Press freedom in the dock as inquiry begins

Yesterday a panel of high ranking journalists, activists and legal thinkers met to spend up to one year deciding how the UK’s free press should be governed.

The question is, said Lord Justice Leveson, ‘who guards the guardians?’ To find an answer, he and his panel of six experts will hear evidence from hundreds of key witnesses, and will ponder the issues involved for many months.

But what exactly does the question mean? It is an ancient saying, and refers to one of the great riddles of political science: to prevent bad behaviour in general society, you establish guardians to watch over the state. Who then prevents bad behaviour among the guardians? More, even higher guardians? Then the problem just keeps being pushed back.

In modern democracies, the idea is that different institutions – different strands of the state – will all guard each other. The French philosopher Montesquieu first described this principle in the 18th Century: that there should be a ‘separation of powers’ within the machinery of state, with each political group balanced against all the others.

What does this have to do with press freedom? After this year’s revelations of illegal phone hacking by one British newspaper, many now believe that the balance within the system has been distorted; that one institution, the media, has become dangerously more powerful than the rest.

The press are important ‘guardians’ within society. Journalists look out for corruption, stupidity and bad behaviour among politicians and other public figures. Journalists have, in the past, been very effective at holding politicians to account. The discovery by reporters in 2009 that some MPs were stealing money from the state by submitting false expense claims was one such success.

But, say politicians, while the press ‘guard’ us, who guards them? At the moment, the only organisation supervising newspapers is the Press Complaints Commission – run and paid for by the newspapers themselves.

Off balance

The result, some say, is that media barons and editors became too powerful – and thought they were above the law. In fact, when reports of phone hacking first surfaced, the police failed to investigate properly, perhaps for fear of media retaliation. Meanwhile, government ministers and politicians, including the Prime Minister, gave special treatment to powerful news figures in order to get good coverage in the press. It is time, the argument goes, to end that power, and establish a proper guardian to keep the media under control.

Be careful not to destroy the freedom of the press, say worried journalists. State control of the media is a fast road to dictatorship, Lord Leveson will be reminded. What’s more, newspapers are already accountable in a way – to survive, they need to cater to the ordinary people who buy and read them. The last newspaper to face genuine public outrage was immediately shut down.

You Decide

  1. Should the media be more strictly controlled?
  2. How important is a free press in a democracy?

Activities

  1. The press, as an institution, is an important strand in any democratic state. List as many other strands as you can. What ‘checks and balances’ exist between them?
  2. The history of newspapers, in Britain and elsewhere, has examples of the cheapest scandal-mongering and muck-raking as well as extreme high-mindedness and serious reporting. Do some research and write a brief account of how the newspaper scene in your country has changed since it first began.

Some People Say...

“Tabloid newspapers are like democracy itself – rude, crude and wonderful.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How badly have newspapers really misbehaved?
There have been some disgraceful abuses. The worst was phone hacking, which saw a private investigator hired by theNews of the World illegally hacking into the voicemails of celebrities, politicians and even murder victims. Worse, it emerged yesterday that other newspapers may also have been involved.
Anything else?
Once news of the phone hacking broke, theNews of the World is reported to have set reporters to secretly follow MPs who were involved in the case, in an effort to dig up embarrassing stories about them.

Word Watch

‘Who guards the guardians?’
The phrase originally comes from the writings of the Roman poet Juvenal, who used it while thinking about how to prevent his wife from cheating on him with other men. His friends advise him to set guards to keep potential lovers away from her. But, he replies, ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ – ‘who will guard the guardians themselves?’ The phrase can also be translated ‘who will watch the watchmen?’
Montesquieu
Charles-Louis de Montesquieu was one of the most famous political thinkers of the 18th Century. His works were very important for the development of modern democracy, and were a big influence on, for example, the US Constitution.
Expense claims
In most jobs, employees are allowed to claim money from their employer for expenses they have had to pay in order to do their jobs. In 2009, leaked documents revealed that many British MPs were stretching the rules to their limit, claiming for things that they had never bought, or that they were not really using.
Media barons
The most famous of these is Rupert Murdoch, owner of several newspapers in the UK and many more internationally. Other newspapers are also owned by wealthy individuals however, and some think these ‘barons’ have too much unearned influence over government.

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