Opinion: What free press?

Stand strong, Nick. Do not cave to Cameron over Leveson because if you do so, you go against your party’s wishes and, according to the polls, those of 86% of Daily Mail readers!

As a journalist, I have long defended the principle of a free press as a vital plank of democracy. The protests of journalists that we are facing the abyss are not unfounded. Yet there is a myth about the British press that is more fantastic than many of the stories it publishes; the myth that we have a “free” press, at all. The sheer quantity of coverage across the newsprint pages this week shows who is really in control of the press… and it isn’t journalists or even in the interests of journalism.

It is simply not possible to have a free press if the presses are owned by five or six people of enormous power and wealth… and in some cases, little connection with Britain.  The bastion of British journalism was long-since breached by far more mendacious enemies of democracy than Leveson. One of them even spawned the entire Leveson episode. Rupert Murdoch’s transformation of The Sun in the 1960s saved the newspaper business from the threat of television but it also sacrificed responsible news reporting to profit. Far from being a respectable facet of a free state, the tabloid press has become a tawdry part of the entertainment industry, pandering to the predilections of net curtain twitchers across the nation.

For decades, the lip service paid by editors to true investigative journalism has been largely sham outrage against the excesses of celebrities published a few thin sheets away from the papers’ own shabby titivation. What little challenge has been put up to our nations’ leaders has been manipulated and warped to suit the agenda of the rich men who pull the strings. It’s become a game but it’s our lives they are playing with.  It’s proved both fun and profitable for them.

Sadly, the success of this model has infected the entire media. The “owned” broadsheets have oft been abused as shrill mouthpieces of their millionaire masters – witness the rabid coverage over Leveson’s as yet unknown findings.

“Leveson – Disturbing Questions over Key Advisor” bleats Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail, in a pathetic attempt to disgrace him.

State Regulation is ‘Greatest Threat to Newspapers in 300 Years’, say Conservative MPs!” wails the tax-haven dwelling Barclay Brothers’ Daily Telegraph, omitting the fact that less than 6% of Parliamentarians signed the offending letter and of them, many had benefitted from the Barclays’ largesse.

Leveson may be a threat to newspaper owners but good journalism? Not necessarily and certainly no more a threat than Murdoch, Barclays, Rothermere or the rest of the press puppeteers.  There is a chasm between the role of a great journalist and a power-crazed press magnate. If anything, the journalists need protecting from their employers. They need the right to investigate whatever is newsworthy and to challenge our so-called betters with vigour but they cannot do so if they are promoting the agenda of a few morally suspect men who gain pleasure from toying with our lives, our freedoms, our culture and our democracy.

* Neville Farmer is an Executive Member of the Parliamentary Candidates Association

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17 Comments

  • David Worsfold 29th Nov '12 - 9:07am

    I’m not sure what you are urging Nick Clegg to stand firm on. Is Leveson going to make some far-reaching recommendations on press ownership? Your article focuses exclusively on the problems of too narrow an ownership base among the high-profile, national media and I agree wholeheartedly with you criticisms. Of course, Leveson did spend time on this issues although it wasn’t part of his original remit so it may well be that he has something to say on this.
    The fear has to be that he goes too far on statutory intervention and proposes a system that involves state regulation of the processes of journalism, inhibiting the proper investigation of wrongdoing, fraud, incompetence, hypocrisy and dishonesty. Many of the celebrities who pitched up at the enquiry would welcome this and so would many of the people I have written about over the years who later found themselves behind bars.
    I await with interest to see what emerges later today but I hope that Clegg doesn’t back an illiberal solution that shackles our press.

  • We should stand firm on the Areopagitica !

    Lords and Commons of England, consider what Nation it is wherof ye are the governours : a Nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious, and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discours, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that human capacity can soar to.

    Behold now this vast city ; a city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompast and surrounded with his protection ; the shop of warre hath not there more anvils and hammers making, to fashion out the plates and
    instruments of armed Justice, in defence of beleaguer’d Truth, than there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious camps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas …. others as fast reading, trying all
    things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement.

  • There’s nothing illiberal about wanting a press that is free from political interference by proprietors who pay UK taxes and are, for the most part, resident in the country where their influence disproportionately affects political and social attitudes.
    This is Nick Clegg’s one chance to stand up for independent regulation, enshrined in statute if necessary, on behalf of the public interest this party claims to represent.
    I agree with everything Neville Farmer has written and such a piece on LibDem Voice is not before time.

