One of the things we most cherish about our green and pleasant land™ is our free press. Our newspapers are free to print whatever they like, within the confines of our absurdly oppressive libel laws, and they are not controlled by the state. This is entirely true. However, if newspapers are free from state interference, does this mean they still represent a genuinely ‘free press’? The answer to this is surely no.
During this disheartening and, literally in my case, depressing post truth election campaign, there is no political balance. This is the normal state of affairs in Britain, where the vast majority of newspapers support the position of parties on the right of politics. Of the national titles, only the Mirror and the Guardian speaks from the left of centre. The rest supports, and indeed cheerleads, from the centre right position of the Times to the hard right politics of the Mail, Telegraph, Sun and Express.
In reality, the only aspect of press freedom in Britain is freedom from government control. Newspapers pride themselves in being free to print whatever they want to print without direct government intervention. Far more concerning has to be the ownership of the press and they influence they have on their newspapers.
There is little by way of left wing, or even centrist, opinion in the hard right press. Editors and – who knows? – perhaps even proprietors determine who writes what and the editorial stance of the press, even when many of them are not British and don’t even live in Britain. You and I could not secure a page in a red top newspaper because our political views won’t fit with theirs. If I was to send an article to the Sun saying their hero Boris Johnson was a serial liar, adulterer, shyster, huckster and fraud, the odds are it might not get published. In fact, the freedom of the press exists for very few people.
Granted, the media has greatly changed in recent years and far fewer people actually buy newspapers. It’s generally older people who buy papers and they, I suspect, approve of the hard right stance of most of them. It is a matter of fact that older people are more right wing and anti-Europe. Logically, it follows that their papers reflect their opinions and, dare I say, prejudices. Don’t believe that just because fewer people consume their news through the printed word, the red tops don’t make a difference. They absolutely do.
The rich and powerful will argue that any of us can start up our own newspaper because we are all free to do so. All we need is a full hundred million quid and we can be part of the ‘free press’. Yeah, right.
I have this blog which is read by over 150,000 people. (This is a Boris Johnson type fact since there have been over 150,000 hits on this site but that’s over years, not days!) I can express my views, openly and with freedom, but not as much freedom as a national newspaper who can employ lawyers when they get something wrong. Trust me: it’s terrifying when you get threatened by a national newspaper over something you have written.
So, I have the freedom to write, just like you do, but to all intents and purposes that freedom has its limits. The so called free press is anything but free. The Behemoths of Fleet Street are unaccountable to anyone bar their billionaire owners or their shareholders and in truth your ordinary punter is almost entirely excluded from the process.
There is no appetite among politicians or, I sense, the public to better regulate the press and none to have state intervention. In reality, the decline of newspapers will happen in evolutionary ways as the older readers die off and the next generation consumes its information in other ways. For now, we’re stuck with the right wing propaganda sheets of the filthy rich who probably sit and laugh at us from their luxury homes in tax haven paradise.
Let’s not call ours a free press, though. It really is anything but free.