Saturday, December 1, 2012

Press Freedom and all that

The press like to think they are special, that they safeguard democracy, that they have specific rights and freedoms that set them apart from ‘ordinary people.’ The government is looking for ways to control the press, and ‘abuse’ is a good excuse to do it. They could just the laws they’ve already made, but apparently that isn’t enough.

That they are so looking is clear, I think. The Internet frightens them because it gives enormous power to people who are not themselves.

The freedom of the press is the freedom of all of us. Not because they use it well, in the interests of public freedom. They do nothing of the kind. Newspapers and broadcasters are large, often international corporations who want to make money, like anyone else. Journalists have a living to earn and frequently an ego to stoke. The way to make money from journalism is, as with any other business, to find a market and give it what it wants. This may mean sex and celebrities, turgid book reviews, fluffy tales of the columnists daily life pretending to be news, ill-informed ranting disguised as background or comment, support for one or other powerful interest, pictures of the footy, or even intelligent, well-researched stuff about things that actually matter. The point is that the customer does not demand truth, and so the seller has no interest in providing it.

There is a myth that the practice of journalism in the US is protected by the First Amendment. This is a myth that Hollywood is quite happy to perpetuate. (In Hollywood land journalists are always good and brave, while pharmaceutical companies are always evil. I wonder why this might be.) At the time that Amendment was passed the press as we know it did not exist. The text was intended to specifically extend the protection of speech to the printed word. It does not make journalists special.

It’s important to the rest of us that journalists, the press in general, have no more nor  less freedom than the rest of us, because they are the rest of us. We are all free to write about the world and the people around us, or anything else we choose. In Britain and other civilized countries we still are free to do it. A journalist is surely nothing more than someone who thinks of himself as one. There are plenty of people who call themselves journalists but only ever give their own opinions, or restrict their output to material that is not, by any definition, news. Likewise, many people who provide genuine, researched news stories, many bloggers, for example, do not think of themselves as journalists, and are not recognised as such by others.

A journalist, I suspect, is someone who is paid by a (large) media company to produce content for it. This has nothing to do with the public interest, freedom or anything else. The fact that the government would rather like to control them (and Cameron’s spokesmen are denying it, which tells you all you need to know), combined with the fact that they themselves would like to control those who are not them, suggests that this is just more power games, politicians and big business arm wrestling over who gets what part of our money.

The danger is not from a mild regulation of the press, but from the inevitable trade-off, the distinction between what ‘licensed’ journalists are allowed to do, and what the plebs are permitted.* The freedom of the press is our freedom, not because they defend us, but because it allows us to defend ourselves.

*There seems to be some semi-legal protection for ‘official’ journalists who refuse to disclose the sources of their information. The rest of us do not have that privilege. We don’t want the gulf to widen.

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