  • mike cobley 29th Nov '12 - 9:57am

    Neville F goes to the heart of it – how can we call the press and media in the UK ‘free’ when most of it is owned by corporations whose interests are aligned with the rich and the powerful? That said, I dont think that Leveson or regulator recommendations will help – but regulations on media ownership would. No rich person or corporation should be allowed to own vast swathes of the press, and there should be new tax arrangements brought in to directly encourage smaller independent media companies. Naive technoboosters enamoured of the internet love to disparage the printed word, in the press and in libraries, but the health of measured, considered democratic debate relies on them both. It should be made easier for new papers to be set up, and less onerous in tax terms for them to stay in business.

  • There is no such thing as independent regulation; somebody must appoint the regulators. If we support a politically-appointed regulator then why are we Lib Dems kicking up such a fuss about the “independent”, politically-appointed House of Lords?

    Perhaps we could elect an independent regulator but after the marvellous success of the Police and Crime Commissioner elections I can’t see that happening any time soon.

    Short of any directly elected element in control of our press then surely it is best left to society? The individuals, who make up society, make daily democratic decisions using the contents of their wallets or purses as to what sort of newspapers they wish to see in this country.

    Have you considered that by further regulating newspapers you’re simply tackling symptoms, not causes. If you don’t like the contents of our papers then perhaps you should look at the society which funds them?

    Leveson was meant to be looking at the corrupt culture in our Police and government which allowed the Press to break existing laws for years, largely with immunity. Instead, it will make recommendations that will protect the existing status quo and potentially make exposing future scandals harder.

  • The press is not as free as you would like. So the government should have more power over the press, because that will give them more freedom to report on what the government is doing and why.

    Do I understand this argument correctly?

  • @Thomas Long
    You do not know what recommendations are in the report, but already the signs are that Nick Clegg’s response to it will dissent from that of David Cameron.
    A much deeper dig into the corrupt culture in our police and the extent of lawbreaking by News International, which may also have involved government, is the remit of the second part of the inquiry. That, Lord Leveson has hinted, may now not take place. Many at (or formerly at) N.I. can sigh with relief that the extent of their criminal activity may never be exposed for fear of prejudicing ongoing criminal proceedings ahead of the trials next September.

  • Old Codger Chris 29th Nov '12 - 4:01pm

    Brilliant piece by Neville Farmer. But our libel laws must also be reformed – they make Britain the best place in the free world for dodgy people with wealth and power to surpress the truth.

  • Daniel Henry 29th Nov '12 - 6:54pm

    This article hits many nails square on the head! Good work!

  • Daniel Henry 29th Nov '12 - 6:57pm

    Neville, could it be argued that statutory regulation might protect good journalists and journalism by giving individual journalists cover for following the code of practice rather than merely trotting out the line of their millionaire owners?

  • Andrew Suffield 29th Nov '12 - 8:03pm

    If you don’t like the contents of our papers then perhaps you should look at the society which funds them?

    That is precisely what this is about. How are we to set a good example for the society which funds them if not by making the opinion-forming media obey their own rules?

  • Angela Harbutt 30th Nov '12 - 1:48pm

    If your concern is about concentration of power then by all means lobby for legislation that limits ownership of media – though given the concentration of power of the BBC – good luck with that one. I can hardly believe that the liberal party is actually arguing in favour of state regulation of the press – whilst the Conservative party leader is defending liberalism. What kind of alternative universe have I woken up in?

  • “As a Liberal I don’t like that kind of freedom.”

    Thank you. That’s rather a neat encapsulation.

  • @ Chris
    “As a Liberal I don’t like that kind of freedom…..”
    Chop a sentence, disregard and by implication pour cold water over the rest. Did you get your recipe from the Daily Mail?

  • Sean

    On the contrary, I wasn’t disregarding the rest of the comment – I really did think the sentence I quoted encapsulated it, and many of the rather naive pro-Leveson arguments on this website – a desire to protect the freedoms of people we approve of, and take away the freedoms of those we don’t. As if you _can_ protect “ordinary citizens” without also reducing the ability of the press to hold wrongdoers to account. People really shouldn’t deceive themselves into thinking there are easy answers to any of these questions.

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