Rescuing the fourth estate.

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted that I couldn’t understand why everyone was so shocked about the Milly Dowler Hacking incident (by the News of the World, for those of you reading from the future) when I was far more upset by a TV interview of parents whose son had just been killed.

As ever, with the haiku world of Twitter, while I was rather pleased to fit that into 140 characters, it left a lot unsaid. And though I found myself thinking a lot about the press, I resisted writing about it because I felt there were so many people better placed to comment. But then I thought, surely the whole point of a blog is to write about what I think. So, here goes.

Partly, I’ve been thinking about why we have newspapers and how their remit must have evolved, although I know nothing about newspaper history and this is all speculation. Initially, in small tribes, people would have simply shared news, although even then there would have been the bias of the person telling the story. Later in towns and cities, where the news was – according to my imagination – disseminated by a portly man with a bell shouting “Hear Ye” at passer-by this would have been to do with the distribution of facts.

My suspicion is that up to the point of printed newspapers, the news was mostly to do with facts: the king is dead; the French are coming; there’s a bit of a fire in Pudding Lane. With a printed press, though, I suspect there became more of an opportunity for opinion to be expressed. I assume the papers tended to communicate the preferences, politics and prejudices of the proprietor.

And whether my history is right or wrong, one can see how we would end up with a press consisting of a number of papers, catering to different markets, split across politics, religion and, yes, intellectual appetite. And that’s all well and good: a paper reports the news and puts its spin on that news.

At some point, however, someone decided, as one would expect, to get behind the story. Yes, government has reported such and such, and the different papers might have different views on that, but perhaps our ‘someone’ heard that actually what was reported wasn’t the whole truth. This isn’t a matter for the police and this is precisely where the fourth  estate has its value, as a free press that challenges its government (consisting of the other three estates). For a country to be truly free from despotism, so its press must be free from government interference.

Thus the press is given a power and a responsibility but its powers are not police powers and its responsibilities be seen to be taken seriously. And this, I believe is where the British press has lost its way. It has become decadent and arrogant. I think there are a number of factors in this. Firstly, I believe it is wrong for any one person or organisation to own more than one newspaper in a given territory. As we have seen with Murdoch, it ends up with the press having power over government. Government should have a degree of awe and a nervousness of the press but it should not be so scared that it allows the press to dicate policy in return for power. We all knew that Blair was in with a chance when Murdoch decided to support him: the alarm bells have been ringing for more than fifteen years.

Secondly, I believe we are to blame. Whatever the ambit of the press’s concerns – government, the public sector, banks, powerful private individuals – the invasion of privacy of ordinary people (and I would include celebrities in this definition) is unforgivable.  The PCC has repeatedly proven itself unwilling to reprimand papers and this terrible incursion has become accepted and even expected. What is wrong with us that when a child is killed, we expect a reporter to stick a microphone in the parents’ faces and ask them how they feel?

I honestly don’t know why the hacking of Milly Dowler’s ‘phone proved to be the tipping point. God knows it was bad but it wasn’t surprising and I don’t think it was anywhere near the worst excess of our press. I am glad that the public outrage has finally matched the extent of the dreadful behaviour that has been part of the newspaper and magazine industry in this country for so long.

But I’ll finish with this thought: the government – in all its colours – has been afraid for Murdoch for a long time and, once it was confident about how the wind was blowing, it has seized the opportunity to strike out at the man who for so long has told them how high to jump. But what will it do to reform the press and the PCC? Our free press is vital to us as a free country: re-establishing the right equilibrium will not be easy and needs to be handled with care.

About fennerpearson
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