Well, “ethical”, I don’t quite know what the word means, but perhaps you’ll explain what the word means – “ethical”.
—Richard Desmond, Express owner and pornographer.(link)
I hold these truths to be self-evident:
- That the major newspapers in the UK are, almost without exception, failing in the duty to inform the public in an unbiased way.
- That the press in in a position to exert far too much pressure on the government and politicians of all parties.
- the only thing worse than a government worried by the press is a government that isn’t.
So while I feel revolted by almost everything done by large sections of the press (I invite you to work down this section of Richard Littlejohn’s wikipedia article) I’m a little worried about clipping their wings too far…
So how about we cut a deal?
Let’s ramp up (massively) the protection from witch-hunts, publishing made up stories, libel, stalking and all the other weapons used by the press against anyone they like, or even more chilling the individual picked on at random to make a general point (like the dark nightmare version of the national lottery).
But at the same time let’s massively strengthen the freedom of information act – allow the press access to the documents that show how every aspect of the country is run. Let it reach down to things like the FA (a national governing body effectively licensed by the government). Reduce the response times, open up the information. Have automatic releases of any data that isn’t legitimately damaging to release.
Let’s consider this extract from Tony Blair’s Autobiography:
“Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.
Once I appreciated the full enormity of the blunder, I used to say – more than a little unfairly – to any civil servant who would listen: Where was Sir Humphrey when I needed him? We had legislated in the first throes of power. How could you, knowing what you know have allowed us to do such a thing so utterly undermining of sensible government?”
“The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet. The information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on ‘the people’. It’s used as a weapon.”
“What I failed to realise is that we would also have our skeletons rattling around the cupboard, and while they might be different, they would be just as repulsive. Moreover, I did not at that time see the full implications of the massive increase in transparency we were planning as part of our reforms to ‘clean up politics’. For the first time, details of donors and the amounts given to political parties were going to be published. I completely missed the fact that though in Opposition millionaire donors were to be welcomed as a sign of respectability, in government they would very quickly be seen as buying influence. The Freedom of Information Act was then being debated in Cabinet Committee. It represented a quite extraordinary offer by a government to open itself and Parliament to scrutiny. Its consequences would be revolutionary; the power it handed to the tender mercy of the media was gigantic. We did it with care, but without foresight. Politicians are people and scandals will happen. There never was going to be a happy ending to that story, and sure enough there wasn’t. The irony was that far from improving our reputation, we sullied it.”
Tony Blair, A Journey, Hutchinson, September 2010
Which all, to me, appear to arguments in favour of strengthening the act – fair playing fields, reduced ability for ministers, and officials at all levels to bend the truth, a well-informed electorate.
Shall we offer this to the press? That we have NO intention to hamstring their role in bringing important issues to the public ear, but we have every intention of stopping the bullying and the witch-hunts?
Let’s make them the offer – we massively increase the protection of the citizens, and we also increase the transparency of government. I’m willing to make a deal. (As part of this deal the Daily Mail might have to also agree to stop talking about Cancer)