Essay- Do We Have A Free Press 800 Years After Magna Carta?

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Beatrice Evelyn Hall.

The question of the freedom of the press has raged for hundreds of years and shows no signs of coming to an end just yet.

At this time, hundreds of years after the end of state licensing and taxing of journalism, do I, as a student journalist, believe we have a truly free press now? No definitely not, for which I have reasons that I will lay out in this essay.

My first problem with press freedom is that it seems to be controlled too much by the government and judges who have either their own agenda (in the case of politicians) or the interests of celebrities (in the case of both) at their root.

Another problem seems to be that certain parts of the media appear to have forgotten about news reporting and are more obsessed with celebrity gossip and sensationalism.

Something else causing public mistrust of the press is the narcissistic tendencies of tabloid journalism with reporters who, with absolutely the best will in the world, sometimes seem to see themselves as the answer to a particular problem like a war or a natural disaster rather than just reporting the facts as they present themselves.

Everybody was rightly horrified at some of the practices employed by the press such as phone hacking, Lord Justice Leveson was charged with the duty of holding an inquiry into the practices and ethics of the press from which he produced his report for Prime Minister David Cameron in 2012 but was it, as Mick Hume claims in his book There Is No Such Thing As A Free Press, “An act of state interference into the affairs of the British press”?

During the proceedings overseen by Lord Justice Leveson there was a parade of several celebrities such as Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and Max Mosley, all victims of the phone hacking by the now closed down News of the World, systematically humiliating tabloid journalism (rightfully so in some cases).

But what actually constitutes a truly free press and, more importantly, what constitutes a state controlled press?

It can certainly be argued that a truly free press is able to do its job of reporting what is in the public interest without fear or favour and without people quoting the Leveson report at them at every turn, whilst being professional and balanced.

John Wilkes (1725-1797) was a Member of Parliament and Lord Mayor of London but also a radical journalist who fought for free speech and press freedom and it’s thanks to him that journalists can report on what is said in the Houses of Parliament today.

He was thrown in the Tower of London as a prisoner and expelled from Parliament on several occasions but he was extremely popular with the public and was able to overturn his expulsion from Parliament.

It is true to say that the press do enjoy certain freedom that maybe others don’t, such as absolute privilege and qualified privilege and the now changed/abolished Reynolds Defence but of course there are certain things that we can’t report on such as people’s personal privacy and matters of national security.

Having said that it seems gagging orders are almost the latest celebrity ‘Must Have’ item as shown in the action taken by Ryan Giggs to stop news of his affair with Imogen Thomas. (Hughes, Kirsty) (2012) (Taylor and Francis Online) (tandfonline.com)

When the story finally broke about the affair it seemed to be nothing more than celebrity gossip of the sort of thing that, however much we dislike to talk about it, happens in every walk of life from the very famous to the ordinary man and woman on the street.

One part of the law however that does see the press afforded certain legal rights is the protection of journalist’s sources.

This was very ably shown to be in perfect working order in the case of The Guardian against the Metropolitan Police when police officers tried, unsuccessfully, to use the official secrets act to force the newspaper to reveal their sources who had leaked information to them enabling them to break the story of the News of the World hacking into the phone of a murdered teenager in 2011.

It also seems that other items receive the attention of the press maybe more than they should, for instance the recent releases of the new James Bond and Star Wars films has seen certain broadcasters take advertising arguably to new levels.

Reality TV such as I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, X Factor and The Apprentice among others also seem to receive the sort of coverage that maybe they shouldn’t get.

We should though not forget the power of the press and how useful it can be such as Michael Buerk’s report from Ethiopia on 23 October 1984 which spawned the massive relief effort of Band Aid and then the subsequent Live Aid concerts of 1985, direct results of news reporting in its purest form.

Something else that the media seems to be increasingly responsible for in recent years is the conducting of political campaigns with TV and Radio being used in larger amounts to get the politicians messages over compared to the now less used tactic of getting out, knocking on doors or meeting the electorate in public.

Since the publication of the Leveson report we have seen the creation of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) but for me the jury remains out on that for the moment and its potential for, through financial sanctions, to represent some form of indirect state licensing for the press, as was suggested, before the report publication, by Mr Hume.

The freedom of information act 2000 must not be confused as only being available to the press, it is available to everyone, however it would be negligible of me to rule out what the freedom of information act means for me and other members of the profession of journalism which I recently took advantage of to find out how many people were registered as homeless in Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire.

The Freedom of Information act enables you to get hold of recorded information for things such as local council expenditure or, in my case, how many people are registered as homeless in a particular area.

However there is a ‘But’ to this. If a certain body of people like the local council or government think you’re making too many FOI requests they will eventually start refusing your requests, they’ll also refuse a request if they think it will cost them too much money or take them too long to find out the information you have requested.

This would also seem to be another contradiction of press, or public, freedom but in reality I currently have no reason to believe that it happens with great regularity although one would question why it happens at all when it is supposed to be about openness and transparency?

Certain people also question the roles of the owners of newspapers, the so called media barons, with their apparent ‘chequebook journalism’ the media oligarchs like that of Jonathan Pryce’s character Elliot Carver in the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

They are right to do so because certainly the ownership of large chunks of the media by a few huge corporations can’t be a good thing but how do we develop and build a new independent press especially when the media is governed by such stringent rules?

