Archive for the ‘Press freedom’ Category

How the British press distorted reporting of… the British press

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This post was first published on FreeSpeechDebate.com on November 3rd, 2014.

Academics like the term ‘normative’. Not just because it sounds smarter than ‘normal’ but because it helps to describe how things ought to be. It links empirical evidence to broader questions of how politics and society should function. The press, more than many other aspects of society, likes to emphasise its normative functions. Less often does it assess whether it has achieved them.

The ‘normative’ view that British newspapers have of their own role is fairly straightforward: they represent the views of the public; they offer a diversity of views – both within their own pages and across competing titles; they report in a fair, accurate and – relatively balanced – way; they hold power to account; and they support their conclusions with evidence.

A comprehensive study of all articles published on press regulation in the UK national press in the year following the Leveson Inquiry has found that, when it came to the issue of press regulation, few national newspapers fulfilled their normative functions. The study, written by Dr Gordon Ramsay for the Media Standards Trust, examined all 2,047 articles published on the topic in the daily and Sunday press from 29 November 2012 until 29 November 2013, combined with a meta-analysis of every public opinion poll on the issue from 2012 to 2014.

Did the press represent the views of the public?

The views of the public can be found in 24 opinion polls commissioned between May 2012 and June 2014 on various aspects of press regulation. These polls were commissioned by newspapers themselves, by broadcasters, think-tanks, pollsters and campaigners.

These polls showed that the public were generally supportive of the Leveson Inquiry and its conclusions. They showed that most of the public did not have a problem with legal support for press regulation, and do not see the use of the law – per se – as a threat to press freedom. Moreover, the data showed – time and again – that the public were highly sceptical of the newspaper industry’s alternative proposals to Leveson.

You would not have known these views if you relied on the newspapers. The press were overwhelmingly negative about the Leveson Report and its implementation. The use of the law to support regulation was portrayed as equivalent to state control of the press. Indeed, the alternatives to the newspaper industry’s own (unpopular) proposals were painted as state control. By contrast, in many newspapers, coverage of the industry’s proposals was wholly positive.

Despite repeated emphasis on the importance of the press being able in the name of the public, public polling data was curiously absent from coverage. Less than 2% of articles on press regulation contained any reference to any polling data from the two dozen surveys. Even those newspapers that commissioned polls, notably The Sunday Times and The Sun, tended not to publish the unfavourable responses.

Did the public receive a diversity of views?

Providing a diversity of viewpoints is a pretty uncontested positive function that news media are expected to play in public life. Yet there was little diversity of views about the Leveson Report within or between papers. For nine out of ten newspaper readers, over 70% of the articles they read about this issue were entirely negative (in other words contained only criticism of Leveson or the Royal Charter, with not a single positive viewpoint). In one newspaper, the Daily Mail, the ratio of negative to positive articles was 33:1. In The Sun the ratio was 29:1.

If only leader columns in these papers are measured, the negative-only ration rises to over 90% – 145 out of a total of 159 leaders. For 90% of newspaper readers, every single leader column mentioning the newspaper industry’s alternative proposals (the ‘PressBof Royal Charter’ and IPSO) was positive, while every single leader mentioning the Privy Council’s rejection of the PressBof Charter and the sealing of the Cross-Party Charter was negative.

Did the press hold power to account?

In the period immediately following the publication of the Leveson Report, in January and February 2013, senior news executives met almost daily with the Minister for Government Policy, Oliver Letwin (20 meetings) and with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (17 meetings) to draft a Royal Charter that they found acceptable.

None of these meetings was reported on by the press. We only know about them because, six months later, the government was obliged to publish a record of Ministerial meetings. The freedom to report in the public interest did not, in this instance, include the freedom to report on the newspaper industry’s own power to negotiate with the Government on policy issues.

As the favourable coverage of the newspaper industry’s Royal Charter and IPSO demonstrates, many newspapers were also willing to use their pages to promote their own self-interest, even while being unwilling to scrutinise their own participation in the process.

Was the coverage fair?

We expect our press to express its views, but we also expect news reports – as opposed to editorials – to be relatively fair and balanced. Yet, based on the data, news reports on this issue were not fair or balanced. Two-thirds of all factual news reports (excluding comment and leader articles) contained only negative viewpoints on Leveson or the Royal Charter, either from sources, or within the rest of the article. To the reader, this gave the impression that opinion on the issue was settled, and that there was a consensus against Leveson and the Charter. The opposite was true, as public opinion clearly and consistently demonstrated.

