The global battle for press freedom

02 Jan 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The global battle for press freedom

From the global rise of populism, to the failing economic models of established media, the flow of reliable information is under serious threat, writes Raymond Snoddy

Maybe at the start of a new year we should lift our eyes from wondering why Susanna Dinnage should prefer animals to Premier League footballers, or whether a dry January really is a sensible idea for everyone in the media.

Instead we should all focus for a minute or two on a really big idea – the fact that press freedom, or more precisely freedom of information of all kinds, is almost everywhere under threat, usually from the rise of populist movements and regimes in Europe and everywhere from Brazil to the US.

As the UK plans – at least for now - to turn in on itself, if not actually on itself over Brexit, this is an unashamedly international argument, although perhaps we Britons should not be too smug or take too much for granted.

It’s such a big idea for a small article but it has been crystallised, by curious coincidence, by two articles in The Atlantic magazine.

One published on Boxing Day is by government specialists Yascha Mounk and Jordan Kyle, which sought to test three opposing academic theories about populist governments.

One is that they tend to be phenomenally corrupt and perpetuate their hold on power by delegitimising and inflicting lasting damage on democratic institutions such as the media.

A second is that they are so incompetent that the nightmare quickly ends, while another suggests that populism is a positive thing and its critics are merely defenders of a failed status quo.

Mounk and Kyle have gone to the evidence, despite obvious problems of definition, and identified 46 populist leaders or political parties that have been in power across 33 democratic countries between 1990 and today.

The results, the academics conclude, are “alarming.” Populists stay in power for more than twice as long as democratic governments. Half the populists rewrote or amended constitutions to eliminate presidential term limits and are reluctant to give way even when defeated in elections. There is also little difference in the outcomes whether the populists come from the right or the left.

The academics argue that to take part in politics in a meaningful way, freedom of the press is essential. Their study – which does not include the most recent events in Poland and Hungary - and therefore probably understates the scale of the problem, found that populist rule is associated with a 7 per cent decline in freedom of the press, an 8 per cent decline in civil liberties and a 13 per cent decline in political rights.

If anything, Anne Applebaum’s much longer Atlantic article, mainly on Poland and Hungary, is much more scary. The headline: “A Warning From Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come.”

A couple of examples will have to do from the effects on the media of the populist regimes in those countries. Regimes such as that of Viktor Orban in Hungary, according to Applebaum, not just mock the notions of neutrality and professionalism, whether for journalists or civil servants, they discourage businesses from advertising in “opposition” media which are regarded as illegitimate. The state media are politicised while private media is destroyed as access to advertising is blocked through the creation of a new business elite loyal to Orban.

In Poland the national broadcaster, funded by tax payers, made an advertisement for itself showing a clip from a press conference with Grzegorz Schetyna, the leader of the opposition party, who was asked what his party has achieved during eight years in government.

He hesitated for a moment, and then the video slows down and ends. In fact he went on to list his government’s achievements but none were shown.

The totally bent ad remains at the head of Telewizja Polska's Twitter feed.

Ah yes the social media and the fight for press freedom.

The paradox of course is that the social media, while creating previously unimaginable flows of information and in theory enhancing the democratic power of the individual, should end up having the opposite effect to that intended.

Despite great efforts introduced grudgingly under pressure, the flow of online information is still tainted with fake news, extremism and hate crime. And social media, wittingly or otherwise, has been a key tool that has taken fringe minority parties of the right, and sometimes left, to power in what had previously been functioning liberal democracies.

At the same time the social media engines have undermined the economic models of the established media with the all too obvious complicity of the marketing and advertising industries despite fighting speeches from leading marketeers who threaten dire things and often do very little.

Any fight for freedom of information - true, factual checked information - will have to involve holding the feet of the social media to the fire to make them take greater responsibility for what they publish and to pay a fairer share of taxes.

They will also have to be encouraged, or forced to contribute, much more in future to the pursuit of journalism.

As Henry Faure Walker, chief executive of regional newspaper group Newsquest, argues in an up-coming interview for InPublishing magazine, journalism is increasingly an unprofitable activity and publishers will need greater financial incentives to continue providing such a service.

One obvious source of those incentives will have to be the social media.

The UK is neither Poland nor Hungary and certainly not Brazil, but there are dangers in the Brexit debates over the next few months of increasing shrillness and an increasing tendency for abuse to replace rational argument.

If Brexit happens, and a messy Brexit it would probably be, there could easily be a rise in nationalist sentiments and a search for scapegoats to blame for what could be disappointing outcomes.

There is no shortage of enemies of press freedom in Parliament and among the ranks of media academics.

It is more than possible in such a world that there will be a resurgence of demands for greater press regulation and attempts to revive Leveson 2. The drone scandal, which is actually more of a police scandal than a press one, could yet lead to legislation preventing publication of the names of those arrested by police.

Across a very wide front, here and abroad, in 2019 there will be a greater need than ever before to fight to protect press freedom and flows of reliable information without which complex democracies can barely function.

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