Should ordinary citizens be denied a say in the media’s future — as in, ‘For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments’?

Are cover-ups and the suppression of debate growing more frequent in the world's proudest democracies? Photograph by Amita Chatterjee

This is no ordinary elephant in the living room, the one the media are pretending not to see. She is pirouetting on stiletto heels in the shortest skirt ever sewn, displaying elephantine slabs of thigh. Still they behave as if she is invisible.

Recent events in England – which gave the rest of the world the model of a free press – are sending shivers up the spine of anyone who cares about democracy, from Calcutta to San Francisco and beyond. This is because of the eerie, silent void where you might expect round-the-clock media coverage of the media’s strategies for preserving their freedom and independence — on their terms.

Any attention paid to this struggle by the British press has focused on the tabloid phone hacking scandal, and just that part of a far wider judicial investigation of professional standards and practices, the Leveson Inquiry ordered by the prime minister.

Shameful and appalling as the hacking sagas are, they matter far less than the pachyderm in the parlour – on a par with the news earlier this month of Google being forced by the government of India, the world’s largest democracy, to cooperate with censoring web pages after ‘weeks of intense government pressure for 22 Internet giants to remove photographs, videos or text considered “anti-religious” or “anti-social”’.

That question no one in the media apparently wants to face is, will the public grant professional journalists a continuation of special privileges in the digital age if they no longer adhere to the traditions of fairness, neutrality and dedication to the truth that won them those privileges in the 18th century? Earlier this month, this blog mentioned the media’s refusal to acknowledge – or indeed discuss at all – the public’s dismay about an increasingly partisan press.

There are other alarming silences. Why, for instance, is no one in the British media mentioning the prohibition by a leading newspaper of free discussion – by ordinary citizens – of the future of the press, on three separate occasions last week?

In each case, a member of the Establishment – one high-ranking politician and two journalists – addressed the jubilation in the British press about Rupert Murdoch redux; many journalists only care about their belief that he is saving jobs in journalism. The media mogul who should have been fatally wounded by the hacking scandal is throwing his octogenarian energy into engineering a comeback with a new paper, the Sun on Sunday. None of these writers spared Murdoch the lash. Two of them delivered blistering warnings about the dangers of condoning this latest power-grab and about the perils, for British democracy, of concentrating media ownership in a few hands — especially, his.

Nothing in their excoriations suggested that they feared any legal retribution from Murdoch or his empire, News International. And yet each of these articles appeared on the portion of a newspaper site titled Comment is Free, advertised as a debating forum open to all, with an announcement that, For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments’.

In that case, why were the Murdoch bashings put on this part of the newspaper’s site at all?

Could the real message behind blocking readers’ reactions be that the newspaper’s editors believe that only they and their colleagues have a right to discuss the redesign of the ‘media landscape’ – even though most British citizens still rely on the press to give them the facts a democracy needs to make decisions that affect its collective wellbeing?

This blog has recorded the same newspaper’s censorship of readers’ posts about media reform in its Comment is Free section (see the entries on 7 November and 15 November). The paper gives no sign of having absorbed the salutary reminder by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, last year that

[i]t is the birthright of the citizen that the press should be independent. It is therefore not a right of one section of the community, not just a sectional right. It is the right of the community as a whole. It is, if you like, our right, the right of every citizen.

Here are opinions that the Guardian refused to allow its readers to discuss on its site – without any explanation that made sense (Kafka-esque, for real?):

Item 1: extracts from an article titled, ‘We must fashion a new media landscape,’ by Norman Fowler, a former chairman of the House of Lords communications committee.

… Murdoch remains the traditional proprietor. From his New York headquarters he will continue to have his say in the politics of the United Kingdom – and make no mistake, there will be politicians who will play along with this. […] So we are back to where some of us began. Last summer we were within days of the culture secretary waving through the Murdoch bid to take full control of BSkyB and claiming that phone hacking was an entirely separate and irrelevant issue. That fate has been avoided, but the challenge remains to devise a system where nobody – Murdoch or anybody else – has a disproportionate share of the British media. […W]hat is a disproportionate share of the media market? Four newspapers controlling almost 40% of national press circulation and total control of a major television company would have put Murdoch the wrong side of the line. […] Any new rules on share of voice cannot be directed exclusively at News International. The BBC must come within the net as too must the other media giants like Google.

[…]

• For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments

Item 2: extracts from an article titled. ‘If the Sun on Sunday soars Rupert Murdoch will also rise again,’ by Polly Toynbee.

[P]ractitioners are hired to do their masters’ bidding, even when that can mean spreading disinformation and disregarding evidence. The seventh Sun will offer jobs to those willing to put their pens to abusing migrants, travellers, trade unionists, single mothers, women, the unemployed, public sector staff, young people, Europe, foreigners or anyone to the left of John Redwood. Even the disabled are now being harassed as scroungers to win public support for benefit cuts reducing the already poor to penury.

[…]

Clouds of opposition are gathering around the Leveson press inquiry. Its remit grows, destination unknown. The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, along with many others, are right to demand that it leads to new laws to reset limits on media ownership by any one organisation, which Margaret Thatcher abolished for Murdoch’s sake. If the Sun on Sunday soars, [Murdoch] will be back owning some 40% of press readership, plus Sky (to whom the BBC is wrongly obliged to pay £10m a year).

The Sun and its owner’s influence on British politics have been underestimated in the history of the last decades … […]

For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments @commentisfree

Item 3: extracts from an opinion piece titled, ‘Rupert Murdoch’s Sun on Sunday sets on his empire,’ by Michael Wolff.

Curiously, he used […] the arrests of senior Sun staffers on suspicion of bribing the British police – as the crisis that justified the new Sun. The immediate launch of the paper, just days after he arrived in London, would be a way to stabilize an impending civil war in Wapping, he insisted – even as his own investigators continued to turn over evidence to the police. It would be a way, too, to shift attention from the negative to the positive, from retreat to advance.

[…]

Of course, all the investigations continue, the law suits mount, the US Justice Department is at attention, and, next week, public television in the US is promising an explosive new documentary on the Murdoch scandals, which will, in a sense for the first time, bring the story in all its details to the US.

[…]

• For legal reasons, this article will not be open to comments

There is no doubt that the Guardian is furious with Lord Justice Leveson, who asked at the official commencement of his Inquiry, ‘Who guards the guardians?’ Last week, the news that British judges would be rating British lawyers for their performance in court gave the newspaper a chance to play tit-for-tat in an editorial that remarked, ‘Advocates might reasonably ask who is judging the judges’.

No one watching the Leveson hearings could fail to be struck by this judge’s open-mindedness, or by the deference and respect he shows witnesses. He comes across as genuine when he asks for their opinions of what should be done about the media’s failed self-regulation – and is frank about not knowing how to resolve the dilemma that follows from the all-but-universal dislike of proposals for statutory control.

He seems keenly aware of the media’s annoyance with interference with what they see as their business – and sympathetic. But from the odd remark he has let drop about the importance of allowing free discussion – for instance, that statements made on social networks such as Twitter must be counted as mere chat, and not held to the same standards as professional reporting – it seems unlikely that he would disagree with Albert Einstein about the undesirability of letting a wealthy or powerful few control the dissemination of facts and opinions for the many.

It feels not a little odd to be quoting the great physicist’s essay, ‘Why Socialism?’ for the second time this month. But there is a rather stunning parallel between present events and his noting, in 1949, that ‘Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition. Since, under present circumstances, free and unhindered discussion of these problems has come under a powerful taboo …’.

This was the most vital point he wanted to impress on his readers:

[U]nder existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

Now, as I was saying, about that elephant

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