In addition to the unbalanced use of sources, news articles regularly contained evaluative statements about Leveson, presented as fact. A Daily Mirror news article, for example, on 30 November 2012 – the day after the Leveson Report was published – introduced the proposals as “draconian curbs on the press”, and a Sunday Times news article on 9 October 2013 described the Royal Charter as “state regulation of the press”. Statements like these occurred throughout the news coverage, indicating that the opinionated language of leader articles became incorporated into factual reports.

Was the coverage accurate?

Separate to the insertion of opinion within news reports, much of the coverage of Leveson and its implementation was not accurate. Many newspapers claimed, for example, that a Leveson system of self-regulation would lead to censorship. Yet Leveson stated that no self-regulatory system should ‘have the power to prevent publication of any material, by anyone, at any time’ (Recommendation 17). The Leveson recommendations were repeatedly referred to as ‘statutory regulation’, despite Leveson’s assertion that ‘despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press’ (Summary, p17).

Nor was it true that whistleblowers would be arrested if Leveson was put into practice, as The Sun said. Or that off-the-record briefings by police would be banned. Or that politicians would have the final say over the content published in newspapers. Or that civil society groups that supported Leveson were bankrolled by Brussels. Or that the whole Leveson Inquiry was an establishment stitch-up engineered by a left-wing conspiracy. Yet each of these claims and others were made by newspapers.

Were claims backed up by evidence?

The most frequent newspaper criticism of the Leveson Report and the Royal Charter was that it represented a threat to press freedom. 862 articles contained a reference to this supposed threat. Yet of those, less than one-third tried to explain why it was a threat or presented evidence to support the claim. Over two-thirds presented the claim as fact, with no evidence. Only a handful of articles gave space to those who argued the opposite, despite this being the view of all three main parties, civil society groups, academics, and – as opinion surveys showed – much of the public.

Most of the UK national press therefore failed to represent public opinion, failed to offer a diversity of views either within their own pages or across competing title, failed to report in a balanced way, failed to hold power to account, and eschewed accuracy and evidence to promote a broadly uniform editorial line that suited their own policy interests.

With certain honourable exceptions – the Guardian and Observer; the Independent and Independent on Sunday, and the Financial Times – on this issue the UK’s national press failed practically every normative test. Their function, in the area of press regulation, was less a quasi-constitutional role of holding power to account and facilitating a free and open market of ideas, and more a pursuit of their own self-interest, self-censorship of views that were contrary to their own, and preservation of the status quo.

The figures in this piece come from a report published by the Media Standards Trust in September 2014 – ‘How newspapers covered press regulation after Leveson’ by Dr Gordon Neil Ramsay which can be read here. The full dataset is available here.

Written by Martin Moore

November 10th, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Using the rhetoric of press freedom to thwart free speech

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On how the British press has denied the British public a proper debate on press regulation. This post was originally published on Free Speech Debate on December 12th 2013

It rarely takes long, in arguments about free speech, before someone refers to John Milton or John Stuart Mill. Most of us remember one particularly strong defence of free speech made in both Milton’s Areopagatica and Mill’s On Liberty. Any attempt to censor, suppress or constrain free speech, Milton and Mill argue, denies people access to the truth.

Truth and falsehood should do battle, Milton wrote, in a free and open encounter. Only in such circumstances could truth triumph.

Silencing an opinion, Mill wrote, either robs people of the truth, or – if the opinion is wrong – deprives people of “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

In the heated, often fractious, debate about press regulation in Britain, the rhetoric of freedom has been widely deployed. Barely a day went by in October 2013 when a national newspaper did not publish a report, editorial or leader about the importance of our free press. This freedom was, most of those pieces argued, put in jeopardy by the system of regulation set out in the cross-party royal charter and agreed on 30 October 2013.

Yet it would be hard to find a debate in modern times that has been less free than the one about press regulation. Far from being Milton’s “free and open encounter” between different views, the debate in the press has been virtually monopolised by those with one perspective. The public have, to use Mill’s terms, been deprived “the clearer and livelier perception of truth” since they have, with notable exceptions, only been presented with one view.

The public have not been given the facts, the arguments, or the diversity of perspective from which to make up their own minds about press regulation.

