How to balance press freedom

How to balance press freedom


LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 23:  Newspaper owner E...

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 23: Newspaper owner Evgeny Lebedev (L) arrives at the High Court to give evidence to The Leveson Inquiry on April 23, 2012 in London, England. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

Proprietor of the Independent argues that politicians overestimate impact of the press| BBC  Evgeny Lebedev, owner of The Independent and the Evening Standard today appeared before the Leveson Inquiry arguing that politicians overestimated the power of the press, and urging that the balance of press freedom be maintained — something which is not the case in his native Russia. He pointed out that he had met David Cameron just four times and Ed Miliband twice.

I have a lot of sympathy with Lebedev. He runs a good paper, doesn’t use his influence inappropriately, and comes from a background where press freedom is not valued. In many ways, he is the ideal person to be making the case for defending newspapers to the inquiry. But, equally, his own fairness and the good journalistic standards of The Independent may very well be the reason why Cameron and Miliband have only bothered to see him six times between them: the news in his paper clearly isn’t for sale, and he isn’t going to compromise himself for the sake of influence.

However, his points are well made: “One of the extraordinary things about this country is a very robust and diverse press, and I think that has to be protected.” He goes on to argue that if we enfeeble politicians, the police and the press, we get the tyranny of consensus.

Of course, earlier the same day Sky News CEO John Ryley admitted that his company had been illegally hacking emails.

We need to take Lebedev’s points seriously. A potential outcome of Lord Leveson’s inquiry is that we return to some kind of censorship. That censorship might prevent stories from hacked emails being published, but it would be more likely to prevent the press from keeping politicians accountable. At the same time, the inquiry is not about how stop the press from asking awkward questions — which is the press’s job — but about the impact of illegal activities by journalists in the pursuit of salacious answers.

Thus far, no-one has pointed to an example of how hacked emails or hacked phone calls uncovered a politician misusing their position, or brought a criminal to justice. The latter might well go some way to justifying the over cozy relationship between the Metropolitan Police and the News of the World (though, I feel, nowhere near far enough), but not the phone hacking. What we have is not a press which is on the verge of being shut down, but a press which — in exactly the areas of journalism that Lebedev’s paper steers clear of — is abusing its power over the ordinary citizen and riding roughshod over the law.

Tomorrow, we expect James Murdoch to answer questions about the News of the World. On Wednesday, we are expecting Rupert Murdoch to answer questions which may prove yet more troublesome.

The problem of the free rider is an old one in social-contract moral philosophy. Hobbes, in Leviathan, and Rousseau, in Du Contrat Social, argue that society functions on the basis of a social contract where we behave with enlightened egoism, which is to say, that we espouse moral values and society’s norms because everyone benefits when society works together. However, the free rider — the egoist who estimates that society will not fall to bits in his lifetime if he abuses the system for disproportionate gain — is a problematic figure for social contractists. When Hobbes and Rousseau were writing, there were few if any deliberate free riders who had calculated the impact of social contract theory in that way. Today, there are a large number of people for whom social contract is the baseline of morality, and who, correctly or incorrectly, believe the system will not come crashing down. Of course, there are already a handful of people for whom it did: key figures in the banking crisis, and, before all of them, rogue trader Nick Leeson who brought Barings Bank crashing down a generation before.

The Murdochs may be about to join them.

The paralysingly ironic thing is that it has so often been the press, and investigative journalists, who have brought down the free riders. Not in the case of Leeson, whose crimes found him out rather more quickly than he expected, but in many others. Where the system is powerless to stop you, because you are exploiting the structure of the system itself, burrowing investigators who are not part of that system will catch you when nothing else can.

We come quickly back to the age old question of who will guard the guards. Lebedev is absolutely right in his assertion that without the burrowers, without a strong press, society is liable to fall into the hands of magnate free-riders, as it has done in Russia. But in a competitive world, the Murdoch press’s sponsorship of illegal, free-riding, journalistic activity meant that every other newspaper fighting its corner in the same market was pushed in that direction.

My sincere hope is that we can step back from allowing the actions of Murdoch journalists to curtail press freedom. But it is hard to see how we can. The Press Complaints Commission’s days are numbered. What will replace it? Even the vastly more robust Ofcom was found wanting: Sky News breached Ofcom’s code, but Ofcom had no way of knowing it. A post-regulatory arrangement which takes action after publication or broadcast will never prevent illegal investigation. But what would? Fining the proprietors? How many hundreds of millions of pounds would you have to fine the Murdochs to hurt them? We have already sent the foot soldiers to prison. But, as with large criminal enterprises, the bosses cannot easily be connected to the crime, at least, not in the judicial sense.

Leveson must unpick this conundrum.

In the meantime, three cheers for Lebedev. If there were more like him, we would not be in this mess.

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