The price of press freedom

The days of funding content, through over-priced classified advertising are over. We can no longer take our benefactors for granted.

But money isn’t the only cost involved.

I’ve been watching with increasing incredulity as the UK’s Leveson inquiry into press regulation evolves.

The initial hysteria that all the UK press were indulging in dodgy practice such as phone hacking and bribery has turned out to be misplaced. Phone hacking has been pinpointed to a (possibly significant) number of journalists in one division of News International. This in turn led to questions regarding whether News Corporation should be allowed to acquire all the shares of Sky TV, the UK’s largest commercial television company.

And Leveson has now meandered into whether government ministers were giving News Corp preferential treatment because of Rupert Murdoch’s “unique” influence and power over UK society.

Any commercial proprietor will push the boundaries as far as they can in order to achieve their capitalist or other goals. It is the politicians’ role to control this.

Margaret Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch

There has been speculation that politicians were grovelling to Murdoch for decades. PHOTO: Associated Press

But politicians, and for that matter all parties seeking influence and power, will use any means they can to exert opinion and image on their populace, and the media is a particularly useful propaganda machine.

The reality is that in the West there have been a small number of failures by all parties. The behaviour of the journalists involved in phone hacking was both disgraceful and illegal.

However the UK police have questions to answer about their own behaviour. And political grovelling to Murdoch goes back to Margaret Thatcher’s time, when she pushed through his acquisition of Times Newspapers despite strong competition arguments against.

There was the case some years back of a renowned Irish journalist discovering that her phone was being hacked by the Irish Government, and the Danish editor who discovered he was being monitored by the Danish police.

More recently, in France, former president Nicolas Sarkozy tried, and hilariously failed, to influence the sale of Le Monde to his right-wing cronies.

What is wrong here is not our society’s desire for a free press, but the contextual reality that in the West, all stakeholders fail to wake up every morning and be grateful for what we have.

World-wide, media regulation is a spectrum of interference and opportunism.

I’ve seen newspapers closed down, sometimes violently, had friends arrested, been followed, threatened, had my hotel room turned over. And I’m not even a journalist!

In Russia, a once emerging free press has largely been acquired, for eye-watering sums, by oligarchs sympathetic to the government – not dissimilar to the Sarkozy model!

Ironically in China, where news media is burgeoning, I have more reason for optimism. Of course there is frustration, but there is also an openly debated sense of realism, that in a country with such a long and proud history of evolution, things don’t happen overnight.

My conclusion from this fleeting analysis is that excessive press regulation is a primitive authoritarian concept suitable for despots, but it has little place in the modern world.

As Leveson unfolds, to me it is becoming increasingly clear that while there has been skulduggery among a few, in the big picture, that’s a side show.

Jim Chisholm is an independent media consultant based in France. He can be contacted at jim@jimchisholm.net

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