We as consumers must hold the media to account

Last year I applied to volunteer at the annual Centre for London conference, a conference which aimed to bring together political thinkers, journalists and politicians for a day of debate on the future of London post-Brexit, as well as the potential effect of an incumbent Trump presidency.

As reward for participating and doing so free of pay I was able to watch and enjoy a number of speeches. One particular moment caught my imagination, David Milliband discussing with Sir Paul Collier how European cities should respond to the migrant crisis. When asked by a member of the audience what he thought of the influence of the right-wing media in this debate, David replied: “a politician should not criticise the media in the same way a seaman should not criticise the sea”, a quote believed to have been derived from Winston Churchill, although also attributed to notorious Enoch Powell. Though the media is a necessary part of political life, so do quotes such as this afford the established media a degree of liberty that is not deserved and also potentially dangerous?

The established media does not have to substantiate its claims. Claims are made consistently through National News Sources that depict a situation disproportionally or even outright false without being called upon for a significant amount of evidence. The Sun Newspaper was famously forced to admit an article stating one in five Muslims sympathised with Jihadists was significantly misleading with the poll framing ambiguous questions as sufficient evidence. The paper forced to accept it misled the public but this was the limit of repercussions and a story that had been presented in convenience stores and supermarkets nationwide was not obligated to give the same coverage to the fact it misled readers.

It is not merely the right-wing media who can be accused of misleading readers either, left-wing newspapers are just as entitled to make sweeping claims about the personalities and intentions of politicians on the basis of assumptions of their positions, often for example claiming the Conservative party want to privatise the NHS without necessarily producing examples of manifesto or policies pertaining to this. But the right-wing media do appear the most likely to print to the public without regard for how accurate or fair the claims are.

Furthermore, the media has an aggressive tendency to publicly shame individuals for reasons varying from their outspoken political beliefs, to just simply following the rule of law. For instance, Gary Lineker, ex-England international and Match of The Day. The Sun, wrongfully claimed Lineker was subject to widespread calls for resignation after he expressed his disdain for the racist nature of some right-wing papers coverage of the refugee crisis. The story, which was front-page news, was published in response to a sarcastic tweet from Lineker when a charity involved in the fostering of refugee children accused the paper of lying. The lie in question: that a picture posted, again on the front page of the paper, depicting an individual claiming to be a child refugee was a boy far too old to be a child refugee. The charity attempted to explain this by highlighting that it was not in fact a child refugee but an Arabic interpreter, but rather than using the next front page to verify their claims, they instead decided to attack Gary Lineker for being “jug-eared”.

This kind of journalism may seem to be a standard feature of tabloid journalism and the slander not immediately of serious moral concern. But then consider when the Daily Mail ran its infamous “enemies of the people” article. The article in question refers to the attempt by The Daily Mail and numerous other right-wing papers to publicly shame the judges responsible for declaring parliament must have a vote on whether or not the UK should leave the EU, attaining to the legal sovereignty of parliament. This refers not to an individual’s own political views but rather to them fulfilling their legal duty to apply the rule of law, and there is very little irony lost that the majority of the pro-Leave newspapers argued that it is this very sovereignty of law that we are trying to reclaim back from Europe.
The fear and the serious moral questions come when you consider what branding individuals “enemies of the people” truly means. In the run-up to the Brexit voting MP Jo Cox was tragically murdered for her political views concerning EU membership, the debate is clearly an emotionally charged one. Branding individuals in such a way is dangerous for the respective safety of the individuals involved. The lack of culpability of media outlets could be potentially career destroying or even potentially fatal, and yet our established media is allowed to express freely, and even when legal action is poised against the papers, there is still no restriction on what can be published in the future, merely financial reimbursement for the offended party.

But it is here that we reach the crux of the matter: freedom of press is essential in a functioning democracy. So, any limits and laws restricting the media are dangerous; countries that tend to regulate their national news are countries with an authoritarian ideology. So, what can be done to prevent the newspapers from publishing inaccurate articles, or articles that threaten the personal integrity and safety of individuals without undermining freedom of press? The answer almost definitely lies in the consumer. There needs to be a greater demand by the reader, who is a consumer of the product, to force newspapers to address their relationship with the truth. The law protects consumers from false advertising, the consumer protection from Unfair Trading Regulations prevents companies from misleading consumers via advertising. However, as the news is the product itself rather than the advertising of said product it is unclear that these regulations could be in anyway applicable.

The solution therefore has to come from the consumer. But this again hits a block when you consider that readers are consumers so they are likely to want to read what they want to hear, or at least to have their attention captured in a particular way. As of such, the established media appears entitled to mislead its consumers on the grounds that this is what the consumer is paying for. It is up to the reader to demand or seek better, but not a duty, hence, the media does not take moral responsibility. It is unclear whether it is possible at all to have an entirely honest and righteous media in an open and liberal society. We know the media should take moral responsibility but this cannot be imposed by law. The fact of the matter is we deserve better from our news. It is down to all of us to demand better, to refuse to succumb to “fake news” and gross misrepresentation, or risk living in the post-Truth world we appear to be falling into.

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