Friday, October 21, 2016

In defence of a free press (Je suis Bill!)

The topic of freedom of speech is back on the front page, in a big way. People are up in arms about a cartoon by the brilliant Bill Leak in The Australian. The cartoon itself has been discussed ad nauseam, and I’m proud to say “Je Suis Bill!”

But I’d like to make a more general point. After years of comment and name-calling, and inquiries in both Australia and the UK into the activities of the media, I think it's time I added my voice to those raised in defence of a free press.

A free press is a necessary condition for a healthy democracy. A truly free press is one that is not controlled by or subservient to a government or to a vested interest. That means a self-supporting press, one that survives financially because ordinary individuals are prepared to pay to read, watch or listen to whatever the media outlet in question publishes or broadcasts.

That truly free press probably doesn’t exist anywhere, but the idea that it should is important: this ideal shapes the business model that sustains the quality press which in turn comes closest (usually) to delivering the reportage and analysis (and the cartoons – let’s not forget the cartoons!) that keep our democracy healthy.

What does a free press actually do that makes it so important? It speaks truth to power. It challenges authority and convention and unfounded assertions. It deals in facts. It promotes transparency. It shines a light on people, on groups, on laws. It exposes wrongdoing. It holds leaders, and would-be leaders, to account. Sometimes, and often through the medium of an editorial cartoon, it simply holds up a mirror so that people can see themselves for what they are. And why is this so important? Because it ensures that the voters in a democracy can make an informed choice about whom to support and when, or if, to withdraw their support from a government or a group or a cause.

At its most fundamental, a free press is a force for peace. Why? Because it exposes and therefore challenges the basis upon which leaders and governments make decisions that lead to conflict. Consider the past century – can anybody think of a conflict that has broken out since the end of World War 1 between two nations that have a genuinely free press? Nor can I, offhand.

There are countless examples of conflicts between two nations distinguished by an imbalance of press freedom. In such cases it’s usually the leaders in the less-free country that are granted the freedom to create the conditions for war. Civil war can also erupt in countries where civilised discourse between communities isn’t moderated by an objective and free press. And don’t be fooled by the idea that war is a consensual activity between two (or more) nation states.

All it takes to start a war, or even a brawl, is a single aggressor without the impulse control that comes from sobriety, maturity or wise counsel. At the national level you don’t get wise counsel unless you have a wise and mature leadership that is conditioned to listen. The voices that the leaders listen to must be informed ones: that’s the role and responsibility of a free press.

So how do you support a free press? Actually, as I suggested earlier, you probably can’t. A society needs to accept a flawed business model if that is the price of an independent media. What this amounts to, in practice, is either a state-owned media, with all the potential dangers that involves, or a broadcasting or publishing house that makes its money from a combination of paid subscriptions or cover sales and paid advertising.

‘Vested Interests’, I hear you say. Yes, potentially. But the potential for interference by advertisers and proprietors is no greater or more sinister than if a press agency or media organisation is owned and funded – and controlled – directly by the state. Several national news agencies around the globe are acknowledged to be mouthpieces for the regime that funds them, and they are de facto (and sometimes de jure) propaganda organisations.

That said, public broadcasting financed by the state has a proud record of courageous, independent reporting in Australia and in countries like New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom. The editorial independence of state broadcasters such as the ABC and BBC is defended ferociously by supporters both within and outside these organisations and at their best they perform a vital role. During World War 2 (and for many years after) the BBC was the gold standard for accurate and impartial reporting of global events.

The overwhelming majority of media organisations, however, enjoy no state support. They are perforce commercial entities, surviving on what they can sell. They sell two things: something that certain people want to read (or watch, or listen to); and access to those readers.

News-gathering agencies such as Reuters and Associated Press make their money purely from selling news and analysis to publishing and broadcasting outlets or financial institutions. Their ‘product’ is accurate, impartial and swift reporting of critical events. They are in some cases the only source of the news on certain topics that is published or broadcast by newspapers and radio and TV stations. Their reputation is their brand and this guarantees their income.

At the other end of the scale, so to speak, are the ‘uber-tabloids’: newspapers, magazines and TV channels that deal principally with gossip. They serve a diet of salacious and sensationalist celebrity gossip and spurious revelations.

Occupying different parts of the spectrum in between are the newspapers, magazines and broadcasters that deal with national and global affairs, business and sport in a more measured and critical way.

Elsewhere, you find the specialists: publishers and broadcasters who focus on more narrowly defined interests such as aviation, cars, pets, cooking, gardening and the like. The pornographers are in there as well.

What they all have in common is an editorial ‘product’ shaped to suit a carefully defined audience, and in most cases a business model that delivers that audience to advertisers. They make their money from a combination of sales direct to the audience, and advertising. If it ain’t interesting, readers won’t buy it or watch it. So advertisers won't advertise in it. If there ain’t a quid in it publishers won’t print it. So it’s fair to say that publishers and broadcasters reflect the interests of their audience.

This in turn means that those salacious tabloid newspapers, celebrity gossip magazines and reality TV shows exist only because there’s a market for them. Think about that: if you deplore these publications and programs, then you also deplore their audience, your fellow-citizens.

Of course, the tabloids and gossip magazines have overstepped the mark frequently. (Oddly enough, the citizens who deplore them for doing so are often the same readers who avidly consume the resulting headlines – the irony appears lost on them.) Is this reason enough to shut down or control whole segments of the media? No. This is the regrettable price we as a society need to pay for the privilege of a free press.

Shutting down or controlling the tabloids (or the gossip mags, or cheap and nasty reality TV shows) would be the same as banning or controlling cheap cask wine, in the belief that only good wine should be sold and drunk, and only by people who know how to enjoy it properly. Power then resides in the hands of those who make subjective judgements on what is, or is not, good wine, or good journalism. Quis custodiet, and all that?

This also means that the so-called ‘quality’ press – which includes broadsheets like the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, as well as quality tabloids and ‘serious’ programs produced by both state and commercial broadcasters - survive because of ongoing demand for accurate, thoughtful analysis and a modicum of activism, based upon facts and, more subjectively, values.

The ‘quality’ media faces the highest bar in terms of credibility – their ‘product’ is that very editorial quality that pursues and publishes facts and arguments unflinchingly and impartially, and it’s not cheap. Those ‘quality’ outlets that survive and thrive fill a vital role.

In a healthy democracy with a vigorous press, however, leaders, demagogues and ideas can be held to account by all parts of the media, by a tabloid newspaper as much as by a high-falutin’ broadsheet. By their very nature, editors and journalists tend to be nosy parkers with an ‘everyman’ sense of right and wrong. They’re not driven by money, on the whole, which is why publishers can afford to employ them. They fill what would otherwise be a multitude of information and ethical vacuums.

At the end of the day, even the readers of ‘Cabbage Growers’ Weekly’ want honest, accurate reporting and useful information. It’s that market discipline, and the basic integrity of most journalists, that keeps the independent media honest – if they lose readers, they lose advertisers and then they lose money.

What’s important here is that the media serving those societies that value a free press is independent. It can speak truth to power, or not, as it wishes. It may pander to its audience’s basest instincts or most abstruse interests, or it may shine a light on wrongdoing or official incompetence. It has the freedom to do all of those things, and we as a representative democracy, as a community of voters, are the better for it. To regulate the media, to control freedom of speech, is to punish society and weaken democracy.


Gregor Ferguson was a journalist and editor for over 30 years in the UK and Australia. He wrote for newspapers and magazines and edited specialist trade journals for much of his career.

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