Is a Free Press Good for Democracy?

In previous posts, I have asked a question in the title and then gone on to answer it with my opinions on the subject. This time, I do not claim to have an answer.

First, let me say that by ‘free’, I mean unregulated. There has been talk recently of the need for some regulation of the press recently, because of the scandal over phone tapping and the invasion of people’s privacy which led to the demise of the News of the World. However, what I am concerned with here is something quite different, namely the role of the press (including television and radio news programs as well as newspapers) in a supposedly democratic society. Of course, a press which is strictly controlled by the state is highly undesirable, being something which is normally associated with dictatorships, but is the opposite necessarily a good thing?

Yet again I will use an example from America, where the right-wing Fox News has such a poor reputation for veracity amongst liberals that it is often referred to as Faux News. One of their newsreaders was sacked for refusing to read on air a ‘news’ item which she knew to be untrue. She sued for unfair dismissal, but lost. Fox News’ successful defence was based on the fact that there is no law requiring broadcast news to be truthful. I presume that this is also the case in the UK.

In my previous post, which started as a preamble to this post but grew too big, I argued that the UK is a cross between a democracy and an oligarchy, with much of the power being exercised by a wealthy ‘elite’ who operate on an international scale. It is this elite who own and control the major newspapers and commercial television, and who therefore have the opportunity to use these media to influence public opinion in ways which will advance their own agenda.

Anyone who has been following a few of the pro-independence blogs should be well aware by now that the British press is generally keen to publish stories that can be given a unionist slant, and less keen to publish any that are unequivocally favourable to the cause of independence. This is unsurprising, given the ownership of the press.

The Tories are determined to demonise the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, to justify cutting welfare payments and harassing those who claim benefits. One of their aims appears to be to set those who have something against those who have little or nothing – a classic case of divide and conquer – to stop the electorate ganging up and voting them out of power. In this they are being all too ably assisted by some of the gutter press.

It is a real danger to what democracy there is in the UK that slanted, unbalanced or downright untrue news items can be used to manipulate public opinion, and to persuade the electorate to vote for a political party which will look after the interests of the oligarchs. One could argue that, in the interests of democracy, there should be a legal requirement that the press should publish only news stories which they reasonably believe to be true, and that opinion and speculation should be clearly identifiable as such.

The current Press Complaints Council is a voluntary regulatory body for British printed newspapers and magazines, but it has no legal powers and has been criticised as being ineffectual. As a result of the Leveson Inquiry, it is to be replaced by the Independent Press Standards Organisation; just how effective this will be remains to be seen, but it will, like the PCC, be under the control of the industry which it will regulate. I wonder whether its main role will be to protect the rich and famous from invasions of their privacy by the press.

In principle, an official body could be given the job of policing the press for untruthful stories, and the legal authority to require newspapers to publish prominent retractions when a story is judged to be seriously inaccurate, or when the newspaper cannot provide evidence to support claims that it has made. However, I doubt whether this would work very well; my guess is that it would be swamped by complaints, that only a few complaints would be properly investigated, and that any retractions would only appear long after the original story was published. Such a system could be open to complaints that it was a form of censorship; indeed, it could too easily be misused by a government.

In any case, untrue stories are only one of the ways in which a biased press can push a particular agenda. Some stories may be published while others are ignored. Inconvenient facts may be left out of an account. Slanted language is often used – a ‘warning’ by one side sounds more authoritative than a ‘claim’ made in rebuttal by the other side. Dramatic headlines which are not justified by the article underneath them are a way of getting a message across, even to people who do not read the article. Quoting remarks out of context can be used to discredit someone. Even the way in which different articles or photographs are juxtaposed can convey a subliminal message. How could these tricks of the propagandist’s trade possibly be regulated?

Very few of our current newspapers and magazines are in Scottish ownership, raising the possibility that, even following a Yes vote in the referendum, their owners might choose to pursue an agenda which is hostile to an independent Scotland. Should the government of an independent Scotland seek to impose limits on the ownership of Scottish publication by people outside Scotland? It would probably be too fraught with difficulties, and in any case many English publications will continue to be sold in significant numbers in Scotland.

As far as the newspapers are concerned, I see a problem but no good solution to it. In the case of the BBC, my view is that they must not be allowed to continue operating in an independent Scotland. If they had taken a fair, unbiased approach to the independence debate, some arrangement to share the BBC with the rUK might have been considered, but their blatant partisanship on behalf of the Union has rendered this unacceptable. We will need a Scottish state broadcaster to replace them.

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