Leveson, press freedom and conservatism

By Will Jennings

The publication this afternoon of the 2,000 page Leveson Report into the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the press’ and (lest we forget) its contacts with politicians and the police is going to be just the start of an intense ideological debate over regulation of the media (also in a state of intense introspection and internecine warfare with the recent crisis at the BBC), as well as potentially adding to the political troubles of the Cameron government, and its close ties to the Murdoch empire and its former lieutenants. It may decide the fate of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and comes on the same day that David Cameron’s former communications director, Andy Coulson, appeared in court over alleged illegal payments to public officials. The Leveson Inquiry has shed some light on the complex relationship between politicians and the press, but much bigger questions remain unanswered. Indeed, many are obfuscated by the self-serving and disingenuous protests of some sections of the press. What does freedom of the press mean? Is it freedom to publish what it likes, when it likes? Is it freedom to hold government to account? The press itself is of course not free. We must pay for it, and perhaps we as consumers should take a long hard look at ourselves for funding the sort of salacious chequebook journalism that we so readily pooh-pooh. The press on both the left and the right is owned by proprietors of some description (whether they are individuals, corporations or trusts), whom editors ultimately are paid by and must answer to (despite protestations of day-to-day independence from editors). And all journalists must operate within this context, where they may have a degree of latitude to pursue stories, but ultimately are not free to pursue any story at any cost targeted at anyone. There are unspoken norms and understandings concerning the priorities and restraints that journalists working in any media organisation adhere to. The press may hold government to account for its actions but it is not necessarily answerable to citizens (to its consumers perhaps but this is not the same thing), even if a healthy and active press is a key component of a democracy. Too many of the press are willing to lap up their own rhetoric about the nature of press freedom far too readily and far too unquestioningly.

The inability of the press (with the honourable exception of the Guardian) to pursue the allegations of phone hacking, and more recently the belated willingness to ‘speak truth to power’ in the case of child abuse allegations only after most of the influential and powerful perpetrators have died only serves to show the malaise of the press as a protector of democracy, and the essential lie that ‘freedom’ guarantees the intrinsic good of the role performed by the media (they may well be, but it is not a benefit that is guaranteed simply by granting freedom). Freedom permits irresponsibility too.

A further philosophical question about freedom remains. Is it the freedom to publish without regard to the freedoms of others? Should press rights come above human rights? If so, why? Why should any media organisation have a right to judge people for what they do in their private lives? These are the sorts of questions that journalists are sadly disinclined to answer. Perhaps the dilemma is too profound. In a talk to C2G2 yesterday, Professor Alan Hamlin discussed his research on analytic conservatism — highlighting the central idea of conservatism that favours the status quo, and the idea that this arises in a concern to protect things that which cannot be returned to their original state – that something is lost by the process of change. Press freedom raises precisely these sorts of issue, and highlights the schism at the heart of modern conservatism and its awkward relationship with press proprietors at the expense of the rights of individuals to personal freedom. The lives of victims of press freedom, such as Christopher Jefferies, Sally Dowler, and yes the cast of celebrities who seem to be dehumanised on account of their status, cannot be changed back. Nor does a sizeable payout compensate for the essential loss of something that cannot be returned. The same is true for the unfounded allegations against Lord McAlpine. In many of these cases of press intrusion, the price of ‘freedom’ to publish with impunity is a loss of some previous untainted state. Given the long history of failure of press self-regulation, and the fact that most of these cases of press intrusion have little to do with the role of the press in holding government to account, Leveson will likely to do little to resolve the underlying philosophical tensions at the heart of debate over the media and democracy.

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