IT IS axiomatic that freedom of expression and an independent press that is free of state interference are essential elements of democracy. The media plays a crucial role in ensuring the flow of information and ideas in order to enable the public to contribute to decision-making by governments and to seek to exercise control of them when they overstep their powers.
Thomas Jefferson recognised that in a democracy the government derives its powers from the consent of the people who thus constitute the source of its authority. But those people need information to enable them to participate in good governance by making decisions about who to elect as their representatives and in relation to the policies they should pursue. So a genuinely free and independent press is vital in protecting the public’s right and capacity to carry out this function, and a democratic society cannot exist without it. This basic requirement is recognised all too well by despots and dictators whose first step in seizing political power is to take control of the media or shut it down.
The other side of press freedom is the need for those concerned to be able to write and convey information without interference by the state or the fear of persecution, victimisation or any other form of punishment, since the role of the fourth estate is also to hold others to account, not least politicians, and to curb their excesses. This means questioning government policy, challenging officials and exposing corruption, scandals and official and personal misconduct. Such action is necessary to protect the interests and liberties of the public, but the process has to be exercised responsibly and in accordance with libel and defamation laws.
In pursuing this, we at The Tribune seek to emulate the outstanding work, as editor, of Sir Etienne Dupuch who set high standards of integrity and journalistic professionalism while unerringly standing by this newspaper’s pledge of ‘Being Bound to Swear to The Dogmas of No Master’.
It is against this background that we have been interested and surprised to learn that, amidst much controversy, press freedom now appears to be under threat in Britain – one of the oldest democracies with its historic Westminster system of government in the “Mother of Parliaments”.
After 300 years of a free and crusading press, often exposing the worst injustices in society, there is reportedly a danger that the nation’s press freedom can no longer be taken for granted. While the British press has a reputation for high journalistic standards, its tabloid newspapers can be excessively intrusive and it is this which has sparked the current controversy. There has been growing public dismay about an irresponsible press – in particular, the News of the World (subsequently closed down) which was involved in widespread phone-hacking in the case of the murder of a schoolgirl in 2011. There has also been an increase in irreverent and scurrilous attacks by the tabloids on the rich and famous and on so-called establishment figures. This precipitated an official Inquiry by a senior judge which resulted in the government setting up in 2013 a new state-backed press regulator to replace the ineffective Press Complaints Commission and the industry’s own system of self-regulation.
Most UK newspapers have resisted attempts to force them to sign up to this new body – designed purportedly to safeguard press freedom but also to secure redress, where justified, for victims of press abuse – arguing that it represents government interference in a free press. But more recently they also face the threat of heavy financial penalties arising from legislation under which, if they lost a case for libel or defamation in the civil courts, they could be forced to pay not only exemplary damages but also the costs of the other side. That is a step too far for the UK press which is fiercely resisting it.
According to reports, a public consultation about this whole issue is in progress and it now appears that wiser heads will prevail to the extent that the government may back down and modify or withdraw its proposals. But, as Britain’s mature democracy grapples with this problem, it must surely be the case that memories of the “spin” practised by the Blair government and its obsession with the media are still fresh. So the UK press is unlikely to weaken its opposition to instances of what George Orwell described in his famous work “Nineteen Eighty-Four” as manipulation of the truth by a “deliberate reversal of the facts”.
Likewise, we in this country need to continue to expose wrongdoing and the abuse of power. In a small society like ours with its close family and other personal connections (within a history of greed and corruption), favouritism, prejudice and cronyism abound. This makes the press’s role all the more important.
While remaining vigilant, this newspaper will, as always, establish the facts and then, after careful consideration, strive to reach judgments in a rational and objective manner. For, above all, we are wedded to responsible and fair journalism as we follow in the footsteps of our distinguished forebear.