Should the press be completely free? Under a dictatorship the press is completely under the control of the government. The implications of this are that the authorities discard all stories unfavorable to their policies and supplement the favorable ones with propaganda and disinformation . All this involves control of TV and radio; in many countries, listening to broadcasts such as the BBC World Service, now available everywhere because of short-wave satellite output, is proscribed.
People are not fools, however, and such dictatorship can lead to unrest and produce the opposite to the intended effect. In most democracies, there is a varying degree of freedom. In Britain, for example, the government only steps in during wartime, apart from exerting control over stories which the Home Office regards as dangerous to the national interest, i. e. top security information. In these cases, a ‘D Notice’ forbids publication.
Otherwise, and in peacetime, the press is entirely free to publish at will, subject to the following conditions: the material must be truthful, decent, and compatible with the laws of libel. Libelous material of course sells newspapers and magazines, and certain unscrupulous editors will publish for this reason alone, setting aside money to settle the damages in civil law which will inevitably follow. Much of this is based on a section of the people’s pleasure in seeing prominent people discredited.
For example, Jeffrey Archer was awarded a half million pounds a few years ago because his personal morals were brought into question; Elton John received substantial damages because of a scurrilous and untrue account of the way he was said to treat his pet dogs. The courts now tend to award according to the seriousness of the alleged offence rather than on the prominence of the person concerned. The crux of the matter is whether the story is true. David Mellor, a prominent secretary of state, recently had some aspects of his personal life exposed.
He did not challenge the stories, and chose to resign on the tacit admission that his lack of judgment precluded him from parliamentary office. A story may be defamatory, but if it is true there is nothing to stop its publication. This is the basic test on which most editors take their decisions, and logically there is no challenging this principle in a democracy. However, there are two classes of reporting in the British tabloid press which have incurred much public displeasure in recent years.
The first is the invasion of privacy. After some disaster, those closely concerned are often hounded by the press for human stories . This amounts to an unwarranted intrusion into private grief. The more distressed the interviewee the less he or she is spared. The second is the gathering of newshounds, the paparazzi , with their long-distance telephoto lenses, their listening devices and their phone-tapping proclivities. These reporters dog the footsteps of very prominent people, such as the British royals.
It so happens that two royal marriages have recently come on the rocks , with close friends of both parties involved in each case. For some weeks these stories sold millions of extra copies of the tabloids. There was much criticism in parliament, but nothing could be done; the stories were not denied. The editors claimed the right to publish on the ground that the stories were true, whatever methods were used to obtain them. Perhaps decency is the other issue.
Some men like looking at nude women, and no doubt the regular ‘Page 3 girl’ sells many copies of the tabloids. The editors know exactly how far they can go without incurring the laws against pornography. In Britain, complaints are heard by the Press Council, a self-governing but rather toothless body. Today there is a strong move to tighten controls by legislation, particularly in the case of infringement of privacy, and over the methods used to obtain information, particularly trespass.
However, in any society there is always a demand for the sensational, and in a democracy repressive legislation is unwise. Part of the health of a good system lies in editorial freedom to criticize or applaud, and nobody should be exempted. After all, if there is nothing to bring into the open, there is no story. On the contrary, if there is real corruption, as in the cases of BCCI or Robert Maxwell, the press does the public a service by exposing the details.