Comment: The press needs money, not just regulation

The Leveson inquiry can suggest how to regulate the press, but we need to spend money if we want quality journalism.

By Dr Matthew Ashton

It's generally accepted in politics that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Therefore politicians and scholars have spent centuries trying to find ways of limiting the influence of governments and individuals. The separation of powers in the US constitution was introduced in part to prevent too much power accumulating in the hands of any one person. In a similar fashion the founding fathers guaranteed their citizens' freedom of speech in the first amendments as a barrier against government corruption.

This week the on-going Leveson Inquiry has been somewhat overshadowed by the public sector strikes and the furore over Jeremy Clarkson's comments. I think this is a shame, especially as ex-News of the World journalist Paul McMullan offered up some of the most controversial testimony that we've heard so far. I'd hate to see the inquiry start to slip down the news agenda as the debate it's stirred up about press freedom is one that should be dominating the national conversation now more than ever.

A free media is clearly a vital component in any democratic society with the press acting as a watchdog on government to help prevent corruption. There are literally thousands of examples in the UK alone where political wrongdoing has been exposed by the media. Journalists have an incredibly important role in informing and educating the public as to what's really going on in society. The power of government must be counterbalanced and a free media is one of the best institutions to do this.

However this in turn begs the question of who guards the guards? Up until very recently in the UK the answer to this question was that the second set of guards could guard themselves. As a result the press were allowed to self-regulate via the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). The trouble with this is that it clearly didn't work very well and in retrospect should we be surprised? I can think of very few, if any industries where self-regulation does work. However government regulation clearly isn't the answer either as that would defeat the purpose of having a free press. Hopefully the results of the Leveson Inquiry will produce some way of squaring this circle but in the meantime I think there are two very important points that need addressing.

Firstly, what do we actually mean by the freedom of the press? If you mean the freedom of individual journalists to pursue stories in the public interest without interference then I suspect most people would be supportive of this. However some would argue that when we talk about the freedom of the press we're actually talking about the freedom of multi-billion dollar transnational companies. Increasingly more and more news production is being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. If we worry about the power of government we need to worry about these companies as well. Any form of press regulation is pointless if only three or four companies control our access to the news. Therefore I think it's important that we have a greater plurality of news providers.

Secondly it's clear that the debate over press regulation is driven as much by financial and cultural issues as political and legal ones. In the 2011 rankings of press freedom Britain comes in at 29. This means that there are over a dozen European countries that have a freer press then the UK; except very few of them have our tabloid culture. Friends of mine from Germany, Belgium and elsewhere are regularly horrified by the activities of the British tabloids. The freedom to pursue quality investigative journalism is one thing but does that mean we have to have the endless exposes of celebrities sex lives that we've been subjected to in recent years? I don't think anyone really believes that these sort of stories are driven by the public interest or the right to know, so much as the commercial interests of the papers involved.

I think that this is the hub of the problem. Quality journalism costs money and the last few decades have seen severe cutbacks in most media companies with hundreds of journalists being made redundant. As a result the remaining workers have to produce more stories and have less time to follow-up leads, develop contacts and most crucially of all check facts. In part this has meant a blurring of news and entertainment as it's easier and quicker to write 'celeb' news stories and they're more likely to sell. However these same commercial pressures to do more with less and get scoops seems to have led, at least in part, to the culture of relying on private investigators and eventually phone-hacking itself.

Therefore while we do need independent press regulation in Britain I also think that it’s just as important that we spend more money on quality journalism from a greater plurality of news sources. It's partly why I still buy a newspaper every day as well as reading them online for free. If we really do believe the press has such a crucial role in counterbalancing the power of government then I'd argue that we need more journalists with more time and resources to do their jobs properly. Otherwise we run the risk of a free media which doesn't produce anything worth knowing.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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