On the facts, the public have been deprived of even the basic material from which to make up their own minds. During the Leveson Inquiry, for example, the press simply failed to report on potential alternative systems of press regulation. Though numerous proposals were put forward for new systems, including ‘A Free and Accountable Media’, from the Media Standards Trust. almost none were reported on. This is despite the fact that Leveson based many of his eventual recommendations on these proposals. By contrast, there were 56 articles about the press’ own plan (see our ‘Analysis: Press Coverage of Leveson, Part 1′)

When it came to the report itself, the misreporting of Leveson’s main recommendation was, as the renowned editor Harold Evans said in the Hugh Cudlipp lecture, “staggering.” David Yelland, former editor of The Sun, said in his inaugural Leveson Anniversary Lecture, there was a party line amongst newspapers about what Leveson said which was “not really true.” Leveson wrote: “Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press.” Yet this is exactly how they were characterised.

Leveson’s system would, many newspapers claimed, allow for state censorship. This is despite the fact that Leveson was adamant, throughout this recommendations, that the state should have no role in the system beyond its establishment, and that no regulator should have the power to stop anyone publishing anything.

Leveson’s recommendations would enable government interference, other papers claimed. Yet Leveson recommended the opposite, going so far as to say that the UK needed a law to prevent government interference. This recommendation was not even referred to in the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, The Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times or in the Daily Express. It was referred to only once in most other papers when the report was published.

Then there was the coverage of, or failure to cover, the process that followed the publication of the report. In January and February 2013  the Prime Minister David Cameron and two other key ministers, Oliver Letwin and Maria Miller, together had more than 30 meetings with senior executives and editors from the press. You would not know this because not a single one of those meetings was reported. In February, we – the Media Standards Trust – wrote to Lord (Guy) Black, one of the key figures drawing up the industry’s response to Leveson who attended at least eleven of these, requesting that they be made public. He refused. We only now know of them because of the official lists of Ministers’ meetings published in the autumn (Oliver Letwin meetings, January-March 2013; Maria Miller meetings, January-March 2013; David Cameron meetings January-March 2013). Yet they remain unreported in the press.

Instead, newspapers chose to fixate on a single meeting that was held on the evening of Sunday 17 March, at which representatives of the victims’ campaign group – and the author of this piece – were invited to view the agreed cross-party charter before it went before parliament on 18 March. At this meeting, newspapers claim, a royal charter was cobbled together over pizza. Except it wasn’t. What happened at this meeting, and context for it, has been described in detail by Oliver Letwin to a parliamentary select committee (Oral Evidence, 16th April 2013). Yet Letwin’s account has been ignored because it contradicts the press’ narrative.

Therefore by the time a cross-party royal charter was agreed on 18 March, a member of the public would probably have thought – based on what they had read in most papers – that Leveson concocted a new system from his head, that this new system allowed for state censorship and government interference, and that the agreed royal charter to implement the system was improvised by campaigners for the victims in the middle of the night in Ed Miliband’s office. None of this is true.

Members of the public have been similarly ill-served by much of their press when it comes to argument and diversity of opinion. There has not been “the collision of adverse opinions” as Mill argued there needs to be. In the lead up to the publication of Leveson’s report there were 28 leader columns about press regulation in national newspapers. 23 were wholly negative. Three had negative and positive comments. Two were neutral. Not one was wholly positive. Since publication of the report, editorials and opinion pieces have been just as consistently negative.

What is remarkable is that throughout this period, despite the consistently negative press coverage, public opinion has remained stubbornly steady. The public want tougher regulation of the press. They are in favour of a system similar to the one proposed by Leveson. They are comfortable with a system of regulation underpinned by law. In other words, the majority of the public disagree with the press (see this list of polls since May 2012). Yet their views are not represented in the papers.

Instead of representing the views of their public, much of the press have chosen to deploy the rhetoric of press freedom to stamp on dissenting voices. Ironically, Leveson predicted the press’ response to his own report. Buried in Volume Three, amongst a detailed examination of the Data Protection Act, Leveson lays out the modus operandi of certain newspapers when put under pressure to reform. First, there is “resistance to independent regulation of both law and standards.” Next, the press present “a confrontational, aggressive and personal approach to its critics.” It then engages in “powerful behind the scenes political lobbying in its own interests.” Finally, it uses “the deployment, through a very loud megaphone, of the rhetoric of the freedom of the press to stifle rational criticism and debate about where the public interest lies”(Volume 3, p.1,107).

The rhetoric of press freedom has been, and continues to be, used by parts of the press as a way of preventing a “free and open encounter” between truth and falsehood in the debate over press regulation. The British public, sadly, have been the losers.

