The Malta Independent 28 May 2018, Monday

The importance of a free press

Malta Independent Friday, 2 May 2014, 13:09 Last update: about 5 years ago

On Monday (28 April, 2014) Zeinab Badawi (the BBC television and radio journalist, perhaps best known for presenting BBC’s “Hard Talk”) delivered a talk at the Hilton’s conference centre discussing “How the media covers the World’s biggest issues”. The event was organised by the local organisation “Leading Talks” in collaboration with the “Tumas Fenech Foundation for Education in Journalism”, and The Malta Business Weekly was proud to be a co-sponsor.

Ms Badawi highlighted the transitional nature of the modern news environment, noting the competition between established global media players such as CNN, the BBC, Al Jazeera, and RT, and such new social media upstarts as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The point was made that the impact of social media could be as significant today as the development of the printing press was in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Ms Badawi finished by reflecting on her country of birth, pointing out that there are more pyramids in Sudan than there are in Egypt (220 vs. 135). The media, Ms Badawi asserted, should seek to invert the pyramid (of society) by placing the people from the bottom at the top. This is an important point.

The term “media” is a very broad term including as it does not just “news”-related media, but all forms of entertainment related content (TV shows, novels and the like). While entertainment is obviously a perfectly valid object of media communication, to include the dissemination of “news” along with other more narrowly entertainment activities is to obscure the unique importance of the dissemination of information.

The role of the established news outlets, whether in the form of the press, 24 hour news channels or radio is certainly being impacted by social media. However, historically and culturally, the function of social forums such as coffee shops, clubs, public houses, public lectures, and markets, has been, to some extent, to bring together people with shared interests to communicate information. So there is nothing new about social media, per se. Instead it is the loss of advertising revenue that is perhaps having the largest impact on traditional news organisations, as the money moves online.

A point highlighted in the speech was the rise of new media organisations, such as Al Jazeera, CCTV and RT (originally named “Russia Today”). However there is a risk that far from contributing to the diversity of the free press, many of these are instead well-funded tools of state policy: Al Jazeera is funded by the Qatari ruling family, CCTV by the Chinese government, Russia Today by the Russian state. For state funded news networks the loss of advertising revenue is not a concern. (While it doesn’t go unnoticed that the BBC is funded by the state, its operations are suitably insulated from government interference as to allow it to be considered as being independent.)

The statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke is generally credited with coining the term the “Fourth Estate”, to describe the press, in a British Parliamentary debate on the reporting of news from the House of Commons. The precise identity of the first three estates is open to discussion. However, at around the same time, the French state’s financial difficulties had driven King Louis XVI to convoke The Third Estate (i.e. the assembly of commoners), which miscalculation (for him at least) started the sequence of events that would lead to the French Revolution. Based on this French usage, the consensus is that the first three estates are the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal, and the Commons (i.e. the priesthood, the aristocracy, and the commoners).

By elevating the press to the same level as the three components of the state Burke was asserting the importance of the press. The free press is an essential component of an open and democratic society. In a free society news organisations are more than entertainment operations delivering content; instead they are independent investigatory bodies whose purpose is to report and investigate the activities of the establishment and the privileged elite.

With every edition the news organisation delivers the output of its analysis and investigations. In having to justify their editorial policy on a regular basis, to a readership that at any point can vote with their money to seek their news elsewhere, news organisations participate in an essentially democratic activity of matching editorial policy to the views of the people as a whole. An independent press is the mechanism by which society inverts the pyramid and empowers the mass of the people, who otherwise, individually, would not have the money, or the influence, to move the levers of power on their own.

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