The arguments against freedom of the press are becoming more popular and persuasiveby John Lloyd / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
A growing circle of the articulate and powerful no longer think that freedom of the press is worth supporting unequivocally. Those who do unequivocally support it are often professional journalists; they are seen -above all by themselves-as cynical and irresponsible. Here are the main arguments now being deployed for why the media should not be, or is not, free.
The media trample on others’ sensibilities. This is the largest objection. It comes in a myriad of forms from every political direction-and none. It encompasses pornography on the internet, blasphemy, and incitement to racial hatred. Unlike other arguments, it has a simple remedy: the banning or filtering of offending material. Those who argue its case have won victories: the move of pornography to top shelves; the obligation on set manufacturers in the US to provide a chip which allows parents to block certain channels.
Free speech can never be free. Debate is never conducted on a level field: the practice of the media can thus be oppressive, not liberating. This is based on the familiar inequality instanced in the power of the cabinet minister against the isolated objector: no matter how civil the society, the former will always mobilise more force-which has less to do with the rationality of his argument than the superiority of his resources. But as minority group sophistication reduces that gap, a new imbalance appears within the media itself. The main newspapers and networks themselves determine outcomes by constructing the rules of debate.
The media does not provide reasoned discussion. The pressures of space, time and expense mean that gobbets of information are projected into the ether with neither context nor explanation. “Soundbite culture” is the tyranny of the dramatic image over the analysis at necessary length, which leaves the consumer at the mercy of a flood of emotive, unstructured impressions. This is held to be getting worse. A recent book by the US essayist James Fallows, Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, claims that the top journalists have acquired wealth and fame at the price of the time-consuming work of compiling and presenting evidence: “The best-known set an example that erodes the quality of the news and threatens journalism’s claim on public respect.”
Journalists destroy indiscriminately. This view holds that journalistic culture has come to favour the abrasive and the confrontational. Brian Mawhinney, the chairman of the Conservative party, said in an…