Fabian View of the Necessity of Press Regulation

Fabian Book Pic

I’ve posted a few quotations today from Peter Archer’s paper on ‘The Constitution’ in Ben Pimlott’s collection of papers Fabian Essays in Socialist Thought (London: Heinemann 1984). There’s another section from the same paper, which is also extremely timely, in which he advocates better regulation of the press to protect the public against propaganda and distortion. He believes this is necessary, as we needed a well-informed electorate with access to reliable, unbiased information to make democracy properly work. Archer states

The second, and converse, problem which has accompanied the expansion of the news industry is what, if anything, can be done about the abuse by large sections of the press of their opportunities for manipulating opinion. Those who wield a giant’s strength, in the absence of a saint’s conscience, are likely to endanger the very values which they helped to nurture (as the media are never tired of reminding the trade unions).

Electors cannot exercise their power of decision in a vacuum. Inevitably those who have access to presses and microphones will be in a position to control the supply of facts and ideas. And however high their standards, there are limits to the degree of detail or profundity attainable. The attention earned by any pronouncement will depend less upon its importance than upon its sensation value. Sometimes the sacred right to free speech will be invoked on behalf of the spiteful and the trivial. What is not inevitable is the veritable absence of control over standards of accuracy and fairness, which in the 1983 election probably reached an all-time low.

There is of course a whole range of inhibitions upon the right of the media to report information which has come their way. any civilised community requires rules relating to contempt of court, to defamation, to privacy and to obscenity. It is arguable that in some respects they are too restrictive, and the reports of Royal Commissions and committees accumulating dust on departmental shelves bear witness to the reluctance of successive governments to lift even a corner of the lid from this Pandora’s box. Almost certainly the subject will need to be treated as a package, but these statutory restrictions are sufficient neither to guarantee an informed electorate nor to protect the privacy of individuals. Every annual report of the Press Council offers fresh evidence of the need for a code of conduct relating to respect for privacy, the correction of inaccuracies and misleading innuendoes, and redress for unfair selectivity. There is also a need for a body with power to impose statutory sanctions. Indeed, the more responsible sections of the press (not only the ‘quality’ papers) have supported the suggestion. Of course, such a body would have to be independent of government. It would need to respect the vitally important freedom to publish facts and express opinions. But the existence of the Press Council itself demonstrates the need for restraints which go beyond the present legal categories. And in their absence, a democratic electorate is like a navigator dependent upon distorted instruments.

Well, the Mail on Sunday, along with its week-day sister and much of the rest of the press smashed its moral compass long ago. Murdoch’s journos are in the dock because of the phone hacking scandal, which has itself resulted in state regulation of the press. And today the Mail on Sunday printed a disgraceful and shameful attack on food banks, largely because their rise embarrasses the government’s claim people aren’t starving under their austerity programme. Mike over at Vox Political has expressed misgivings about the campaign on Change.org to have the journalist, who wrote the article, sacked. The man was simply given a job to do by the editor. This does not excuse him, but the real responsibility for the story lies with the newspaper itself, and it and its editor should be subject to extreme censure.

For decades the British press was allowed a large degree of freedom to print its lies and bile because both Tory and Labour administrations felt they could use its support. John Major felt that he should have moved to limit Murdoch’s power after the newspaper magnate abandoned the Tories for Tony Blair. And Blair was constantly worrying about what Murdoch and Dacre would have to say about any of his policies. As a result the power of the press has grown, and journalistic standards become even lower. And this vile, partisan attack on food banks is the result.

The Mail on Sunday should be ashamed of itself, and held to account for its lies and falsehoods for attacking the one institution that now stands between many people and starvation.

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