Press freedom is not a new topic. It’s been with us, as an issue, since the days of town criers – probably before. However, in the wake of the News of the World phone tapping scandal here in the UK and the arrests of several journalists in Turkey this is not a subject that is going away.
Boiling the whole thing down, I think there are basically two issues here. Firstly how invasive is a state prepared to be in the process of disseminating information to the public and what the words ‘in the public interest’ actually mean?
To take the second issue first, my interpretation of ‘in the public interest’ covers those things that the public need to know and/or will benefit from knowing. For instance I would say it is in the public interest to know if or when a nuclear accident occurs. In the past accidents have happened and they have been covered up, even here in the UK. That’s a no brainer. What’s also in the public interest are details about politicians shady pasts (and presents) because if your Prime Minister is a convicted fraudster or paedophile you need to know about it so that you can, at the very least, be on your guard against him/her. Moving further into the vexed area of ‘celebrity’ I would argue that it is in the public interest to know whether someone who claims to be a role model of some sort is actually telling the truth, especially if he or she is trading commercially on his or her image as a ‘good sort’. After that, for me at least, it all starts to get a bit odd.
Do I, for instance, need to know that a famously promiscuous rockstar is having sex with another girl half his age? Do I actually want photographs of his saggy old bum alongside hers in some villa in Barbados on the front of my newspaper (over my cornflakes)? More importantly do I need to know what was on a murder victim’s mobile phone years after her death? I don’t. The police need that information, for what it’s worth and it shouldn’t be in the hands of some journalist who is only interested in raising the profile of his or her newspaper.
What is in the public interest is something that requires the application of a bit of common sense. Heaven forefend that I should protect celebrities and their brittle egos but journalism that concentrates obsessively on these people not only invades their privacy but also raises their profiles to ridiculous levels. So called ‘celeb magazines’ run exclusively on this nonsense which is puerile and shallow and makes those who read it puerile and shallow too. Personally I couldn’t care less whether Kim Kardashian (whoever she is) has had a tummy tuck or not, I’m too busy trying to earn my living and pay my bills.
More sinister however is the issue of the involvement of governments in press and media freedom. Putting the problem of copyright and piracy to one side, this is where governments decide that their citizens are forbidden access to certain information. The classic example is China where all references on the internet to the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 are just not there. The Chinese government don’t want to deal with it and so it just didn’t happen.
I think that what offends me most about all this is the lack of respect it shows for the citizen. Do the Chinese government think that their citizens are stupid? It happened, everybody knows it and I just don’t get what pretending otherwise achieves. Dissent is normal amongst humans and in fact all animals and my belief is that you deny or persecute dissent at your peril. Give people information and a voice and they will respect you for it, tell them that something doesn’t exist when it patently does and you’re storing up a world of trouble for yourself.
But governments across the world still relentlessly tell their people that black is white and make moral judgements on behalf of their citizens on a daily basis. Personally I don’t see that it’s getting any better either. I was actually listening to a small news item on the radio this morning where the reporter was saying that modern Britain was going back to the 1980s. With mass unemployment, a hard line Conservative government and civil unrest, yes the similarities are there. I just hope that we manage to avoid some of the limits on our freedoms that Margaret Thatcher wanted to impose back then, when we all marched and shouted and rioted against her. I just hope that this current generation does get its head out of its celebrity magazines and at least prepare to storm the barricades. Our freedoms are not to be taken for granted and they have to be nurtured, like plants, all the time.