The Germans invented the printing press and published the world’s first newspaper. But the British – and latterly, the Americans – have written the book on modern journalism and press practices.
Ever since the Star Chamber packed its bags for good in the mid-17th century and Draconian restrictions on the English press were lifted, newspapers in the country have had a relatively unfettered run at both informing ordinary people, and assuming the role of the voice of the common man against the power of the establishment.
British tabloid newspapers were born in the early years of the last century and the Americans jumped on the bus around the same time with ‘muck-raking’ campaigners on the one hand, and purveyors of ‘yellow’ or investigative journalism on the other.
Now the traditional Anglo-Saxon press is suffering its greatest ever existential crisis – attacked commercially by a combination of 24-hour news broadcasts and the information behemoth that is the Internet, and pilloried by the establishment (and to an extent by wider civil society) for being morally bankrupt.
The Leveson Inquiry – a public soap opera with a £6 million price tag – is billed as casting a cleansing light on unethical behaviour of Fleet Street newspapers. But the rollercoaster ride has lessons for all democracies about getting the balance right between freedom of speech and expression – and the benefits of a free press in maintaining those principles – and individual rights to reputation and privacy, along with an expectation that the rule of law is ultimately supreme.
As our commentator this week points out, striking that balance is perhaps the most difficult of challenges for free societies. Uncle Joe Stalin, Chairman Mao and General Franco didn’t require a Lord Justice Leveson because they effectively edited every newspaper appearing under their regimes themselves. Wrestling with the subtleties of press regulation certainly didn’t disturb the sleep of that triumvirate – they took the simple steel fist approach to ensure that newspapers produced what they would describe as proper, responsible journalism.
Ironically, at the same time as the press is defending itself in the Leveson Inquiry, the British government seems on the verge of giving newspapers a spot of relief over defamation law. London has long been viewed as the libel capital of the world because of a claimant-friendly approach dictating that defendants must prove what they say is true, as well as for star-struck juries that have tended to award suing celebrities telephone number damages.
So much does this approach offend US constitutional freedom of speech sensibilities that New York courts will not enforce UK libel awards against US publishers, describing the current English regime as ‘libel terrorism’. Perhaps for the British press, the quid pro quo for being battered daily at Leverson will be reformed defamation laws and a move towards the US model.
Another country where life as a journalist falls far short of the ideal is Iran. The UN points out that matters have only deteriorated after the 2009 presidential elections, with newspapermen regularly imprisoned, beaten and abused.
The EU and the US have imposed various sanctions on Iran because they don’t believe President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he says: ‘Trust me – I just want nuclear energy to run some really large flat-screen tellies; I don’t want a big bomb.’ But our commentator this week says it is impossible to know if sanctions are having any impact on Iran’s nuclear programme.