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 interesting speech in February, that “to assume that every decision is motivated by naked self-interest, or that every politician only has an eye on the main chance, is not only to belittle democracy, but also to commit what should be the highest sin in journalism: deliberately to mislead.” Mawhinney gave some reasoned arguments for his belief that this happens. John Birt made a similar point in a speech in Dublin last year: yet his tenure at the BBC has not changed that culture.
The piper’s paymaster calls the tune -an old objection taking new forms. The old model was the late Robert Maxwell, who used the Daily Mirror as an extension of his ego: no account I have seen by Mirror journalists has given an exculpation of their collusion in this. Newer forms are less transparent: they adhere to the strategies of multi-media companies, whose various channels or newspapers are expected to boost each other and attack common (commercial or political) enemies.
We know that media corporations are becoming richer and more global: it would be a surprise if their employees-the journalists who benefit from the wealth of their employers through their salaries, cosmopolitan lifestyles and easily falsified expenses-did not become arrogant. But what check for this? Journalists assume a right to investigate based on the defence of public interest: but the public interest argument is then stretched to cover an increasingly cynical, self-promoting journalism, obsessed with sexual exposure. The latter is rationalised by the view that exposure of infidelity defines the “character” of the exposed. Yet, as Adam Gopnik observed in the New Yorker, many of the victims of this approach are “mostly guilty of being human.”
The terrain of freedom is thus doubly threatened. It is encroached upon by those who would constrain for the sake of this or that belief or sensitivity; and it is eroded by a shallow, fragmented journalism which rejects all criticism as motivated by the desire to curb freedom.
Do we need to worry? Is there not sufficient competition between opinions and among media corporations to ensure diversity? In liberal societies, is there not still a stronger current in favour of diversity than against it? Have we not just seen some 300m people in the former eastern bloc liberated from a party tyranny of opinion into an agora of competing views?
Maybe. But when the writer Anthony Smith, in a talk last year in honour of John Stuart Mill, calls for us to “try again from the beginning to rebuild the precondition of toleration,” it is easy to understand what he means.When the use of power on the opinion and information marketplaces becomes intransigent and raucous, we can no longer count on the strength of Mill’s contention that the individual opinion, clashing with others, leads to truth. n