In uncertain times, a free and emboldened press matters more than ever
The press faces the most critical period in its history. Its establishment is on a knife edge, competing with fresh faced, youthful digital media companies that threaten to kill it off, whilst public opinion — particularly in the US — could not be at its lowest. A succession of gross abuses of power have damaged public trust in journalists, who find themselves constantly accused of bias, misinformation and back-handedness. The powerful feel justified in going after those who challenge them, and sometimes win. Donald Trump’s war against ‘fake’ establishment media, his promises to ‘open up the libel laws’, pose the biggest political threat to western press freedom since Watergate.
As a result, press freedom has become a fatally grey political area, subject to the kind of debate usually reserved for complex, hot-button topics like immigration, healthcare and welfare. Where it was once a no-brainer, a paragon for the rest of the world, an unregulated press is now deemed by many to be non-essential — even a threat. The question has been brutally rephrased — it is now not about whether society needs a free press, but whether the press deserve it.
And so, the biggest task journalists face in 2017 is convincing people that they have a stake in press freedom — a much larger stake than they might believe.
To do this, media organisations must somehow re-adjust their image. They have too long been dogged by the stereotype of self-interested, unimaginably rich conglomerates who print distorted news to wield political power, sell papers and get clicks. When a story is retracted, an allegation proven to be false, they are coloured by it for years to come, beaten with it by those in power until the mistakes seem to far outweigh the successes. It must not drop the ball so often and so shamefully, or it will get nowhere.
The public must also be distanced from the idea of “the press” as enigmatic, Orwellian controllers of thought, and convinced of the truth that the press exists to represent them, to fight for their rights and ideas and allow them to challenge those in power. They must be reminded often that journalism is, primarily, a principled industry committed to standards and accuracy — not merely because it wants to be, but because it has to be, ethically and by law. The opinion of the media as an uncontrolled menace to society has to be counteracted by accurate reporting and a commitment to ethical standards — good journalism must be celebrated, bad journalism admitted to and corrected.
It is only then that the press can hope to challenge those in the corridors of power — those who do not want to be challenged and believe they do not deserve to be. The Trump administration’s attempts to curtail access to information about its failures — under the guise that the news is ‘fake’ — needs to be acknowledged as more of a threat. Anywhere that is hostile towards the idea of a free press is one in which it is even more essential.
The ramifications of a weakened western press will also be felt abroad, where dictators will feel even more justified in continuing their ill-treatment of journalists and bloggers and their commitment to propaganda and misinformation. Governments in Saudi Arabia, Syria and beyond continue to treat those who challenge their power as dissidents, often with horrific consequences — and they will continue to do so if the western press cannot win the battle.
As news breaks of another frustrated reporter in the White House press pit, it’s clear this conflict is gaining steam. If the press is to stand any chance of winning it, it has to seize the narrative, stand up for itself and convince the world that it’s worth fighting for.