Freedom of the Press? Why we need to be equally wary about freedom from the press
Freedom of the press is an issue with no less resonance today than at any time within the last few decades. Volatile geopolitics, intra-state and regional conflicts, and the attack on subversive activity cultivated an unpleasant reality for journalists in 2014. The esteemed CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) reported that international journalists were killed in relation to their work at an unusually high rate in 2014, estimating at least 60 globally.
Freedom of the press is vital, no one will deny this. Not considered enough however, and of an equally important magnitude I would argue, is the covert encroachment on the opinions of media consumers by this very same press. The press is a broad term, filled with journalists of varying values and integrities, and I certainly wouldn’t want to vilify those of admirable qualities. There is, however, factions within the press whose utilisation of ostensible and conjectural pieces of information begs me to question; should we be wary about freedom from the press?
Perhaps the most enduring and illustrative example of a press weaponising erroneous information is the infamous ’45 minutes from doom’ discourse that penetrated the fears of British citizens before the Invasion of Iraq. Although an older example it’s one of invaluable currency; an intelligence report of tenuous credibility (for which two years later is admitted by the government as having never should have been published) declares that Saddam’s stockpile of chemical weapons could barrage Britain unknowingly within 45 minutes. Traveling through various levels of government it finds itself in the hands of a story-hungry media; London Evening Standard, The Sun, The Star and many other newspapers run the story with eye catching headlines.
A sensationalised story whips up a frenzy which, among other factors, precipitates an invasion into Iraq. Considering some of the more contemporary examples perhaps 2013 is a good place to start.
This was the year various papers were beside themselves with fears over the invading Romanians and Bulgarians. Unsurprisingly papers like The Sun, the Daily Express and the Daily Star ran erroneous headlines foretelling a tsunami of immigrants destined for these British Isles, however it was the Daily Mail who dropped the ball. Warning of sold out coaches, the doubling of airline flights, skyrocketing tickets for anything leaving for Britain, and legions of Romanians and Bulgarians discussing on the internet how to reap our benefit system. They ran a piece of bold and scary claims, and almost got away with it.
Feeling something was up Jon Danzig, former investigative journalist at the BBC, went with his intuition and discovered a litany of discrepancies; Wizz Air denied ever having to double its airline flights from Romania and Bulgaria; buses leaving Bulgaria’s capital Sofia for London were not sold out; no links to the forums discussing benefits were included in the article, Danzig personally requested the addresses for the websites, the Mail declined his request.
Humorously Danzig has since launched a formal complaint to the Press Complaints Commission over their unfounded claims. Of equal vitriol for European imports was The Sun, who after David Cameron’s calls for repealing the Human Rights Act referred to it on their front page as the “hated Human Rights Act”, somehow surmising that this view is shared throughout Britain.
Lastly I’d like to consider how the press demonise benefit recipients to cultivate support for austerity measures. By circulating a discourse vilifying beneficiaries as predominantly lazy, unwilling to work, spongers, and disability claimants as cheats, this proliferates and instils a stigma. Writing for the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice Libby McEnhill and Victoria Byre underwent a case study on The Sun’s publications on benefit claimants in 2012 alone, procuring interesting results.
They found 139 articles about welfare claimants, 70 of those articles on benefit fraud, 59 of those articles specifically on disability benefit fraud and then 40 pertaining to individual cases. The fact that such a high proportion pertained to disability fraud and individual cases creates a personalised touch; these aren’t just demographics, they’re real people, they could be your neighbours, and they’re living off the government! By publishing such a large proportion on benefit fraud it also reinforces the view that most recipients are just lazy, fraudulent scroungers.
Sometimes freedom from the press is important. It’s important to realise that not all news outlets possess integrity, or the willingness to report fairly, with evidence based claims or even with impartiality. Thinking for yourself has become a valuable commodity.
By Jack Longman, Junior Writer for Daily Political View.