Outside of government-led clampdowns and censorship, such as the lamentably sad situation unfolding in Fiji, it can be a difficult topic to argue because commercial interests are usually at the heart of the matter.
Why is that so difficult?
Because newspapers – and journalists – have commercial interests, too. We need to sell papers, get the circulation revenue and create that fabulous audience whose attention we sell to advertisers for even more dollars.
So when we start banging the drum for the public’s right to know, the first reposte from the commercial world is that we are trying to protect our own commercial interests.
There is more to it than that. Much more.
Event organisers increasingly seem to think that everything that happens within those events is theirs, and theirs alone.
They dismiss the notion of public interest – unless they can earn dollar from it.
Many an entertainer thinks they have copyright of themselves, and images of themselves, standing on a stage. They don’t. Yet, their entourage will not allow many press photographers into concerts, lest they take unflattering pictures.
At the World Cup, which begins in June, the organiser, FIFA, reckons that it can dictate what can be written and shown in stills photography on the mobile phone.
It is threatening to ban newspapers and agencies from press boxes if they publish any World Cup reports on a mobile phone, including iPhone apps, MMS and the like.
Cricket Australia firmly believes it has copyright on every single occurrence at the cricket; and as copyright owner it should be able to dictate who gets to write about such things, and where they can publish it.
In France, the organisers of the Cannes Film Festival are telling journalists they cannot take video of actors walking down a red carpet – as if a red carpet is a rarified piece of the planet that they can make off limits.
The Australian Football League once tried to stop photographers standing in front of barriers in a Melbourne street during a parade on the eve of a Grand Final even though their simple intent was to take great photos.
Who are these people? They’re money men (and women): individuals whose jobs rely on extracting as much cash out of an event as possible.
Their philosophy is simple: the more control of information they have, the greater their ability to make money from media-related licensing.
To them, press freedom is an argument levelled by newspapers trying to protect their own revenues.
And the public’s right to know can be dismissed if an organiser can licence the action.
Cricket Australia put mobile phone publishing off limits because of a deal it had made exclusively with the mobile telephony operator, 3. The AFL exclusively licensed syndicated photography, and banned news agency snappers from their grounds.
FIFA has exclusively licensed a deal with another mobile phone company, Vodacom, for mobile reporting rights.
Vodacom is trying to re-sell those rights around the world.
And at the Cannes Film Festival, organisers have sold video-red-carpet rights to payTV service, Orange.
Licence holders, of course, want profits, too. And they are not independent but heavily invested.
Media wants the truth. And so does the public.
If you like your media orchestrated, none of this will be a problem to you.
And I’m sure there are some nice places to live in North Korea, China, Iran, Iraq, Fiji, and Albania, to name but a few. But if your neighbour disappears one night, don’t bother asking questions or seeking justice.
Press freedom is not a small issue.
Journalists die for the truth. A total 55 perished last year.
Truth cannot be dismissed frivolously, or reduced to a licence fee.
Newspaper companies remain at the forefront of this endless battle for truth and the right to know – an information transparency that underpins democracy.
We’re not perfect. Sometimes, we get things wrong but the truth must always remain in our hearts and in how we act.
There is a stunning video made by the World Association of Newspapers that brings this all home. We posted at http://vimeo.com/10193664. It’s 15 minutes long, but you need see only the first 28 seconds.
Watch those 28 seconds, and then tell me the truth does not matter.