Written by Martin Moore

May 27th, 2014 at 3:20 pm

The topsy–turvy world of newspaper regulation and government spies

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Press Freedom, Leveson, GCHQ and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

This piece was originally published at the New Statesman on 25 November 2013

At the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice and Wonderland the March Hare upbraids Alice for claiming she can solve a riddle:

“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare. “Exactly so,”  said Alice.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!”

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!”

In Britain today, you might just as well say ‘The press is free’ as ‘Free the press’, or ‘the end of press freedom’ as ‘freedom to end the press’ or ‘state controlled press’ as ‘press controlled state’. So back-to-front, upside down, and misshapen has the debate about press freedom become.

On the one hand we have had a chorus of newspapers thundering about how the press Royal Charter on self-regulation of the press agreed on 30th October represents the end of 300 years of press freedom, and would allow politicians control of the British press.

On the other hand we have had many of the same newspapers accusing one of their own — the Guardian — of ‘treason’ and helping terrorists, for revealing the extent of secret surveillance by the British and US governments.

Both in principle and practice these newspapers have got the debate the wrong way round. They claim the Royal Charter represents an end to press freedom without providing evidence to support such a claim. At the same time they fail to see any danger to press freedom from the types of threats made by the government against the Guardian. Continue to mix the debate up and we will end up with a press cowed and politically compromised. But see the Royal Charter and Snowden affair for what they are and Britain could become a freer and fairer country.

The press Royal Charter has earned hundreds of column inches in the UK press in the past month. Countless leaders and news reports have intoned about the dangers for press freedom from political interference. ‘A press free from political ­interference is a precious inheritance’, The Times’ leader of 31st October read. The Royal Charter ‘grants politicians the right to meddle in press regulation for the first time since the licensing of newspapers was abolished in 1695’, claimed the Daily Mail. Whilst The Telegraph said that ‘The question of how our press is regulated is a question of how best to defend free speech. It is about ensuring that responsible newspapers have the freedom to publish what they wish and that the public have the freedom to read what we publish. That is why we cannot accept the current proposals for regulation by statute’.

We should take these claims seriously because, if true, they would justify the boycott of the system by many news groups, and undermine separate claims – made by Leveson, politicians, the group representing victims of press abuse, and others — that the Charter will protect press freedom and even enhance it.

So, does the Charter grant ‘politicians the right to meddle in Press regulation’, and does it in any way threaten newspapers freedom to publish what they wish, or the public’s freedom to read what they publish?

The first thing to make clear is that the Charter does not establish a regulator. It establishes a body whose sole task will be to check the independence and effectiveness of regulators set up by news organisations themselves, administering their own code of conduct. The body will base its assessment on a series of basic standards, written by Lord Justice Leveson, and copied into a schedule in the Charter. Those newspapers who have claimed the criteria were drawn up by politicians should compare Leveson’s wording with the wording of the Royal Charter. It is hard to fit a cigarette paper between them.

Politicians are explicitly excluded from the body established by Royal Charter. Further, they are excluded from the staff of that body, and from the Appointments Panel that appoints that body. Any regulator that wants to be recognised by this body is also explicitly banned from having any politicians on its Board. It is hard, therefore, to see how this corresponds to the Daily Mail’s claim that the Charter ‘grants politicians the right to meddle in press regulation’.

Royal Charters are, however, instruments of royal prerogative. As such, with most Royal Charters it is possible for privy councillors (of whom there are hundreds, including serving government ministers) to meddle. It was for this reason that an amendment was passed in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act (2013) that prevents — by law — any interference in this Royal Charter by privy councillors. Again, it is hard to see how this corresponds to the Daily Mail’s claim.

What about The Telegraph’s view that the Charter jeopardises newspapers freedom to publish what they wish? No evidence is given to support this assertion, and it is hard to see what it could be based on. The Charter states that no regulator should ‘have the power to prevent publication of any material, by anyone, at any time’. Any regulator established should only have the power to offer redress to members of the public after publication. This contradicts The Telegraph’s assertion.

But what about future amendment of the Charter? This argument, which is perhaps the one made most frequently, is that the Charter provides a device that future politicians can change such that they can exert control over the press. The argument has been made more broadly than just by The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph.

According to these articles, this is how it might work. A future parliament, angry at the press for revealing something like MPs’ expenses, changes the Royal Charter in a way that constrains press freedom to do something similar in the future. For example, a future parliament alters the so-called ‘recognition criteria’ in the Royal Charter to include a clause preventing examination of MPs’ financial affairs.

