The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed Headshot

The Myth of the Free Press: Why You Should Ignore the Fake 'Free Speech Naysayers

Posted: Updated:

When pundits and editors and politicians over the next few days and weeks insist that Leveson's recommendations should be ignored because they endanger the sacred principle of freedom of the press, ask yourself one simple question.

Whose payroll are they on?

Invariably, they are either on the payroll of large corporate media conglomerates dependent on advertising revenue from big business, or they're keen to cosy up with the same large corporate media conglomerates. Many are probably working for the very newspapers that have demonstrably committed crimes with impunity, made-up stories with no accountability, and protected power from meaningful scrutiny.

Those who claim we have a free press that needs defending from the scary mitts of Big Government-backed 'statutory regulation' miss the point entirely.

We don't have a free press. We have a press that has become increasingly co-opted by narrow vested interests whose only real goal is to maximise their revenue streams at our expense. They will try to convince you, the public, that what they sell us is in our interest.

They are wrong.

In his seminal book Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq, University of Bath sociologist, Professor David Miller - a co-founder of the media monitoring group Spinwatch - brought together a diverse array of senior journalists and correspondents exposing how the British media systematically legitimised the government's propaganda that led us into the 2003 Iraq War on the basis of the myth of WMDs. Not only that, but our media has - for the most part - whitewashed the humanitarian disaster our intervention created in Iraq, and downplayed the instability and resentment it generated throughout the region. Which is why, even now, most people aren't aware that the war was responsible for the deaths of over one million Iraqis according to the most robust scientific studies.

The Iraq case is not an isolated example. Drawing on his 20 years plus experience as a political journalist, Peter Oborne - chief political commentator at The Telegraph and former political editor at The Spectator - observed how he "saw again and again journalists and politicians entering a conspiracy against the readers" - and that people who tried "to report objectively and fairly were frozen out." Far from playing a key role in exposing political scandals, the media has often done the opposite - deliberately ignoring the MPs expenses scandal for years until leaks of information made it impossible to do so. Similarly, on the issue of "British complicity in torture" in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, "many British newspapers remained silent."

The press has also often targeted some of society's most vulnerable groups - with asylum seekers, foreigners, ethnic minorities, and Muslims in particular often being the subject of inaccurate and even flagrantly false reporting, as documented in my submission to the Leveson Inquiry.

But why is this? No, it's not a conspiracy - though that doesn't preclude the possibility of powerful media moguls, politicians, and police officers from colluding as they did in the News International scandal.

As a report by the House of Commons Select Committee on Communication concluded in 2008, the increasing corporate concentration of media ownership in the UK is the real danger to press freedom. The Committee warned that "if media ownership becomes too concentrated the diversity of voices available could be diminished."

The other problem is that, with corporate-dominated ownership structure, much of the British press cannot function as societal watchdogs hungry to investigate and report real news - many of our newspapers are, instead, giant big business machines whose principal aim is to maximise profits through increasing circulation and advertising revenues. The dependence on the latter, in particular, means that newspapers find themselves increasingly subjected to the whims and sways of the corporate advertisers who are, ultimately, their primary means of subsistence - something like 60 per cent of their total income. This is another structural incentive for newspapers to avoid stories that might challenge the very vested interests that fund them.

Unfortunately, those same vested interests that tend to dominate the media actively seek to co-opt politicians too - to make sure that government policy aligns, rather than undermines, their goals.

In this context, the existing system of 'self regulation' under the umbrella of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is laughable - given that the PCC is "run by the newspaper Editors" themselves, as one tabloid journalist candidly told British filmmaker Chris Atkins in a secret interview.

It's a closed circle. With the government actively promoting public relations materials to the media amounting to counter-terrorism propaganda, it is deeply worrying that increasingly the press uncritically rehashes official government PR spin in its reporting. A study by Cardiff University found that 19% of the articles in the British press came wholly or mostly from public relations material. This means that the heavy reliance on the wires and other media (about (47% of press stories rely wholly or mainly on wire copy) is, in effect, a conduit for further PR influence on news. Worse, "60% of press articles and 34% of broadcast stories come wholly or mainly from one of these 'pre-packaged' sources." Journalists now produce "three times as much copy as they did 20 years ago."

So when these detractors insist that we need to overlook demands for 'statutory regulation' to protect our free press, remember that much of the press largely functions not to hold power to account, but to protect power from scrutiny. And when they insist that fake and fabricated news stories, along with gross invasions of privacy and targeted criminal harassment of everyday citizens are in the public interest because the public pays for these stories, remember that we only pay because there is nothing else to pay for.

It is not in the public interest to have a press capable of running riot in the deliberate manufacture of false news which serves the interests of power. It is in the public interest to have a press which the public can hold to account when it fakes news in the interests of power, and which can thus counterbalance its overwhelming dominance by corporate conglomerates.

The battle lines have been drawn.

It is now up to us, the public, to stand up and make it absolutely clear to our government: we don't want politicians, or police, or media moguls, to be able to criminally collude in the fabrication of news to serve themselves. We want an independent system of regulation that will force the press to deliver what we demand: real news, in the public interest.