Our free press is dodging its responsibilities

19 Nov 2016


'ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE' screamed last Friday’s Daily Mail front page, making clear its vehement incredulity at the High Court’s ruling that the Prime Minister could not trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty without parliamentary assent. Ironic communist overtones aside, was there anything really that shocking in the Mail’s splash, given its penchant for outrage at anything, including, but certainly not limited to, immigration, carrier bags, and the art of sandwich making?


For left-wing millennials such as myself, it’s often easy to forget that a publication which so often borders on self-parody has a circulation of 1.5million (as of March this year), giving it the second highest readership of any national newspaper. A readership that includes my grandma, although she claims she only buys it for the crossword.


But there is a serious point to this red and blue-top bashing. The people who write for the Daily Mail, and the people who edit the Daily Mail, are undoubtedly intelligent people. I’d hazard a guess that there was not one person in the offices of the Mail who didn’t know the exact details of that High Court ruling on Thursday 3 November. And if they did indeed know the exact ins and outs of that case, that’s a big problem.


In his book, ‘The British Press’, Mick Temple writes that: “The British press is one of the most partisan in the world, and it tends to wear that partisanship on its sleeve.”


Political partisanship is absolutely fine; it’s one of the underpinnings of our free press that the Mail can, for example, call Jeremy Corbyn a Marxist and back Theresa May at the next election. I made a joke earlier about its campaign on carrier bags, but it’s undoubtedly one of the most successful newspaper campaigns in recent history, and it’s a great thing that a national newspaper can run such campaigns.


But despite its amusing quirks, we must always remember what the true purpose of the free press is.


One of the fundamental arguments for why freedom of expression is necessary was put forward in the nineteenth century by one of Britain’s greatest philosophers, John Stuart Mill. His argument, which has been labelled the ‘Argument from Truth’, is that as a result of the ‘marketplace of ideas’ that arises from freedom of expression, and subsequent healthy debate, a universal ‘truth’ will become clear. Discovery of this important truth helps to inform politicians and thus move society in a better direction.


And so back to the Mail and the High Court. The court case was not, as the paper’s stand first declared, a defiance of 17.4m Brexit voters, nor did it ‘block Brexit,’ as the similarly hysterical Daily Express screamed. The ‘truth,’ as we can ascertain it, is simply that Theresa May cannot trigger Article 50 without Parliament’s assent.


If staff at the Mail, or any other media organisation which incorrectly presented the court ruling, did know what the ruling actually said, then they are knowingly lying. This surely rubbishes the argument for giving them that freedom of expression in the first place.


Indeed, during this period of so-called ‘post-truth politics’, newspapers and broadcasters have even more of a responsibility to hold power to account. And in fact, in the case of some of those who were in favour of Brexit, they appear to be dodging that responsibility.


Let’s segue to another important issue of the day. Heathrow Airport expansion was approved on October 25 this year. Some newspapers, such as The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, used their leader columns to critically reflect on the pros and cons of the decision. Some other newspapers did not.


The issue with papers like The Mail and The Sun backing Brexit so heavily is that they are now so ideologically committed to the idea that rather than now continuing to exist to hold power to account, they have resorted to becoming cheerleaders for the government.


The Mail wrote: “In the Second World War, Churchill famously ordered a rubber stamp emblazoned: ‘ACTION THIS DAY.’ Mrs May should dig it out – and put it to use.”


The Sun wasn’t much different, it wrote: “In doing so (expanding Heathrow) they sent an important and potent message to investors and companies around the world that Brexit Britain is open for business.”


It’s absolutely fine for a national newspaper to take a stance on Brexit, and also on Heathrow expansion. But the two highest circulation newspapers in the country not bothering with any critical analysis of facts, or pros and cons, and instead resorting to simple jingoistic cheerleading for the very government they supposedly exist to hold to account raises huge question marks over the idea of a free press, or the aims of freedom of expression itself.


In this time of global uncertainty, at a time when politicians seem increasingly to indulge in half-truths and untruths, it doesn’t seem so much to ask for a national newspaper industry to tell the truth and scrutinise the decisions of an elected government. In fact, if you subscribe to Mill’s philosophy, these are the very functions this industry was created to do. It does seem, however, that some of the members of this esteemed club are shirking from their responsibilities.


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