The press under pressure

By John ChurchillPeter Oborne Ground Report

When Peter Oborne resigned, citing the desperate situation at The Telegraph regarding the influence held over the paper by major sponsors, a light briefly pierced the thick blanket of darkness that hangs over the profession. Those whom we expect to be the watchdogs of our democracy, the press, do not seem to be working in the public interest.

When crises emerge, it is rarely through Parliament that we gain the facts. In many ways due to the patronage, the politics and the self-interest that dominates this hallowed bauble of the constitution, it is as powerful and rigorous as geriatric woodlouse when it comes to challenging wrongdoing or engaging people in the matters that govern their lives. The courts? Can they help? Well even their most ardent supporter would not claim that they are at the forefront of empowering people and putting issues at the forefront of public debate, even if they are where wrongdoers often meet their comeuppance. No, when we reduce issues to their basic essence we are left with the conclusion that the only people who have the capacity and the ability to put issues in front of people and engage their passion and principles in creating change, are those who ply their trade in the media and the press. Once confined to ink on paper, clear-cut tones broadcast from a television screen or through a radio, these people now have myriad ways and means to reach the population, spread information and enthuse people to take part in democracy.

Without such people, without their skills being directed at furthering the aims, purposes and principles of what a society prioritises, the dynamism of democracy is strangled by the weeds of corruption, nepotism and inertia.

Yet we must be realistic. The press require finance—they do not exist on account of their utility to our society, they exist because a pay-packet is put into their pocket. We must accept this and ensure that the transparency and light that the press attempts to bring to other areas of public life does not falter and fail at their own door. The issues with HSBC and The Telegraph that were alluded to this week, were exploited with relish and delight by The Times in its editorial the following day. But who owns the Times? Rupert Murdoch. He’s hardly the virtuous virgin of the world of lobbying and clandestine influence. It was rather like hearing Lady Godiva complain at an immodest outfit worn by Lady Gaga.

If we are to have a press then it has to ensure the rigour and the focus it gives to the exploits and activities of other public bodies is not confined in any way. Prostituting their role as the watchdogs of democracy and the exposers of wrongdoing is the antithesis of their entire purpose. This is much like employing a gardener to encourage weeds in your garden or a asking a vicar to preach on the virtues of atheism. There is no point in supporting someone who destroys everything they seek to achieve. No person can commit in the long term to fund a newspaper that seeks to obscure rather than reveal.

Nobody expects the press to be superhuman in their virtues, or how they go about trying to remain commercially viable. But a line should be drawn between what their position and purpose entitles (and forbids) them to do. In altering their content, skewing their analysis and bypassing issues that it is their duty to examine in order to ensure the money of sponsors flows into their accounts, the press abrogate their duties and fire a nuclear weapon into their own foot.

Photograph: Ground Report

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