This scenario might sound reasonable and credible. As such, it will cause sensible people who care about press freedom to worry. Except that, when examined, it becomes clear that it is neither reasonable nor credible.

This is how such a scenario would actually play out under the Charter system. If MPs were angry at the press they would first have to agree on what to do about it. Having agreed that a change in the Royal Charter was the best approach (highly unlikely, as you will see later) they would then need to convince two thirds of their number. Having convinced two thirds of their number, they would then have to convince two thirds of the House of Lords. They would then have to gain the unanimous agreement of the independent Board of the Recognition body (none of whom can be politicians). They would have to do this against a backdrop of public debate about the changes and, no doubt, many concerned voices published in the pages of national papers and elsewhere.

But let us, for the sake of argument, accept that the proposed change to the Charter passes these hurdles and the Charter is changed. What does this then mean? It means that, at the next three-year cyclical review (or at an emergency review – if the independent recognition body can make the case that one is necessary), a regulator or regulators – taking into account the change to the Charter – will have to decide whether to put themselves forward for recognition under the amended Charter criteria.

Given that the board of any regulator will include those working in the press, those with experience of the press, and independent members, it is unthinkable that they would put themselves forward if they thought the changes represented a serious infringement of their freedom to publish in the public interest. Why would they?

Assuming, therefore, that the regulator — or regulators — did not apply for recognition, then there would be no recognised regulator. The court costs incentives for participation, and penalties for non-participation, in a regulatory system would therefore disappear (since these only apply when there is a recognised regulator).

This is the failsafe that has been ignored by those in the press that rail against the Charter. It is not simply for the publishers to choose whether they join, or do not join, a regulator. It is also for the regulator to decide whether to put itself forward for recognition (as the industry’s Independent Press Standards Organisation has said it will not do). If they believe the Charter has been made too restrictive, then they can choose not to participate.

The regulator, or regulators, could then continue to do its job, without the court cost penalties or incentives of the Leveson system (in other words, essentially what we have right now). The change to the Charter, which would have needed to pass numerous democratic hurdles, and would have been years in the making, would turn out to be counter-productive, and would have no impact on the press’ ability to publish anything, at any time, to anyone. There would be no end to press freedom, no government control, no political interference.

Contrast this with an alternative scenario. Imagine that MPs are angry at the press for revealing MPs expenses and are determined to prevent it happening in the future. By a simple majority they introduce a change to the Freedom of Information Act to exclude the personal financial affairs of MPs. Or they could amend the Data Protection Act to protect the privacy of MPs’ spending. Each change only requires a majority vote in the House of Commons. The change comes into force within months and suddenly MPs can rest easy that their future purchases of bath plugs and film channel subscriptions will remain hidden from public view.

This is a real threat. This is something that could happen now. MPs can, and do, use and amend existing legislation in a way that genuinely threatens press freedom. Equally, they can turn to their existing powers and legislation already available — though not meant for journalism — to constrain and attack journalism.

In July, a senior editor and a computer expert at the Guardian destroyed a number of computers with angle grinders. The computers contained files leaked by Edward Snowden on the activities of GCHQ and the NSA. The destruction was directed by the UK intelligence service and was overseen by technicians from GCHQ.

In August, David Miranda was stopped while in transit through Heathrow airport. He was held under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act (2000). He was interrogated for nine hours and various personal items taken from him and not returned. Subsequently the authorities said he had been stopped based on the belief that he was engaged in espionage and was promoting a “political or ideological cause”. Miranda was promoting no such cause, unless the authorities define ‘journalism’ as a cause.

In October, the Prime Minister David Cameron stood up in the House of Commons and said that the Snowden files were ‘dangerous’ for Britain: “The plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security”. He encouraged parliamentary committees to investigate the Guardian’s actions. In a subsequent debate he went further and threatened the Guardian with pre-publication censorship:

“I don’t want to have to use injunctions or D notices or the other tougher measures. I think it’s much better to appeal to newspapers’ sense of social responsibility. But if they don’t demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act”.

Some MPs went further still. Julian Smith MP wrote to the head of the Metropolitan Police asking him to investigate the Guardian and calling on the police to compel the Guardian to cooperate.

This is what it looks like when a government attacks press freedom. Smashing computers in news organisations. Using existing terrorist laws not meant for journalism. Threatening pre-publication censorship and prosecution.

