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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Government Minister- George Osborne MP

Chancellor of the Exchequer and First Secretary of State.

Born and Educated in London and studied History at Oxford University.

Elected Conservative MP for Tatton, Cheshire in June 2001.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is the governments chief financial minister, responsible for raising revenue through taxation or borrowing and controlling public spending. He has overall responsibility for the work of the treasury.

Responsibilities cover Fiscal Policy (Including presenting of the annual budget) monetary policy, setting inflation targets and ministerial arrangements (in his role as second lord of the treasury).

Worked as Political Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition before being elected to Parliament. Entered Parliament as the youngest Conservative MP in the House of Commons.

Served on the Public Accounts Committee and held a number of shadow ministerial posts, being appointed Shadow Chancellor in 2005 aged 33.

Successfully ran David Cameron’s campaign to become leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, was part of the small Conservative negotiating team that led to the formation of the coalition government in 2010 which then saw him appointed as Chancellor of the Exchequer in May 2010.

George Osborne - budget

Government Minister- David Cameron MP

Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service.

Studied at Eton before graduating from Oxford University with First Class degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

Elected Conservative MP for Witney, West Oxfordshire in 2001, became Prime Minister in May 2010 leading a Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition government, won overall majority in May 2015 to secure a second term as Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister (PM) oversees the operation of the Civil Service and government agencies, appoints members of the government and is the principal government figure in the House of Commons.

Currently engaged in trying to convince the electorate that Britain should remain part of the European Union whilst trying to convince the 27 other European Leaders that he will pull Britain out of the European Union if he doesn’t get the reforms he wants in Europe.

Previously worked for the Conservative Party Research Department before being elected as a member of Parliament. Held a number of positions on the opposition front bench including Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, Front Bench spokesman for Local Government Finance and Head of Policy Co-Ordination in the run up to the 2005 General Election.

Member of the influential House of Commons Select Committee 2001-2003.

Appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills after the 2005 General Election and was elected leader of the Conservative Party in December 2005.

Became youngest Prime Minister in 198 years when leading coalition government in 2010.

Prime Minister David Cameron addresses members of the No campaign on September 15, 2014 in Aberdeen,Scotland. The latest polls in Scotland's independence referendum put the No campaign back in the lead, the first time they have gained ground on the Yes campaign since the start of August.

Prime Minister David Cameron addresses members of the No campaign on September 15, 2014 in Aberdeen,Scotland. The latest polls in Scotland’s independence referendum put the No campaign back in the lead, the first time they have gained ground on the Yes campaign since the start of August.

Working With Hull Harp, Trying To End Homelessness

Today I started working with Hull Harp, an organisation set up to help the homeless people of Kingston Upon Hull.

As a former homeless person myself it means more than anyone could imagine to be doing my bit to help as many people who live on the streets as I possibly can.

My experience of this sort of work started a few weeks ago when I went through my initial training at the former night shelter called Dock House on St. Peter Street, now, having got my clean DBS and my references through, I was starting work there.

As I walked up the street to Dock House there were a few clients waiting outside who had come for the breakfast club that I was volunteering at this morning. I had an overwhelming feeling of doing something positive to help these people who are in the same position I was just over five years ago.

It felt good to be doing something positive to help them, but at the same time it felt very sad and emotional. This is 21st century Britain and NOBODY should have to sleep rough or rely on others for basic provisions.

Since David Cameron and the Conservative party came to power in 2010 the official number of people who are homeless has doubled and the DWP which is run by Iain Duncan-Smith hasn’t exactly helped when making punitive sanctions on people’s benefits which has seen many forced out of their homes onto the streets with nowhere else to go.

I was working with Ash and Dave in the kitchen today, handing out bowls of cereal’s, toast and cups of tea or coffee to the few people who came in.

There is also some clothing, particularly socks, handed out to people who need them and once a week they can bring their dirty laundry in to be washed.

The Tory government has literally laid waste to the people who rely on benefits like a gigantic tsunami trashing everything and everyone who gets in its way, and they show no signs of stopping, for instance by making up stories about fictional people appearing to welcome the sanctions on their benefits.

