Monday, 18 March 2013

A Pressing Issue..

The political issue of moment has never been too far away from public view and that is the thorny question of press freedom and press regulation. In the wake of phone-hacking and the revelations surrounding the terrible Press intrusion in the aftermath of the disappearance of Milly Dowler, it was inevitable that something had to be done and that "something" was the Leveson Enquiry.

A host of celebrities, politicians and others took the stand and said their piece and it was all good theatre but the outcome was the hugely wordy Leveson Report which effectively stated that the current system of self-regulation had failed and that the answer was to bring that regulation under political control.

This has of course provoked a storm of protest from the media and their fellow-travellers mainly but not exclusively on the Right. They have raised the old sceptre of politicians controlling the media and a group (presumably backed by the newspapers) is posting ads claiming the newspaper industry is the tightest-regulated in Europe and nothing needs to be done.

Both sides are, of course, entirely and irrevocably wrong.

The status quo ante Dowler isn't an option. The press have been "drinking in the last-chance saloon" for years but have continued to violate the privacy of individuals, both celebrities and otherwise, and this has been justified on some gossamer claim of being "in the public interest". Is it really "in the public interest" for The Sun to have a banner headline about Chris Huhne's first day in Wandsworth Prison or is it really small-minded titilation backed up by petty political points-scoring?

Yet those who would have the Press controlled by politicians are equally wrong. "Free" speech is the cornerstone of our democratic system and the Press has a role to scrutinise, analyse and hold to account public figures and particularly elected officials. Of course, the final accountability must always be the ballot box but, for example, the expenses scandal would doubtless have remained in the shadows had an enterprising journalist not done a thorough job. One only has to think of Watergate to see the value of a free press in bringing to light the misdemeanours of the powerful.

However, "free" speech cannot be a justification for intrusion or the violation of the basic human right of privacy. Milly Dowler's family have suffered terribly and it's true that the behaviour of the press has compounded thst suffering. Do some celebrities and even politicians deserve the public humiliation that the press pours on those who say the wrong thing or act in what is deemed to be an inappropriate way? In the era of blogs and Twitter, "free" speech cannot simply be used as a justification for saying the unpleasant and the offensive.

The problem, as I see it, is less about legislation than culture. The culture of "free" speech needs to go beyond the simple "it's my right to say what I think" and, as a liberal, I think the line "I don't agree with what you say but I'll defend your right to say it" has become a justification for the use of intolerant language and personal abuse. Beyond the lines of defamation and slander is the "marshy middle ground" of the unpleasant, the divisive, the provocative and the mean-spirited. If an individual holds opinions that may be construed in these ways, does that mean the individual shouldn't have the right to express them ? No, but does it mean the individual should think carefully about how to express them and whether there's a need to express them ? Perhaps.

"Think before you speak" is a maxim we are told as children but perhaps we forget it too quickly as adults. With so many avenues (blogs, forums, tweets etc) where opinions can be expressed, it becomes all too easy to feel that you are somehow contributing to a national debate by sitting on a forum for hours on end posting the same (or slightly nuanced) opinions.

That then becomes part of the problem. Those with time or access to the range of media are able to dominate the debate. Is it surprising that most forums become dominated by small cliques of posters who seem to post day in and day out? Is it surprising that the same old Twitter accounts are posted and re-posted? Why try to explain your own opinion if someone else can do it so much better?

Democracy flourishes on a plurality of opinion and that includes those on the fringes but that plurality is undermined if it's the same opinion expressed ad nauseam. The British media is dominated by the Right - liberal viewpoints and those on the Left are read far less frequently. The newspaper industry is dominated by wealthy men who own the titles and who tend to have Right-wing views. Thus does money buy influence through repetition and ultimately power.

I find myself in a philosophical dilemma on this one - having politicians regulate the Press seems inherently wrong but we cannot go on as we are. A wholly-independent regulatory body might be a way forward but that body must have real teeth. Apologies and retractions need to be prominent not tucked away on some inner page. Newspapers should be compelled to champion plurality of debate but it comes down to all of us as well. Freedom of Speech is a privilege and a right - it isn't a carte blanche to say what we think regardless of consequences and it behoves all of us to think about what we say and why we say it.

In the end, that cultural change to a more thoughtful and reasoned approach to debate may be the answer in a way that regulation and legislation cannot and will never be.

No comments: