Should we care about freedom of the press?

As poet Humbert Wolfe once said: ‘You cannot hope to bribe or twist thank God! The British journalist.

‘But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”

This is a general view of journalists, who are often seen as an unprincipled bunch who will do anything for a story and care not who they hurt on the way.

So perhaps they do not deserve their historic freedom, and if it is being curbed, well and good.

Is it being curbed? Yes it is, and from three different directions at once.

First there is the law and regulation. The two big changes in recent years in the law are ‘no-win, no-fee’and privacy. In regulation, it is the Press Complaints Commission.

No-win, no-fee, or to give it its posh name, Conditional Fee Arrangement, is just what it says on the tin. Lawyers take on a libel case and will only charge if they win, which means the litigant does not have to pay whatever happens, as costs are usually met by the losers. This was intended to help the poor have access to libel law, as it has never been possible to get legal aid for libel. Unfortunately, as with most legislation aimed to help the poor, it’s the rich who get the pleasure.

Wealthy people, such as Sharon Stone and Cherie Blair, are using no-win, no-fee. Does it matter?

Well, we were sued some years ago by three officers of the borough council. They used no-win, no-fee. By and large they lost at High Court, but one appealed and won at the Court of Appeal. The costs orders were turned around and we had to pay most of their legal fees – which were £700,000, but no-win, no-fee gave them a 100 per cent mark-up, turning it into £1.4m. No local newspaper can afford that kind of risk, so the better off and the much better off have got themselves a bit of insurance.

As libel can be a bit of a lottery anyway, most local newspapers will back off as soon as the wealthy reach for their lawyers.

And, like a poker game, the costs ratchet up quickly and it becomes difficult to escape.

Another new weapon the wealthy can use to defend themselves is a rising privacy law. There is no doubt that in the past some journalists and some newspapers have been too intrusive. There is also no doubt that some celebrities secretly welcomed the intrusion while complaining about it.

Now privacy laws are making it very difficult for newspapers.

The law is also very confusing. We have been sued once under privacy, where we had been sent a copy of a teacher’s dismissal letter for gross sexual misconduct. We won that, on a public interest defence – which is not the same as interesting to the public – but, as he had no money, it cost us thousands.

Taking pictures is even more difficult as you can still take a picture of a celebrity or politician in a public place – so long as they are not on their way to their doctor’s.

Both no-win, no-fee and privacy make it more difficult for newspapers to do their job, as they lay down threats which can carry costs that could finish smaller newspapers.

I recently had a story about Lord Lamont and rang his office to see if it was true, and ask for a comment. The call came back from his solicitor, so it has become a line of first defence not last.

The most dangerous change and curtailment is the way the powerful threaten and abuse the freedom of the press. Obviously, most newspapers are privately owned and like other companies, live or die by making a profit.

Equally, they all, to a greater or lesser extent, rely on advertising. So pressure can be brought from major advertisers – it has been known and is getting worse. There is also an acceptance in society that institutions, organisations, companies, and politicians can lie, while newspapers must be fair and objective all the time.

A story is never true until it has been denied. We ran a small story recently on a local restaurant, Nicholls, we had heard was closing. This was vehemently denied by the company, which closed four weeks later.

Two major figures in the Conservative government of the Eighties, Lord Archer and Jonathan Aitken, lied and almost got away with it. One newspaper had paid considerable damages to Archer, and another was preparing to do likewise to Aitken. I wonder how many have lied and got away with it?

The strange thing is that the BBC, which should be immune to commercial pressures is, if anything, weaker rather than stronger because of it.

Andrew Gilligan, one time BBC journalist, suggested in 2003 that the dossier on Iraq’s WMD had been sexed up. All hell broke loose. And, of course, it being a journalist and it being the BBC, a lord had to hold an inquiry. The result? Gilligan lost his job. The director general Greg Dyke and chairman Gavyn Davies resigned. The source of the story, government scientist David Kelly, was mysteriously found dead. The army in Iraq went on looking for WMDs, which it never found, and the Government and Prime Minister went on. They still have not faced an inquiry into the Iraq war.

Should we care about the freedom of the press? Whether journalists deserve it or not, we should.

To open societies, some element of civil society is essential, and a free press is a crucial part of that civil society.

Totalitarian regimes often have some form of democracy. What they never have is a free press. We used to be known as the ‘fourth estate”, holding the three great estates, nobility, church and commoners, to account. Now we might be the second estate, the way government seems increasingly to be held in limited hands.

While it is not essential to have a free press to know who is shagging who in the Big Brother household, it still plays a pivotal role in society.

This is through informing the political debate, with or without bias, holding the rich and powerful to account, and assisting the powerless. Afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, as it is often referred to.

People forget that many of the world’s human tragedies, from Cambodia to apartheid, and Vietnam to Iraq, were first announced to the world by the press. Also the great cover-ups, such as Watergate. People need information to fight injustice and the press at its best provides that information.

But it is not just totalitarian regimes that curb the press. Free societies do it as well, only with more subtlety.

The danger in free societies, is, as Orwell once wrote: ‘Unpopular ideas can be silenced and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for an official ban.”

This article is abridged from a speech Steve Lowe gave to the University of Bedfordshire.

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