Thursday, 31 May 2012

Gove and Leveson - The Contradiction and the Flaw

Michael Gove's appearance at the Leveson enquiry this week was a compelling event. Michael really engaged in debating the central questions and purpose of the enquiry to the extent that he drew Lord Leveson into a series of thoughtful and illuminating exchanges. This clip from Channel 4 is an example of one such exchange.

Essentially Michael's position is that regulation of the press is something to be very wary of, something which risks comprising 'freedom of speech'. Essentially his position is that regulation would be wrong.


In the earlier exchanges Michael said, 'One of the reasons I favour free expression is that I believe that  it is through public debate, the clash of ideas, that we can arrive at a better form of governing ourselves...'

Who could disagree with this very reasonable position? If people are well informed with true and accurate information they can, through open debate and discussion, arrive at the best solutions to problems.. simples.

But if the information they receive is incorrect, non factual, or distorted can they?

It's a difficult question. The simple answer is no but some would argue that a degree of incorrect or distorted information can be tolerated, because it will be exposed by others and corrected.

Theoretically this self-correcting principle works but.. does it apply to the UK Press?

Does the UK press consist of hundreds of informed voices each arguing from their own perspectives, engaging in a clash of ideas and working on the basis of well established fact?

When asked about the 'editorial direction' of the Times Newspaper (where Michael worked for many years), Michael explained that editorial direction comes (unsurprisingly) primarily from the editor. He went on to explain his role as 'leader writer':

'It was my role, when writing the leader, to represent the world view and the stated view of the editor, but before that view was arrived at, there would be a free and open discussion, and there were a number of occasions on which I argued vigorously against the view  that I thought the editor might hold, and then, if the editor was unconvinced, which was usually the case,  I would knuckle down and write the leader in accordance with the line that he decreed.'

So it would seem that rather than a clash of ideas, often the leading editorial line on any given subject is 'decreed' by the editor. Editors are employed by newspaper publishers (proprietors) presumably because of their skills and abilities but also because their 'world-view' is consistent with or acceptable to the publisher.

It therefore must follow that the more that the media is dominated by a single 'publisher', the more that the information delivered to the public will be 'coloured' or distorted by a particular world-view. So much for the  'clash of ideas'.

So what about 'Facts'?

Unfortunately, the UK Press is not wholly or even largely focussed on delivering facts. Whilst the Times does have a reputation for delivering facts based news (albeit with limitations explored above) the UK's two popular daily newspapers The Sun and the Daily Mail are considerably less interested in reporting fact based news. They are far more geared to sensation and revelation, often dressed up as and widely accepted as factual news. The brilliant 'Daily Mash' website parodies the Daily Mail's approach.

The combined circulation of The Sun and the Daily is currently around 4.5 million per day. The Times is less than 400,000 - a mere 9%.. In overall terms, factual news reporting is thin on the ground.

I completely agree with Michael's statement:

'One of the reasons I favour free expression is that I believe that  it is through public debate, the clash of ideas, that we can arrive at a better form of governing ourselves...'

But effective 'public debate' can only be achieved if the public's source of information is either factually accurate or is derived from a sufficient number of well informed and unbiased (or influenced) sources so that the facts can be established.

In practice there is little genuine 'public debate' in the UK. Instead democracy is practised by proxy, by the media on our behalf 'debating' issues from a limited number of perspectives and with, in many cases, uncertain 'facts'.

The Leveson enquiry is somewhat flawed because it is an enquiry into 'The Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press'. In reality it should be an enquiry into the broader media because it would then have a better chance of arriving at recommendations for 'a better form of governing ourselves'.

In my opinion we do need to govern the media in order to find a better form of governing ourselves by insisting on facts based news reportage and by ensuring that in line with general freedom of thought, speech and liberty ensure that no-one is over-mighty and has a too loud or widely pervasive voice. A genuine clash of ideas is indeed essential.

Michael's position at Leveson was to associate 'regulation' with the erosion of 'Freedom of Speech'. Yet the evidence he presented would seem to lead to the conclusion that in fact the lack of regulation of the Press leads to erosions of 'Freedom of Speech', effective governance and fully functioning democracy.


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