Freedom of the Press: What’s the Point?
Democracy is the best possible form of governance by virtue that ‘we the people’ know our best interests. The information made available to voters undeniably effect their political decisions and shape their participation. Therefore there is no greater threat to the modern democratic process than misinformation. The threat is especially severe when it comes from the press which has a certain authority. Fake news distorts our perception of reality and would make us incapable of knowing our own interests.
Assurances of freedom of speech and the tolerance of diverging opinions are fundamental ingredients of democracy. They guard against governments monopolising factual reality. The silencing of dissent is the defining hallmark of autocratic control, regardless of political ideology. Fear of state regulation of the press is prudent and correct. George Orwell’s 1984 is a treatise against authoritarianism. He termed falsehoods made accepted realities by overpowered states ‘alternative facts.’
President Trump has made state regulated fact disturbingly relevant by decrying negative commentary as fake news. He encourages his followers to disbelieve anything that doesn’t come directly from the white house (or specific news media outlets that regurgitate or justify his own narratives). Micheal Gove troublingly echoee this mindset in his pre-EU referendum comments eroding the authority of recognised experts.
Falsehoods: The Only Alternative to Facts
Critical reading and personal fact checking is currently our only major defence against alternative fact. But people do not have the time to research everything they have read to verify its credibility. Many people receive their news from either a singular or a small number of sources. This exacerbated the issue. People reading, particularly unknowingly, two publications by the same media moguls is hugely problematic for their ability to think critically.
Kelly Anne Conway illustrated the Orwellian possibilities of reality distortion when she established the fictitious ‘Bowling Green Massacre’ as an historical event. This ‘alternative fact,’ justified a legislative travel ban on citizens of certain Middle Eastern countries. The fabrication usefully masks a truth recorded by the CATO institute and US law enforcement statistics. Not a single refugee from one of the seven countries included in the initial ‘travel ban’ proposal has perpetrated a terrorist act on American soil in the last 40 years.
Conway later admitted that she had ‘misspoke’ and had intended to make reference to a factual arrest made in 2011. Two Iraqi men were arrested in bowling green, Kentucky for ‘attempting to provide material support to terrorists and to Al-Qaeda in Iraq.’
I don’t have the generosity to believe this an honest mistake but the intention is irrelevant to the material impact. A poll conducted later in the month, after Kelly Anne Conway’s corrective statement, showed that 51% of Trump voters polled still believed the event happened and that ‘the Bowling Green Massacre shows why Trump’s immigration policy is needed.’ Clearly, they didn’t get the memo which received far less coverage in the right wing media. Corrections can’t be left to alternative news sources that those misled do not read,or necessarily trust.
The difficulty of knowing intention however should shape our reaction to the threat. It would be untenable to arrive at a situation where journalists feared reprisals for misspeaking or unintentionally misleading people. In fact any sort of reprisal, or censorship for that matter, would be a dangerous assault on press freedom. One need only look at the situation in India to see where this road can lead.
Need for speed, reality drift.
A 2017 British parliamentary inquiry highlighted the rising frequency of misleading, inaccurate or outright false information. Misinformation spreads worse now because of the nature, as the popularity and immediacy of news in the digital age relies on ‘likes and shares’ to increase readership. This has negatively impacted press standards. All too often the need for speed has reduced the accuracy of reporting and the ability for falsehoods to spread viraly. New legislation, buttressing the medias’ responsibility to inform the public of inaccuracies and erroneous information is an antidote. The media can function without reprisal or reduction of their right to free speech but with the ever present and legally enshrined responsibility to provide accuracy not simply speed.
We must confront and curb the spread of misinformation without damaging the freedom of the press but that is not impossible. A balance needs to be struck between the right of free press must be balanced with the right to accurate information and the media must be forced to assume responsibility for the latter. Press freedom ensures that the government is unable to warp our perception of the world and our interests. It is equally integral that no other group or individual is able to do so, hence press standards. They are not strong enough.
The Science of Journalism
There is already a pre-existing model that should be echoed in our press regulation standards: scientific journals. These publications similarly define our objective reality and shape our responses to the world. They rely upon a system of peer reviewing to maintain factual standards and accuracy.
In the UK, organisations such as the Independent Press Standards Organisation play a very important role in media regulation. A number of newspapers are not signed up to these regulators which limits their scope. The Canary, for instance, have in the past praised specific rulings made by IPSO but are not currently signed up to their standards. They have good reason for this. The board that mediate and arbitrate on these cases, following a public complaints procedure, is made up of a select group of people. These media appointments come largely from the traditional, largely right-wing, media. They serve alongside the currently well selected non-media-affiliated persons.
Broadening appointments to IPSO, to include those affiliated or associated with any media organisation with a certain level of readership would be a good start. This would reflect the way members of the scientific community are verified by their standing within respected but disparate institutions. In this way the organisation would reflect the scientific community’s system of peer review. This is harder to achieve politically as legislation on their appointment system is open to abuse. A cross party Royal charter would avoid executive regulation of IPSO, as has been done in the past.
The Art of Correction
IPSO, and other bodies would then continue to manage the rulings on press standards and arbitrate between misleading or incorrect information and presentation of opinion. Proportional notification can be implemented through standard legislation without fear of government control so long as this remains the case. The reach of a front page goes beyond the papers readership. Newspapers headlines are previewed and discussed at the beginning of every day of news on the BBC. It is obvious that a large number of those misled never receive a clarification.
Articles can also currently remain online with no link to the clarification. Too often the press archive in such a way as to make it much harder to find the correction via google search or in site navigation. It is frankly not good enough that a newspaper lies to millions and then inform thousands of the fact. Corrections and clarifications surely carry a proportionate interest to the public to the original information? The prominence and reach of an apology should be, by law, proportionate..
In practice this would mean print media placing clarifications on the same page and in the same font size as the original article. Similarly, online news sources should be required to give corrections the same level of social media advertisement and website prominence. They should also mimic the standards of the scientific community who must attach the ‘correction, clarification or apology,’ arrived at through peer review, to the top of any publication of the erroneous article. Facebook could also facilitate a notification system when a person has liked an article that later receives correction.
Support New Standards?
The author of this article has written a motion on this issue for consideration at the Labour Youth Conference. It requires further signatories. If you are a Labour Party member (under 26) and would support such a motion, it is available here. If you would like to support the motion please send your name and labour party membership number to firstname.lastname@example.org