Freedom of the Press, yes, but how about Responsibility?

By Anil Gujadhur

Mauritius has a rich media history. It is said that its first newspaper, Annonces, Affiches et Avis Divers was published as far back as in January 1773. In the course of time, the media sector has expanded, not shrunk.

So has the scope of its coverage. The dynamism has been fostered by a combination of market and other forces not least of which has been a growing team of dedicated and enlightened editors expressing openly their views.

There have been ups and downs in the long history of journalism in Mauritius. On the one hand, there have been times when papers dominated by the economic elite exceeded all reasonable bounds, squarely casting contempt upon entire communities simply for what they are or how they perceive them to be. So strong was the prejudice factor that it was considered that no “intruder” from outside the accepted fold should dare make incursions into the hallowed space presumably reserved for the select few.

On the other hand, governments have on occasion resorted to repressive measures, such as control and censorship of publications, to rein in what they believed to be excessive manipulation of opinion by the press.

The power of the media to sway opinion has gone on increasing nevertheless, with more and varied technology coming into play. A diversity of media owners occupies the ground today, whether in the print form or in audio-visual or radio broadcasting and the Internet. All this is here to stay no matter what.

A permanent feature then as now remains however the eternal tussle between the authorities and the media. The media wishes to become a Prometheus Unbound; governments finding themselves on the other side of the fence show the media the shackles it would be made to wear were it to transgress beyond the legally permissible domain. This is over and above existing libel and defamation laws.

The temptation for the media to put itself at the centre is ever present. The Washington Post of Tuesday last carries a story about how the founder and current chairman of Fox News sent an emissary to General Petraeus in early 2011 with the message that he should stand down from his military command and face up to President Obama as a Republican candidate in the presidential elections of 6th November last.

General Petraeus, then in Afghanistan, told the emissary that Rupert Murdoch of the now notorious News International had been after him as well. This scheme did not materialize but it raises the question as to why two of the biggest media barons wanted to be kingmaker and to dabble in politics. Certainly not for peanuts.

The Public Interest

The fundamental fight for media working in the public interest was actually delivered in England. Even the basic right to publish was denied in 17th Century England. Individuals defying restrictions on publishing were literally whipped, gagged and pilloried in public for daring to publish. It was considered sacrilegious that matters pertaining to the Establishment and to the wild social mores of the aristocratic class of the times be exposed to plebeian scrutiny by the press.

From 1695, when the first steps towards liberalizing publishing were made, there have been a series of struggles spanning over centuries which resulted in the British government finally conceding, after World War II, to what is commonly referred to as the ‘freedom of the press’. That freedom was subjected in 1993 to self-regulating discipline. This took the shape of a Press Complaints Commission to sanction excesses, if any, indulged by the British press.

There are variances in the degree of freedom with which the press can report in diverse countries even where freedom of expression is explicitly recognized as a fundamental right. Certain countries do not allow invasion of privacy by the media even where it concerns the private lives of public figures. Overall however, the media has much bigger latitude in freedom-of-expression countries than in authoritarian regimes. Recently, journalists were summarily thrown into jail in a few Middle East countries for challenging the potentates who rule over the people in those places.

The fundamental issue is that since freedom of expression is a free ‘public good’ (like the air we breathe), what should a self-respecting media be expected to deliver out of it? The answer comes out from the issues that were brought up before the Leveson Inquiry which has been going on in Britain over the past 16 months and which laid its report on the table last week.

The Inquiry was instituted when it came to light that News of the World, a tabloid belonging to Rupert Murdoch’s News International group, would have had recourse to blatant rude malpractices including phone-hacking, indecent intrusion into the private lives of citizens, misreporting of facts and even collusion with the political and police establishments to disguise facts. All these protagonists from the media and political and administrative circles could have formed part of a mutually beneficiating club over a long stretch of time spanning across more than one British government. But for the Leveson Inquiry, this cosy arrangement would have gone on.

The freedom of expression was clearly being perverted to foster newspaper sales through unethical and vulgar sensationalism at the expense of law-abiding citizens. Information was being deformed to explain away administrative inefficiencies or to protect the image of politicians doing things that the newspaper and its lobbies stood for.

Alongside the chase for ever more profits and for power to aggrandize the specific media empire, all of it was clearly proceeding into a no holds barred situation. This was putting at risk the very freedom of expression on which the growth and development of media has been predicated over the years. It mattered little to the recalcitrant press how much havoc was wreaked in the process. By having the right political and other connections, it could intrude into the lives of the innocent victims in what amounted virtually to a persistent manhunt.

Who will “guard the guardians”?

The Leveson Inquiry clearly saw into the ineffectiveness of the existing self-regulating Press Complaints Commission in the light of the abusive practices brought before it. That is why its report recommends that a regulatory body independent of industry leaders, politicians and government should be set up to ward off excesses which triggered the institution of the Inquiry.

The statutory underpinning of this proposed regulatory body and the independence of its members are the source of controversy. Many are asking as to how independent the members will really be and who actually will “guard the guardians”? While New Labour and the Lib Dems have agreed with the recommendation, Prime Minister David Cameron has expressed his reservations about it, holding the view that writing elements of press regulation into law has the potential to infringe upon free speech, a Rubicon he is loath to cross.

For many of us, the standard of British journalism has traditionally been a high watermark, a standard of reference for objectivity, depth, impartiality, dispassion and detachment in the treatment of information. Despite what has gone wrong, we hold the view that there are many world class media writers in Britain steeped into this profoundly respected tradition. It was sufficient for some spin doctoring black sheep from the profession to overstep the limits and spoil this immense track record. Sometimes, the pursuit of influence-peddling, fame and profits can blind the journalist and hence bring the very freedom of expression under threat.

There are various hues and colours in the Mauritian media kaleidoscope. This variety is a source of enrichment and it is worth preserving. There are plenty of newspaper readers whether online or in the print and that’s because interesting differences of views manage to keep up attention. We owe it to those who have secured freedom of expression that this tradition is kept alive and growing as we adapt to a changing world.

As technology re-models the way information is obtained, treated, analysed and disseminated across the spectrum, new challenges and opportunities will arise. There will always remain however at the heart of the system the fundamental duty to remain impartial, comprehensive (in opposition to coverage from specific vantage points) and objective. It cannot be assumed, as the Leveson Inquiry has concluded, that left to itself and self-regulation, the media will not cross the bounds again bringing discredit upon itself while also damaging lives and reputations of citizens beyond repair. The quest for profits and power can impel some members of the media to lay down their sense of collective responsibility to rest. In an age of fast moving information, risks of the sort should be dealt with expeditiously.

The regulatory authority should be able to deal with such specific cases effectively rather than wait for time-consuming libel processes in court to give system abuse longer life than necessary. There is a need to encourage operators who act with responsibility. Positive encouragement will allow the decent media space to grow; our newspapers will then invite a global readership like The Strait Times of Singapore. Cultivating an enlightened readership will help raise standards as well. If the media regulator is respected by the industry for its rigour and impartiality, then this in itself can be a persuasive argument for it to be unhesitatingly accepted by those it regulates. We need to go in this direction. It is in the interest of the local media industry to transform itself towards global standards through greater objectivism and depth of analysis. Several of our past newspapers have appeared and disappeared like a flash in the pan for having espoused blatant partisan and partial interpretation of happenings. They had to take the path of ‘sunset industries’. The creative-destruction rule of capitalism is implacable.

* Published in print edition on 7 December 2012

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