Monday, 13 February 2012

Defence of The Sun is not defence of Press Freedom

Since the arrest of 5 journalists working for The Sun newspaper on Saturday, it’s been interesting to note the response. As with most things there are three general schools of opinion on the issue:  good, bad, and indifferent. I declare now; I’m firmly in the good camp. I think it’s wonderful that The Sun is under such scrutiny and can only hope that other tabloid newspapers find themselves facing the same level of exposure to investigations.

This puts me and those in league with me, firmly in the sights of those who think this affair is a bad thing. Their line of attack is that this is an attack on the freedom of the press, that this is a witch-hunt against The Sun, that this is about political lines. It’s not unsurprising of course, but it is nonsense. Well, apart from the witch-hunt thing. This is in some respects a kind of with-hunt but on this occasion the witch is all too real, all too nasty and decidedly destructive so a hunt of some kind is needed to bring her to book.  You could, if you wanted, replace the phrase ‘witch-hunt’ with ‘investigation into criminal activities and standards of journalism’ which, helpfully, the police and The Leveson Inquiry have taken to doing.

What this isn’t though is an attack on press freedom. The press are free to operate within the law and that hasn’t changed and nor is it likely to. Talk of press regulation has been rather limited (considering the level of the scandal) and the aspects of regulation (i.e. what any regulation will require of the press) even more so.  So what freedoms are at risk? The freedom to intrude, unnecessarily, on people’s private lives? The freedom to blackmail people into giving exclusive interviews with the threat of exposure of secrets? The freedom to make wild speculations and accusations with no equal quarter given to admissions of error? How about the freedom to massively & deliberately misinterpret stories to suit a political agenda? As far as I can tell, it is only the above methodology being called into question and surely it is right that it is.

The Sun have responded to the arrests with an incredible line that people shouldn’t jump to conclusions just because 5 of their journalists were arrested  and they also used the obligatory witch hunt term. They’ve gone further; complaining about the treatment of their journalists at the hands of the police (i.e. they were arrested in dawn raids) and criticises the draconian nature of their bail conditions. Anyone with any knowledge of The Sun’s type of journalism couldn’t fail to be knocked over by the staggering lack of self-awareness on display.  This type of treatment is fine for political protestors but not for employees of News International it would appear. Unless of course, you can find me a story from The Sun’s archives where they were similarly outraged at the treatment of those who protested in Fortnum & Mason.

Chris Jeffries will I’m sure be sitting at home making sure he doesn’t jump to conclusions about those who have been arrested and questioned being inevitably guilty of the crimes being investigated. I mean, he would have some experience of that wouldn’t he? Do I really need to dig up the descriptions The Sun used when Jeffries was arrested? The people of Liverpool have never forgiven The Sun for their disgraceful treatment of the Hillsborough tragedy and rightly so. Advocates for the newspaper have long argued that issue has been dealt with and the mistakes learned from but it’s clear that is a downright lie.

The Sun isn’t a shining example of good journalism. It isn’t even an example of journalism at all. It’s an example of poor, badly researched, vindictive opinion writing sandwiched with overly intrusive, highly judgmental and vicious celebrity gossip. There are undoubtedly good people employed by The Sun, as there was with the News of the World. On an individual basis it is a shame that they now must be uncertain about their futures, but on a collective basis they are responsible for the production of a truly vile newspaper. For that, there is no defence.


  1. Ed,
    Those who are fretting about some perceived incursion on the freedom of the press (and I saw a little of it this morning on twitter) are essentially trying to defend the apparent right of newspapers to produce the sort of crap you rightly indict in your final paragraph.

    But we don't actually have a free press to defend in the first place. We have a newspaper and media industry that is run in the interests of its owners and shareholders and reflective of their narrow range of political opinions. So it should come as no surprise that the UK press is overwhelming right-or-centre, utterly skewing political debate in this country, when those papers aren't more concerned with celebrity gossip.

    The commercial environment in which newspapers operate also has a corrosive impact on the range of opinion available. Newspapers rely on advertising and this means that the first responsibility of proprietors and editors is to deliver readers/customers to advertisers rather than deliver news to citizens. So newspapers tend to cater for particular niche readerships. Newspapers want to appeal to affluent people or people who at least have a disposable income, because these are the people that advertisers want to reach and relieve of their money. The least attractive readership is the poorest, a section lacking both political and cultural representation today.

    It's interesting to note that the Daily Herald, the Sun's predecessor, folded with a massive readership - bigger than the combined readership of a number of the broadsheets. But it had a substantially working class, left wing readership and so of little interest to advertisers.

    News is the lifeblood of a democracy. The quality of a democracy depends entirely upon the quality of news and information made available to it's citizens. The debate about the press is timely but there is a real need to broaden the terms of that debate to begin thinking about what do we actually mean by free media? We all agree that a media under state control can't be free. But surely neither is it a media subject to the commercial imperatives of the market and monopolised by rich owners. To my mind the public service model is the best we have... not perfect, but improvable and research would seem to support the idea that it is good for citizenship also...

  2. Those whining that this is an attack on The Sun for political purposes seem to forget that no one is attacking The Telegraph which you would think would be the case if this was some left wing crusade to shut down papers we don't like.