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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Bashing Leveson: How Not to Defend Press Freedom

Some members of the British media and political establishment are appalled by the recommendations of the Lord Leveson inquiry into journalism ethics. How dare anyone consider public regulation or review of the free press?

Once again, the old slogans of a “free marketplace of ideas” and “self-regulation” are defended in absolutist tones. Any suggestion of press regulation or a press council with real powers is shouted down as heretical, as antithetical to democracy – an unstoppable slippery slope to a muzzled press. Everything is black or white: it is either press freedom or press control.

These emotional declarations are exaggerations; they are often hypocritical; and they have nothing to say about the undeniable problem that led to the Leveson inquiry in the first place: the abuse of the power of the press not to save democracy and protect citizens.  Just the opposite: the abuse of press freedom to make money through shoddy, sensational methods; to corrupt institutions; and to cause unjustifiable harm to innocent people.

If this is what the doctrine of a free press means, I’ll have none of it.

To make matters worse, free press apologists of this strident variety appear to be tone-deaf to valid public concerns that something must change. You cannot simply say “stay the course” in journalism and offer no credible, thoughtful remedies to the ethical and social problems. Circling the media wagons to oppose, in the strongest of terms, any nuanced discussion of journalism ethics and the limits of a press in a democracy is exactly the wrong strategy. The public will not buy it. This is a case study in how not to defend press freedom.

Let me count the ways in which we shouldn’t defend press freedom.

 All you need is a free press: This is simplistic and trite. A sufficiently free press is a necessary condition for a robust democracy but it isn’t “all you need”. A free press can be unethical, inaccurate, undemocratic (e.g. supporting laws that deny minority rights), and a promoter of biased, ideologically extreme debate.

Mistakes and bad journalism must be accepted to allow for press freedom: This may be true overall but I cavil at the word “accepted.”  We should “accept” no such thing. It may be a fact that we cannot eliminate bad journalism but that doesn’t justify a laissez-faire attitude that nothing can be done about it. To the reverse, if bad journalism can’t be eliminated, then we have reason to consider mechanisms for critiquing and challenging news media.

A free press can only exist in a society where there are no press laws.  First of all, there is no modern society where there are no press laws. Laws extend from the laws of libel to the licensing laws that govern broadcasters. There are dozens of countries, such as India and Germany, where statutory press councils exist but the press is not, thereby, a muzzled press.  Moreover, countries like Canada, Denmark and Britain have hate speech laws that can potentially restrict some speech, including some stories in the press. But where is the argument that the press in these countries are shackled and unfree? If the reply is that the argument is for a minimum of press laws, I would agree. But that begs the question: what constitutes a happy ‘minimum’ and why conclude that this minimum rules out a regulatory press body or other accountability mechanisms?

To be sure, there are free press issues, and we should defend press freedom. But how? First, by stressing the need for a free and responsible press. We need to see press freedom as one essential component of our press philosophy, not the sole and absolute value. We need to defend obstacles to the free press performing its watchdog role on government and essential issues. But we should not use this reasoning to defend all and any forms of press conduct, such as reckless intrusion into private lives or paying police for information.  We need to secure a proper balance between freedom and responsibility. For this to happen, we need open discussion, not theatrics.

But someone may ask: Why make ethics so important for journalism? It is really quite simple. With freedom comes responsibilities — in life in general, in social institutions at large and, yes, in newsrooms. We require all institutions to use their power responsibly. Journalists are the first to investigate unethical conduct in public institutions. So how can they say that news media should get a ‘free ride’ when it comes to ethics? Given the great harms that bad journalism can do, what possible reason is there for saying that the public cannot demand mechanisms to question the powerful institution of news media? In addition to the rights of journalists to publish in freedom there is the right of citizens to be free from the callous and harmful conduct of unethical news outlets. Just as there is always a danger that press laws can go too far, there is always the opposite danger that a free press will be harmful, undemocratic and unaccountable.

The way to defend press freedom is not to turn a blind eye to the abuses of media power but to defend that freedom within a larger commitment to a responsible and truly democratic press. This means (at the very least) being open to possible mechanisms for review of media conduct. It means taking journalism ethics seriously, improving the ethics training of journalism and so on.

The idea that the British news media can effectively self-regulate themselves simply is unbelievable, given the facts of the phone-hacking scandal in Britain. If media owners and editors say to the public, “just trust us, we can take care of ourselves, ethically speaking,” this statement will be met with a well-justified cry of public derision and disbelief.

So we come to this point: Absolute defences of press freedom are suspect; pleading for a “hands off” idea of press self-regulation lacks credibility. Yet we also don’t want excessive press laws. What to do?  The answer is to discuss, debate, and consider what mechanisms of media accountability can restore public confidence in the news media.

That is what Leveson’s report is all about: it is one, well-informed, view about how the balance of press freedom and responsibility can be met in Britain today. We don’t have to agree with any or all of his recommendations.  But we do have to be open to discussing how to support ethical journalism — not reject all such discussions as dangerous.

One final point: For years, I have warned journalists who scoffed at “journalism ethics,” calling it an oxymoron, that this narrow attitude could have long-term unfortunate consequences. The Leveson inquiry provides support for my view. Bad journalism does not just embarrass news owners; it undermines public support for a free press. Bad journalism lends support to demagogues who will use public disaffection with journalism to propose draconian press restrictions. It is in the journalists’self-interest to promote ethical journalism.

When I reported from London, England, some years ago, I witnessed this skepticism about journalism ethics permeate the media culture. Well, several chickens have come home to roost.

The unethical and illegal behavior of many British journalists – getting a scoop at any cost – has undermined the public’s belief in self-regulation.

These journalists have brought this calamity upon themselves.


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