Freedom of expression argument should not be misused

By Media Reform Coalition / Wednesday November 14, 2012 Read More
Padraig Reidy’s piece in the New Statesman today , claiming that self-regulation of the press is the only way to preserve freedom of expression for journalists, fundamentally misrepresents how an independent regulator backed by statute would function. Rather than looking at the behaviour of individual journalists, such a regulator would  focus on the owners and editors of media corporations, holding them to account for the damage that their companies do when they publish bad journalism – and particularly when bad journalistic practice is encouraged on an industrial scale. It is precisely because an independent regulator could start to look at the wider culture of newsrooms, rather than focusing on isolated stories written by individuals, that the NUJ supports such a move. Placing the full onus for ethical behavior upon individual journalists, for example by licensing press cards, would indeed place very dangerous limits of freedom of speech – but that idea was proposed byPaul Dacre , not those of us campaigning for a regulator with statutory backing. Reidy raises the question of journalists writing on personal blogs, and it is true that the ability to self-publish on the internet blurs the line between personal and institutional communication. However, there are still distinct issues around corporations and institutions that should not be overlooked because Twitter exists. Iain Overton’s tweet  only had such huge ramifications because his report was about to reach a huge audience via the BBC – if I’d tweeted it to my 380 followers it would have been forgotten instantly. When journalists like Reidy make the argument around media regulation about self-expression, they are letting those who have encouraged corporate malpractice off the hook. As Onora O’Neill argued in her lecture at Goldsmiths college last night, corporations do not have the same right to ‘freedom of expression’ as individuals, because they do not have a ‘self,’ to express. At the same time, the damage they can do is far greater than that caused by individuals – and while this is true for all corporations, it is particularly so for media companies given their central role in the functioning of democracy. This is also why the Media Reform Coalition believe that, while independent regulation is necessary, it is not enough. Unless limits are placed on the size of media companies, and steps taken to reverse the huge concentration of media power that has developed over the last thirty years, they will continue to control and distort the context in which ordinary people exercise their right to freedom of expression. And these distortions are as damaging to individual journalists like Padraig Reidy as they are to everybody else.