial and political tentacles extending way beyond its publications; seemingly influencing the heart of government, the highest levels of the police and destroying anyone who dared to challenge it.

Look what that lead to. A mass-circulation Sunday newspaper closed down by its embarrassed owners. Journalists and editors arrested and now on trial. Whilst hundreds of citizens, including a murdered child and her family, were seen to have had their right to a private life violated by phone-hackers and others.

And while all this was happening neither the newspapers or self-regulation in the form of the Press Complaints Commission did anything effective. “No one knew” was the reply. The bottom line is that a number of media corporations – many little more than mouthpieces for a cabal of plutocrats – are out of control.

Their power makes a mockery of the notion of a ‘free press’.

But then I would argue we’ve never really had a ‘free press’. The reality is we already have statutory restrictions on the freedom of the press. The various acts pertaining to the administration of justice and limitations on court reporting are a case in point.

As a society we have accepted the right to justice over-rides the right to a “free press”. The limitations on what the media can report in terms of identities and previous convictions are an example. Has democracy come crashing down because the sacrosanct freedom of the press has been curtailed? No, of course not. Because its about shades of grey, not absolutes.

Ultimately the question many on the left will ask themselves is will these reforms make for a media that isn’t so hostile to the left? Alas, probably not. A more balanced media will require the next Labour Government to push through long overdue legislation on media ownership in this country. Or as Ken Livingstone said, “One newspaper per millionaire.

Nonetheless these reforms should mean some of the worst excesses of the industry are curtailed. That includes the cancer of fear and cynicism that was spreading into the heart of our government and civil structures. That was the true danger to our democracy – not these reforms – which in my opinion are long overdue.

Clive Lewis is the Parliamentary Candidate for Norwich South and a member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Ethics Committee.

Image credit: robbiverte / 123RF Stock Photo (adapted)

One Comment

  1. John Reid says:

    Good article

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