Sunday, 31 January 2010

In Media res

Since this is the first proper post, it seems fitting to start with a topic selected by Radical Joe himself. I was lucky enough to spend some time perusing his private papers, and amongst his personal correspondance I found this little gem, written during a holiday to Turkey:

"Turkey is an interesting country with no resemblance to the bird of that name. The people live chiefly on tobacco and coffee and the dogs bark all night and sleep all day. They are not muzzled, but the press is."

There is much that could be talked about within this three sentence passage, although what seems most interesting, and most relevant to the modern world is the issue of press censorship.

There are two current news stories that are directly related to the role of the press within society, in very distinct areas of impact. The first is the ongoing Chilcott inquiry, and the issue of the extent to which Blair and Alastair Campbell manipulated the press with their (over)emphasis of the danger posed by Saddam Hussein. This discussion is particularly interesting given the two-way nature of the argument- Blair and Campbell manipulated the press throughout their time in power, particularly in allowing 'The Sun' to seize on the 'forty-five minute claim' to justify the invasion of Iraq. However, following journalistic claims that the WMD dossier was sexed-up, Campbell in particular cried foul, leading to the sacking of Andrew Gilligan, and the unfortunate death of Dr. David Kelly. The presence of the Chilcott Inquiry should serve as a basis for a wider debate on the role of the media in the political process, particularly in a nation of a strong centralised executive such as the UK, without the checks and balances of a separation of powers. In essence, the media should be the watchdog of the government in a political system that has a weak legislative branch. Too often it is not.

Confusingly, the second area in which the role of the press in society is being examined is with the breaking of the story of John Terry's affair with a teammate's girlfriend. The story was previously the subject of a gagging order, which was recently lifted as the judge ruled that Terry's attempts to prevent the story was due more to his desire to protect his sponsorship deals than his family. Personally, I am uneasy with the media being the arbiters of morality, particularly since shock and outrage sells more copy than judicious tolerance. However, the presence of gagging orders for stories tends very much towards press censorship, which in theory I suspect many of us oppose. Is it not better to have a gutter press than a muzzled press?

The problem with the media in society, is that it operates within a constitutional purgatory, simultaneously within and without the remit of the political arena. The media has the capacity to alter election results, to shape public opinion, and to organise opposition to a cause or an individual. One need only think of the campaign against Russell Brand and Jonathon Ross which was organised by the 'Daily Mail' or the role of 'The Sun' in the 1992 election. And yet, despite this power, it operates within the free market, with very little public scrutiny of precisely whose agenda is being advanced. The German author Heinrich B├Âll wrote 'The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum' in 1974 to describe the rise of invasive news reporting in West Germany. The story concerns a young woman, Katharina Blum who is briefly (very briefly) romantically involved with someone linked with the German terrorist organisation, the Red Army Faction. Under immense press scrutiny, which involves the dissemination of deliberate untruths, Katharina is ultimately driven to murder. The message is clear, the press have won, they have created the story that they themselves will report.

The role of the press within society is one that must, therefore, be actively decided upon by the public. Whilst it is true that the media represents public opinion, the manner in which they do is often aggressive and sensationalised. With the Conservatives' questioning of the nature of the BBC, and the bailout of RBS and Northern Rock, the demands of the public are increasingly turning to issues of legitimacy and accountability. Publicly funded bodies are supposed to be of a higher standard, owing to the absence of a strictly capitalist drive and the greater amount of accountability. Accountability for failed bankers means a limitation of bonuses. For the press it should mean the necessity to name sources and a strengthening of the Press Complaints Commission. Crucially, however, the PCC cannot and should not be allowed to act on issues of morality. These provide a distraction for the work of the commission, and no institution in twenty-first century Britain should be allowed to set a morality agenda. The PCC should instead focus on investigating spurious claims and journalistic methods. Although they will find themselves to be overwhelmed in the initial period, they must persevere, since the finish point is that rare thing, journalistic integrity.

It is bad news for John Terry and other celebrity philanderers, for the price of a free press is the publication of their misdemeanours. It is good news, however, for experts, who will be able to ensure that their comments are not exaggerated or misrepresented. But most importantly of all, it will be good news for us, the British public, since it will draw power away from shadowy newspaper editors, and make the process of reporting infinitely more transparent, shifting power to the public. If the press are the watchdog of the politicians, then ultimately the public must be the watchdog of the press.

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