Press freedom is under attack. Is it worth fighting for? -- World Press Freedom Day, 3 May
- World Press Freedom Day, 3 May
A few years ago, I ran a training course for journalists in Syria. My students, like the rest of the population, were living under a dictatorship, though there were tentative signs that the Damascus government was easing its controls; enough, at least, to invite a Western journalist to give lectures on how a free media works.
The journalists, mostly in their twenties, were bright and enthusiastic about the idea of a free press. But on the last training day, a young man who had excelled on the course said to me: "Mr David, we can see why a free press is desirable, but when we go back to our newspapers the editors will not allow us to practice what we have learned because they know it will get them into trouble with the government."
It is a comment I have heard repeatedly in recent years from journalists in the countries where I have worked and lectured, but where the press is kept on an impossibly tight leash.
The level of freedom given to any media always depends on governments. And tyrannical rulers used to peddling propaganda through a state-controlled media are unlikely to suddenly allow their actions to be subjected to scrutiny. Journalists who fight to tell the truth are often punished with threats, beatings, jail sentences and - as we saw recently with the killing of Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin in Syria - even death.
Debating the value of a free press has never been more timely, especially in the UK. Here, for centuries, a vigilant and free media has allowed journalists to question those in government, expose their frauds and frailties and hold even the most powerful to account. But the phone- hacking scandal - which saw the closure of the UK's biggest-selling Sunday newspaper, The News of the World, and prompted the relentless probe of the Leveson Inquiry - threatens to change the face of our press forever.
Certainly there were questions that needed to be asked. Has the press been allowed to become too powerful? Was the relationship between media baron Rupert Murdoch, his lieutenants, former prime ministers and public officials too cosy to prevent corruption? And what responsibility do the police have to investigate their own ranks and expose those being paid, along with other public officials, for confidential information that led to stories for the now-defunct newspaper?
So what do we do now? Though the Leveson Inquiry has provided a deeply unedifying glimpse into the seedier side of what is still referred to as Fleet Street, it is hard not to feel that the inquiry is being used by some as an excuse to hobble the media and prevent legitimate investigations in the future.
For many MPs, it is payback time for a press that has, quite literally in some cases (think John Prescott), caught them with their pants down. And for MPs who had details of their lavish and often preposterous expenses revealed, the chance to put the boot in has been impossible to resist.
Celebrities, too, have an obvious interest in shackling the media, including Leveson Inquiry witness Hugh Grant, who was exposed by a newspaper after being caught with a prostitute in a car on Sunset Boulevard, LA. (There was no skulduggery here. Attention was attracted, allegedly, because the brake lights on Grant's stationary car kept flashing.)
Even the police - who sent 20 officers to arrest a single journalist at his home during the phone-hacking investigation; a greater number than they might deploy to apprehend a terrorist - appear keen to shift the blame on to the press.
There is a real danger that the Leveson Inquiry, though set up with good intentions, is demonising journalists in the eyes of the public. And in this near-hysteria, it is easy to forget the vital role played by the press in this country.
The biggest concern about the Leveson Inquiry, however, is that it has raised the spectre of state controls on the media, which would be a disastrous move not only for journalists and newspapers, but also for freedom of speech and the very foundations of democracy.
Laws are already in place to punish journalists who act illegally; they just need to be enforced. Do we need another layer of laws and punitive measures? After the death of Diana, the late Princess of Wales, in 1997, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) introduced a new code of practice forbidding "persistent pursuit" by reporters and photographers, and banned newspapers from approaching or photographing pupils without the permission of school authorities. The code is voluntary, however, and it is clear that self-regulation of the press, through the PCC, has proved largely inadequate.
But do we really want politicians deciding how journalists should monitor and scrutinise their policies and actions, and what they are allowed to reveal about them? Ask your students their views - perhaps they could draw up their own measures for raising press standards.
In my view, government controls would not only emasculate the press, but also vastly increase the scope for the abuse of official powers and threaten our fundamental freedoms. Why not throw the debate open in class? But you may also want to remind pupils of the young journalists I have trained on courses in countries under, or just emerging from, dictatorships. None of us wants to end up feeling like the journalists I met in Syria.
David Harrison is an award-winning journalist who has worked on national newspapers and magazines for more than 25 years, reporting from more than 70 countries. He has covered wars in many parts of the world and has carried out major investigations into human rights abuses.
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