A free press without total freedom
Journalism gyrates dizzily between the dolorous grind of falling revenue and the Internet’s vast opportunities of a limitless knowledge and creation engine. On the revenue front, no news is good. The just-published Pew Center’s “State of the US News Media” opens with the bleak statement that “a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.” Not only, that is, is the trade shrinking, but those who once depended on its gatekeepers have found their own ways to visibility.
Journalists’ task, as large as any they have collectively faced in 400 years of their trade’s existence, is to find a way to continue the journalism that societies most need and citizens are least willing to pay for: detailed, skeptical, truthful, fair, investigatory writing and broadcasting. It’s a big ask. The British are in the process of not answering it. They are staging a sideshow: not an unimportant one, but in a minor key all the same.
Over the past two years, a series of alleged crimes – illegal interception of phone messages, bribery, blackmail, perverting the course of justice, theft – have been committed by journalists working for the British tabloids. The Leveson Inquiry, prompted by revelations of phone hacking, and subsequent police investigations have laid bare a shaming landscape of cruelty and criminality. Many politicians of all parties bowed before the perpetrators, adding to the shame.
Redress is planned. Over the past few days, the three main party leaders have agreed to a much stricter regime of press regulation. The political parties, sensing that the popular mood has been and may remain critical of the tabloids, have also agreed (it seems; the deal may still fall apart) to put their collective weight behind a regulator with the power to levy fines up to £1 million and to command prominent display for corrections. The tabloids, led by Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, the most popular daily in the land, cry tyranny. That cry is most eloquently uttered by Trevor Kavanagh, the paper’s veteran political columnist, who warned on Tuesday that “once politicians seize control of that voice [a free press], whatever their promises and assurances, there is nothing to stop them gagging it altogether.”
British tabloid journalism, which often shocks foreigners with its brutality, sees itself, in the minds of its editors and owners, as in the great line of British arguments for press freedom – John Milton’s Areopagitica; John Wilkes’ “seditious” defiance; the caustic cartoons of Hogarth and Rowlandson; John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”; George Orwell; and the tradition, in print and broadcast, of investigative journalism.
The regulations’ supporters, which include some of the “upmarket” (or, as tabloid editors like to say, ”unpopular”) papers, see the tabloids as mendacious, careless of ethics and shameless in their avidity for salacious detail – an avidity which prompted most of their criminal behavior.
Nevertheless, the government’s reaction is well-meaning but wrongheaded. The Internet has exposed a truth as old as journalism, disguised in the last two centuries by journalism’s professionalization. Journalism is not and cannot be a certified profession. Unlike medicine, or the law, or the academy, or for that matter plumbing, carpentry and auto mechanics, it’s not something that requires lengthy training, professional standards and a certificate of competence. It can be done by anyone who can observe, write and/or broadcast. It belongs not to a guild of protected practitioners but to the citizenry. Journalists ‘R’ Us.
Because it’s us, journalism reflects the mess of people’s minds, curiosities, fears, envies, lusts and angers. What feeds those appetites – tabloid sex scandals, ranting polemics against political enemies, the tearing down of establishment figures – has long been popular. The large change is that people can now try their hands at creating such journalism for themselves.
There is nothing that can, or should, be done about that. Regulating such primal urges is what free societies, no longer under the tyranny of religious or secular dictatorships, have set their faces against.
Journalism of the kind practiced by the company publishing this – which aspires to tell the truth, hold various powers to some kind of account, reveal inner workings of states and corporations – and which does need training, ethics and experience, exists in part because it’s (still) a business, in part because such a business assists citizens to a fuller citizenship, by informing them of what is significant in their societies and in the world.
The challenges facing journalists at the beginning of the third millennium are to expand the freedoms still denied to them in authoritarian societies (and blessedly many are the brave men and women who strive to do so); to sift the truth from ever-growing piles of obfuscating detail and downright misinformation; and to construct readable and watchable narratives that inform by telling that age-old thing: a story – in these cases, one which accords with the facts.
The Brits, in conformance with their best traditions, have lately discovered great wrongs through journalism and legal process, and seek to put them right. They will not, as the more inflamed tabloids allege, usher in Stalinist darkness. But in an excess of puritanical zeal they are creating a mechanism that will nevertheless proclaim that a country that has done much to give press freedom an underpinning philosophy will now dabble in futile, nanny-ish regulation. Journalism has always hovered between soaring ideals and base sniggering. Freedom demands it should continue to do so.
PHOTO: Copies of the Sun on Sunday are displayed for sale, on the first day of publication, in Wembley, north London February 26, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Winning