In the US The Washington Post also has access to some of Snowden’s documents. It has published a series of stories based on those documents. It has written opinion pieces about the NSA and Snowden, including one calling Snowden a patriot. Has the US government attacked The Washington Post? No it has not. Has it sent intelligence officials to destroy its hardware? It has not. Obama has even acknowledged the benefits of the debate triggered by Snowden’s leaks. ‘There’s no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response than would have been the case if I had simply appointed this review board’ Obama said. Though this does not mean the US government applauds Snowden, far from it.

It is not surprising that the UK government should be angry about the Snowden leaks. Nor is it surprising, though it is depressing, that the government should threaten a newspaper that is publishing stories based on the leaks. Governments do not like their secrets exposed, and it would be strange if they did not react strongly to the possession of 58,000 intelligence documents (the number — we are told — that were leaked to the Guardian).

Much more surprising – and more depressing – has been the reaction of much of the British press. The Sun accused The Guardian of ‘treason’. The Daily Mail called it ‘The paper that helps Britain’s enemies’. The Telegraph has uncritically reported claims by the government and intelligence agencies that it has helped terrorists around the world (‘Terrorists are ‘rubbing their hands with glee’ after Snowden leaks’).

The press attacks on the Guardian are framed as patriotic attempts to promote security. Yet the arguments made and language used do not balance security with freedom to publish. Indeed, these papers urge the government to constrain the Guardian’s freedom, and egg on the most vociferous MPs. The MP Julian Smith even referenced The Sun’s coverage to ask if it was not ‘time for any newspaper that may have crossed the line on national security to come forward and voluntarily work with the Government to mitigate further risks to our citizens?’ (HC Deb, 28 October 2013, c666).

To what end are these newspapers doing this? If the government does investigate and prosecute, or institute new laws to better secure ‘national security’ then we will live in a more secretive country, one in which news organisations have to be careful not to publish material that may, in the Government’s view, damage our safety and security.

If that sounds familiar it is because most non-democratic states in the world have laws that prevent media organisations from publishing information that may threaten the security of the state. In Russia, for example, the law on Combating Extremist Activity (2002) can be used against media organisations whose behaviour is considered dangerous to the State. In Syria for decades the government was able to exert control over the media through the state of emergency law. In Belarus you can serve up to five years in prison for insulting the president.

Laws such as these give broad powers to the state to prevent publication of material they do not like, or that they believe may damage their reputation internationally. Stories, for example, like MPs’ expenses.

We live in a world of leaks. Storing vast quantities of information, removing it from government or corporations, distributing it, and publishing it, has become straightforward. Leaking, to a general or a restricted public, will become more, not less, prevalent. Manning and Snowden are not anomalies, they are forerunners.

When such leaks happen, what would the government and security services prefer? Would they prefer that future Snowdens simply dumped their documents on the web? Or would they prefer that future leakers approached responsible news organisations?

No doubt the intelligence agencies would most like leakers to come to them. Yet technological, political and societal developments are such that it would be foolish to imagine information available to more than a hundred thousand people will remain secret indefinitely. The information Snowden had access to was reportedly available to 850,000 people.

We need models of how to use these leaks responsibly. We need media institutions that have the capabilities, the expertise, and the journalistic ethics, to properly assess and manage these leaks. Attack these institutions and we encourage data dumping. What whistleblower will now choose to go to The TelegraphThe Times, The Daily Mail or The Sun?

The actions of certain UK newspapers will discourage responsible whistleblowing and cow brave journalism that is in the public interest. Worse, it could encourage the government to behave in a way that discourages other news organisations from accepting data in the future. Fearing, for example, that the government will enter their offices and smash their computers.

We cannot rely on the UK government to restrain itself. Nor can we rely on our media to defend media institutions from government interference. This is why Britain needs to have an equivalent of the United States’ First Amendment. Something that Leveson recommended in his report but which, bizarrely, was ignored by most newspapers:

‘In passing legislation to identify the legitimate requirements to be met by an independent regulator organised by the press, and to provide for a process of recognition and review of whether those requirements are and continue to be met, the law should also place an explicit duty on the Government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press’ (Leveson Report, Summary of Recommendations, #33).

Sadly, no newspapers have taken up Leveson’s call for a press freedom law. Instead, quixotically, many have tilted at imaginary windmills of their own making. They have chosen to rail against a voluntary system of independent self-regulation that will not constrain their freedom, rather than defend a newspaper that is being subjected to state interference under existing laws.

The rhetoric of press freedom seems to have disappeared into Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, where up means down, left means right, and almost everyone has forgotten what freedom really means.

Written by Martin Moore

December 11th, 2013 at 3:46 pm