As far as I’m concerned (and shoot me down if I’m wrong) a free press should be exactly what it says it is, it should be free. It shouldn’t be ruled by judges, politicians or celebrities with their own agendas, it shouldn’t be licensed or taxed.

In reality what the media needs is to get back to the roots of what it is all about, it needs to be able to report what is in the public interest, fuel debate, contribute to our democracy and investigate as and when required like that shown in The Sunday Times when uncovering the Athletics Doping Scandal that shocked the world.

Freedom is a complicated business but it’s no good having the wealthy and powerful telling the masses what we can and cannot read, view and hear in the news.

Only the public can decide what is fit for public consumption, except maybe on certain matters pertaining to national security when disclosure would do more harm than good.

John Wilkes was imprisoned in the Tower of London for publishing a newspaper which claimed “The liberty of the press” is the “Birthright of every Briton” we’ve come a long way since those days but it does seem that we still have a long way to go to see the sort of free press that we deserve in this country and indeed the world.

Many people have many reservations about the press after the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry and report but people also need to remember the good things that the press have done and understand that it isn’t all bad.

In these days of automatic citizen journalism on social media such as Twitter and Facebook, which are regulated by whoever posts on them, maybe we need to remember that the articles we see in newspapers and reports we see and hear on TV or radio are all checked by editors before they can be published.

Journalism, for its turn, needs to report the news, promote debate and inform the public of matters that are in the public interest and act as the communication bridge between public figures such as politicians, film stars (Interviewing not advertising), sports stars etc and the public who they influence.

The press, in all its forms, is a vital part of our culture and democracy, it is a voice for the masses and can be a force for real good but, as in all walks of life, you will also find the occasional rotten egg and this is always what will be remembered and what we will be reminded about.

According to Freedom House only 14% of the worlds population now live in countries that enjoy a free press and a free press plays a key role in sustaining and monitoring a healthy democracy, as well as contributing to greater accountability, good government and economic development.

Therefore it seems that the advantages of a free press to the masses are there for all to see plainly but, unfortunately and unsurprisingly, because of the actions of a few the reputation of the media is not currently in a healthy state.

Unacceptable levels of media intrusion have caused undoubted pain and anguish to certain people who certainly didn’t deserve it and that can never be undone but the power and influence of the press can also be used very much for the public good as has been proved on many occasions.

If we are to ever have a free press we have to realise it isn’t about causing scandal it has to be about reporting facts and absolute truth. It can’t be controlled by a select group of powerful people trying to hide skeletons in their closet or people in positions of trust lying, it needs to be about the truth and reporting in the right way.

In his book Mick Hume says: Yes, what is needed is a change in the culture of the press- but more importantly still, a drastic change in cultural attitudes towards the press. (Hume, M) (2012) (There Is No Such Thing As A Free Press) (Exeter, Imprint Academic)

He then goes on to suggest that Better Fewer Laws, But Better are what’s needed. The notion that there are not enough legally- enforceable restraints on the UK media is a bizzare distortion of the truth. The British press is hemmed in and harassed on all sides by dozens of laws, and the list is growing. We need to get the states nose out of the newspapers and other media. The press has to be subject to the same system of criminal justice as everybody else. But no more than that. (Hume, M) (2012) (There is No Such Thing As A Free Press) (Exeter, Imprint Academic)

References

Cps.gov.uk, (2015). Legal Guidance: The Crown Prosecution Service: Prosecuting cases where public have disclosed confidential information to journalists. [online] Available at: http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/p_to_r/prosecuting_cases_where_public_servants_have_disclosed_confidential_information_to_journalists/ [Accessed 31 Dec. 2015].

Encyclopedia Britannica, (2015). John Wilkes | British journalist and politician. [online] Available at: http://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Wilkes [Accessed 31 Dec. 2015].

Freedomhouse.org, (2015). About ‘Freedom of the Press’ | Freedom House. [online] Available at: http://freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-press [Accessed 31 Dec. 2015].

Hume, M. (2012). There is no such thing as a free press. [Luton, Bedfordshire]: Andrews UK Limited.

Journalism-now.co.uk, (2015). Media Law – Absolute and Qualified Privilege. [online] Available at: http://www.journalism-now.co.uk/media-law-absolute-qualified-privilege/ [Accessed 31 Dec. 2015].

Legislation.gov.uk, (2015). Defamation Act 2013. [online] Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2013/26/section/4 [Accessed 31 Dec. 2015].

Legislation.gov.uk, (2015). Freedom of Information Act 2000. [online] Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/36/contents [Accessed 31 Dec. 2015].

Leigh, D. (2011). Phone hacking: Met use Official Secrets Act to demand Guardian reveals sources. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2011/sep/16/phone-hacking-met-court-order [Accessed 31 Dec. 2015].

McNally, V. (2015). Remember, That Famous Voltaire “Quote” About Free Speech Was Written By a Woman. [online] Themarysue.com. Available at: http://www.themarysue.com/voltaire-beatrice-evelyn-hall/ [Accessed 31 Dec. 2015].

Thejohnwilkesclub.com, (2015). Wilkes Quotes | The John Wilkes Club. [online] Available at: http://www.thejohnwilkesclub.com/wilkes-quotes/ [Accessed 31 Dec. 2015].

(Parliament Reports on the Law of Privacy and Injunctions, 2016)

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