The British media is out of control and now poses a threat to democracy, writes MICHAEL KELLY

 

Who says a free press is vital to democracy? Given the distortions, sensationalism and downright lies peddled by it for years now there is not much evidence from the British experience to support the contention that a free press effectively adds protection for the ordinary citizen. Indeed a more powerful argument could be made that the behaviour of the written media has been dangerous to democracy.

What right have the press to demand special treatment? No one asked them to be the guardians of our rights. They set themselves up as self-appointed monitors of our morals. Let them not bother. The motives of those who set up and run newspapers have never been pure. They sell newspapers to make money. There’s nothing noble about that.

And they use them to peddle their own views and to influence unduly parliaments and governments. It is those institutions who are elected by voters. It is intolerable that a few rich proprietors should wield more power than them. It adds insult to injury when those owners cannot even vote for those governments. But that is the situation in which we find ourselves. And it must be stopped,

The press are anxious – desperate even – to blame politicians for cosying up to them. What could they do? The press have been influencing elections. If you are in opposition you have power to change nothing. So why fall out with them? Especially as you do need them on your side to win. Once you win you are in just as weak a position to take them on. You need them to win again. Until now. This is the chance to secure an effective method of regulation that ensures that never again can the press become more powerful than governments.

Self regulation does not work. Whenever it suits them newspapers simply ignore any attempt to limit them. Given their behaviour it is not entirely clear that they understand what the standards should be. Look at the case of Andrew Gilligan. This journalist made serious allegations about the Labour government over the so called “Dodgy Dossier”, including the claim that the government knew that the “45 minute” claim was false before the document was published. So much controversy was generated by his BBC broadcast that  a judicial enquiry was set up. The press confidently expected this to find against the government. But to its consternation Hutton, on every score, found against Gilligan and the BBC. The relevant point in this context is that Gilligan, despite being discredited, is still pontificating away for a variety of important media outlets. The press didn’t like Hutton’s objective judgement so dismissed it and carried on as before. They accept no strictures or criticisms. That example is the strongest argument against self- regulation.

Of course, it goes without saying that freedom of speech must be defended. No one is suggesting a press supervised or subservient to government. It is typical of press scare tactics even to raise that. The press is out of control, a fact that will become apparent during the forthcoming enquiry. We need statutory regulation and a strong privacy act that curbs the abuses and excessive power that has weakened our democratic institutions.

Michael Kelly CBE is a former Lord Provost of Glasgow and Rector of Glasgow University. He is a newspaper columnist and a PR consultant.