• Isabelle Osborne

Is media freedom a necessity for a functional society?

The media: the main means of mass communication in our world.

In our constantly developing and ever-changing society, the media builds the foundations of our knowledge and formulates our opinion, through broadcasting, publishing and printing.

The status quo in the UK is that our media personnel have the legal right to publish whatever they wish, which is upheld in Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The brain of the media exists on the freedom to say and do whatever it pleases, it’s mechanics fuelled by complete liberty.

We are consumers of and consumed by media. It opens vast opportunities for us to learn, teach, understand and appreciate. On the surface, the media works well, the efficiency and ease of obtaining essential news functioning captured by the media’s access to crucial pieces of information. But a debate has been continuously shouldered as to whether the media should uphold the right to freedom of speech. I pose the question: is media freedom a necessity for a functional society?

To open the debate, it is important to understand how the media plays an undeniably important role in the reception and projection of information, and that this is attributed to their freedom of publication. Let’s look at two cases in which the media has arguably prevented serious injustice from occurring.

The Downing Street Memo was described as ‘the smoking gun’ of the Iraq War, when in 2002, The Sunday Times released a memo to the public showing that President George W. Bush had plans to give out false information regarding Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. The supposed aim of this false memo was to justify the UK-USA attack on Iraq. This caused uproar, the injustice of the Memo becoming an embarrassment to our country. Imagine a media without freedom of speech; it is likely there would have been strict preventions to stop the media publishing this story due to its negative and embarrassing appeal, and the public would have been pushed into a dark corner, knowing little of the truth of major political injustices.

Also in 2002, the media uncovered a sexual abuse scandal in Boston, which was part of a collection of Catholic Church sexual abuse cases in the United States and Ireland. The media continuously covered the case over a period of five years. Without any freedom of speech of media, there may not have been a single exposure of the scams and political wrongdoings by such powerful people and organisations, demonstrating the media’s power to expose the nasty reality. This solidifies that freedom of speech is crucial to bringing peace and happiness across the world.

We can certainly see the benefit of a free media when considering the situation of press freedom in other countries. Alarmingly, governments all over the world are suppressing journalists who are critical for obtaining and projecting information to the public. A clear message has been sent to many journalists in Asia as their commercial support has declined, governments have withdrawn their advertising, and hostile takeovers are taking place. In Cambodia, two journalists were jailed for longer than the soldiers they exposed of massacring civilians.

North Korea has one of the most tightly controlled media systems in the world. The Korean television network is State run, only sanctioning news programmes and documentaries, which praise the leadership of King Jong-un, the current North Korean leader. As in any dictatorial-based media system, the totalitarian regime in North Korea keeps its people in a state of ignorance. This is more so damaging considering the fact that, because people often choose what to watch or read based on what they already believe, the media is vitally important for exerting a negligible influence through freedom of the press. This shows how important the truth is, and this happens with a free media. This is crucial when influencing those who are less informed on matters concerning the wider population, such as during elections. This demonstrates that the media is essential for providing the truth and positively influencing the more impressionable.

Perhaps more extreme than that of North Korea is the situation in China. The Chinese Government limit access to all foreign news, restricting the use of satellite receivers and blocking websites. All radio stations function under nationalisation, their aim being to extend China’s political influence and boost the Communist image. What is more, the Chinese government stipulates that foreign journalists who wish to report on the current situation of China must gain official permission before doing so, and are banned from reporting on issues such as corruption and the economic or financial state of the country, so not to damage China’s reputation. The people who are part of this world are treated like mindless monkeys, their leaders taking away their humanity and freedoms by undermining press freedom. If we subject ourselves to a system seen in North Korea and China, our society will be built on superficial knowledge and naïve prospects.

If we argue the situations in dictatorial countries are wrong and unjust, we must be mindful of hypocrisy if we wish to remove press freedom. A debate is being had over whether social media sites such as Twitter, and online corporations such as YouTube, should reserve the right to remove content deemed inappropriate. The possibility of this occurring highlights there is a fine line between taking people’s right to expression, and protecting the vulnerability of individuals at the hands of the press.

