Justin Schlosberg of Birkbeck, University of London draws a thick line between freedom of the press and freedom of media owners, and warns that protecting the latter can have dire consequences for free speech rights in the UK.
The Free Speech Network has emerged as a megaphone in defence of the status quo of media regulation. Its arguments reflect the double-speak and distortion in much of the editorial coverage foregrounding the Leveson Inquiry. This article attempts to untangle the myths and omissions which characterise the ‘hands off our press’ mantra.
The Free Speech Network has adopted a widely-used Churchillian quote on their homepage:
A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny… where free institutions are indigenous to the soil and men have the habit of liberty, the press will continue to be the Fourth Estate, the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.
What they neglect to mention is that Churchill displayed little but contempt for media independence in practice. As Chancellor of the Exchequer during the General Strike of 1926, he tried to persuade the government to annex the BBC and he founded and ran a state propaganda sheet – the British Gazette – to slander and discredit the Unions. So convinced of the paper’s propaganda power, he later offered an unguarded warning to the unions:
Make your minds perfectly clear that if ever you let loose upon us again a general strike, we will loose upon you another British Gazette!
It is the gap between rhetoric and reality which continues to distort the debate over press freedom. Perhaps inevitably, it is a debate that has been largely framed by the press themselves and in deference to their agenda-setting role, broadcasters have followed suit. Listening back to Radio 4’s weekly Media Show since the Leveson Hearings drew to a close, only one of five guests discussing the impending recommendations expressed support for any kind of statutory regulation. Yet this imbalance is hugely out of step with both public polls and the balance of testimony submitted to the Leveson hearings. When it comes to the issue of maintaining press standards, it seems as if the BBC is all too willing to deviate from its own.
But it is not just the one-sided nature of the debate that has proved problematic. The unchallenged arguments expressed in op eds across the broadsheet/tabloid spectrum have promulgated various myths about the nature and implications of press regulatory reform. Together, these myths ultimately promote a single, over-simplified conclusion: any alternative to self-regulation of the press is a threat to free speech. In particular, such a conclusion rests on three fallacies.
First, it implies that the press is not presently subject to statutory regulation. In fact, the UK has relatively stringent libel laws – particularly compared with the US — and British courts are notorious for delivering verdicts in favour of complainants and against news organisations. It is for this reason that the UK has become known as a hotbed for libel tourism, where complainants who would not have much opportunity for gagging the press in their own countries can try their hand through the British legal system. This is a major threat to press freedom in the real, democratic sense of the phrase (as opposed to just the freedom of media moguls to run their empires as they wish). There have been a growing number of investigative journalism exposes in recent years that have been constrained by injunctions, or even just the threat of injunction. The capacity for powerful lawyers to call up judges in the middle of the night and get them to sign injunction orders in their pyjamas is an all too unsettling reality. And the internet and social media have not solved the problem: stories or rumours may surface in spite of injunctions, but they do not tend to reach a critical mass audience (unless they involve the misdemeanours of famous footballers). What’s more, injunctions increase the risk and reduce the incentive for professional news organisations to put money into investigative journalism – a sector already on its last legs following structural and economic upheaval across the news industries.
The second myth implicit in the above stated argument is that all alternatives to self-regulation will necessarily impede the ability of journalists to hold the powerful – and the government in particular – to account. Whilst this is potentially the case in respect of stringent libel laws – which we already have – it is patently not the case with the kind of regulation advocated by groups like Media Reform. Imposing public interest obligations on dominant press groups, for instance, can enhance the independence of journalists from meddling proprietors or editors doing their bidding. This is the awkward reality for media bosses in light of the phone hacking scandal and the Leveson hearings which exposed the often obscenely cosy relationships between media and political elites. The fact that the former are now protesting at the barricades to preserve their independence from the state is a vivid example of double-speak.
The third myth is that the problem with British journalism can be reduced to the tabloid press, or even one element of the tabloid press, or even just News International. But attempts by the wider press to isolate the phone hacking debacle are precisely what enabled the cover-up to succeed for so long. First we were told it was one or two private detectives; then we were told it was one or two journalists; then we were told it was several journalists at the News of the World. Eventually we found out it was a top-down policy and culture that is pervasive across the tabloid – and even some elements of the broadsheet — press.
Above all, Leveson needs to recognise that what is at stake is not a choice between statutory or self-regulation of the press; that what is too often summarily described as the need to protect press freedom, is really about protecting press power. For too long, our media policies have prioritised the autonomy and free speech rights of media owners at the expense of journalists. If our concern is about more than just the freedom of proprietors to run their empires as they see fit, then coverage of this debate has, ironically, been exemplary of the lack of media freedom in Britain.