A few months ago Dock House was closed as a night shelter and is now just open for the breakfast club 9-10 Monday to Friday, the Tuesday chill-out club is there 10.30 to 2.00 and that’s about it at the moment.

This vital service needs to be re-opened as a night shelter as soon as possible, it isn’t just a place where the homeless can go for a bite to eat, it needs to have vulnerable people in there so we have time to assess them and get them the help they need to get off the streets for good.

With each person we served I felt guilty for having a home to go to at the end of it, knowing they have nowhere to go but back on the streets.

Ash is a definite experience to work with as he used to be a resident there and now he is also back there helping out, he’s also quite cheerful especially when joking about having to show me how to use the toaster and studying the first cup of coffee I made for a client.

Dave is very much the Mr Dependable I think, he seems to know everything about everything in there and is only too happy to be giving his time. Michele is a delight to work with when you actually see her, she was in and out a few times today nipping between Dock House and the Aspire project which is another part of Hull Harp.

It’s a very happy and amusing team in Hull Harp and we all have one thing in common, we just want to help as much as we possibly can in any way we can, I’m back at Dock House tomorrow for the breakfast club and the Tuesday chill-out so there will be another update then.

Dock House

Sanction Now, Ask Questions Later

Sanction Now, Ask Questions Later Attitude Leaving More People Homeless!

More and more people are being left homeless because of having their benefits sanctioned for petty reasons according to Hull East MP Karl Turner and staff at The Warren in Hull City Centre.

“People are being left without benefits because they’re being sanctioned for the most petty reasons since this government came in,” Said Mr Turner.

Attending a public meeting hosted by JJ Tatten, manager, at The Warren Mr Turner was given many tales of woe by young benefit claimants who have either had, or been threatened with, benefits sanctions.

Reasons for sanctions being imposed included, being at a funeral, being at job interviews, being on work placements, one young lady even got sanctioned because she failed to sign on when she went into labour at the job centre.

Christian Wilding and Craig McDade also had their benefits sanctioned and ended up having to ask for financial support elsewhere until their benefits were reinstated.

Other people at the meeting told about how it takes four weeks for an application for hardship payments to go through and, until then, they don’t have any money for food or paying bills.

Another knock on effect of having benefits sanctioned means that the persons housing and council tax benefit is also removed automatically so they are left owing massive rent arrears which then results in eviction.

Hardship payments also vary between benefits, a person claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) gets £28 a week on hardship whilst a person on Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) gets £35 a week.

Before the start of the meeting Mr Tatten said he even knew of a case of a former soldier in his 60s having his benefits sanctioned because he was selling poppies for the Royal British Legion.

During the discussions Mr Turner said about how an MP for Wigan was having a debate in the House of Commons about benefits sanctions for petty reasons, like people being 2 or 3 minutes late to sign on, and the MP who was supposed to respond to her questions was actually 5 minutes late for the debate.

Counsellor Julie Chapman from The Warren said, “Sanctions on benefits are more frequent now, in fact they’ve more than doubled since this government came to power.

“Homelessness as a result of benefits sanctions has almost normalised now with lots of people now also sofa surfing

She also said, “Sanctions put a huge strain on families and impacts on mental health and also leads to food poverty,”

After the public meeting I attended a soup kitchen organised by Hull Homeless Outreach at St. Mary’s Church in Lowgate and spoke to Sarah Hemingway who volunteers there.

“Hull Homeless Outreach opened a food bank a few weeks ago and we feed 37 people on average there, at one point a woman turned up with four kids and her partner and they were expected to live on £38 a week.

She also said, “I want to know how many more austerity cuts are they going to agree on that could prevent a lot of this?”

In total 50 people came to the soup kitchen looking for food and drink.

Mr Turner also said, “We are trying to get some corporate sponsorship to keep Dock House open past the end of this month but I can’t promise anything yet,”

Asked why it is being forced to close again Mr Turner replied “Because central government has taken £150 Million away from the Hull City Council budget.

“Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency has had a 2% rise in its funding, Hull has had a 10% cut in funding,” He continued.