However, this is only one side of the story, as allowing the media total freedom unfortunately leads to abuse of power on occasion. Considering the tragic death of Princess Diana, a result of a car chase by fierce paparazzi photographers in Paris, the dangers of ultimate press freedom are evident. Such was the conclusion to a life poisoned by media trolling, preposterous conspiracy theories and continuous breaching of privacy. The media portrayed Diana in whatever light they saw fit to boost their paper sales and viewing numbers, regardless of the fact Diana’s mental wellbeing was undermined every time a newspaper was published. The unbelievable price that was put on Diana’s pictures fuelled the greedy paparazzi as they crossed the line between privacy and promotion. She was a prisoner trapped within an unsympathetic royal system and shackled to an unjustly unrealistic public image. This is a clear example of a life that was destroyed and diminished by the media. Freelance Journalists were (and still are) paid obscene amounts of money to grasp pictures and stories of celebrities, Princess Diana being just one victim of many. The cruelty brought on Diana’s life by constant press hounding was unjust and unfair; will it take more ruin and death for society to realise what the consequences are of such danger?

A more low profile, but equally as devastating, story is that of Sunil Tripathi. Tripathi was wrongly accused of being the Boston Marathon bomber. After developing depression, he suspended his university studies and went missing from home. Three days after the Boston bombings, the FBI released two photos of the suspects. Sunil had become the man responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings overnight. Many media organisations began to run with the story, and immediately, the Tripathi Facebook page that had been set up in a desperate attempt to find Sunil was flooded with threats and angry messages. On top of this, several journalists with large Twitter followings began to retweet the police accusations. The next day, the television network NBC announced that Tripathi was not a suspect.  But it was too late, and Sunil’s reputation was destroyed. Sunil was found dead in a river a few days later. This shows how rumours, speculation and dangerous lies conjured by journalists who fail to check the facts can distort the truth and ruin lives.

Both Princess Diana’s and Tripathi’s deaths highlight what media portrayal can do to the perceptions of people. People are fickle, and believe anything the media say, so that they base their opinions of people on grossly incorrect stories. This subsequently leads to the ‘echo-chamber effect’, whereby the media’s reinforcement of false preconceptions reverberate through society until they are deemed as a reflection on reality.

The Leveson Inquiry is an interesting entity to bring into this debate. Launched with the aim of scrutinising the practices of the British press, the Inquiry was provoked after it was exposed that News of the World had hacked the mobile phone belonging to Milly Dowler, who disappeared at the age of 13 in 2002. Leveson chaired the examination of power relations between the press, the public, politicians and police, with the aim of making recommendations on how press regulation should be reformed. Prior to the Inquiry, the press was under ‘self-regulation’, which arguably gave rise to the aggressive tabloid culture we have experienced in Britain. Whilst this article will not go into details about the Inquiry itself, it makes clear that our country has seen the consequences of lack of press regulation, and highlights how there is nothing in the UK constitution to guarantee and protect media free speech. Most importantly, it shows how the upper echelons of British society have on occasion, questioned press freedom.

This is a debate that cannot be settled with a conversation such as the one this article has provoked. The media exists to educate, teach and raise awareness; such a system has never been as powerful and poignant in our society, and so it is understandable how press freedom is necessary for a functional society. However, at the same time, it would be wise for governments across the world to assess the difficulties that have arisen as a result of media corruption. In the interest of public protection, laws could be passed to restrict unmerciful and unjust acts at the hands of the media without robbing them of their right. The system is not perfect, and it is evident that changes must be made, without the use of such drastic action as to take away the media’s freedom of speech. As the French Enlightenment writer François-Marie Arouet, known by his nom de plume Voltaire once said; “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.’

Featured image courtesy of AbsolutVision on Unsplash. Image license can be found here. No changes were made to this image.