Chain link
Credit: By i_MJane on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Debates currently raging about press regulation tend to focus on two aspects: press intrusion on privacy, and journalists breaking the law. This is not surprising, since the current, controversial, drawn-out review of press regulation was triggered largely by hacking and other wrongdoing in certain sections of the press.

It is tempting to see this as a battle between right and wrong: the outraged public on the one hand; and the evil, or at any rate amoral, press on the other, interested only in selling stories, whatever the social cost.

Deep-rooted press freedom is not just important but essential to a functioning free democratic societyDan Jellinek
Leaving aside the issue of who is buying those stories, it is important to remember another vital dimension in this debate: why deep-rooted press freedom is not just important but essential to a functioning free democratic society.

The delay in reaching agreement on regulation between political parties and the major publishers and editors has largely centred on the detail of the independence from government or Parliament of any new regulator. A properly independent media sector is essential to democracy for many reasons. For one thing, for elections to work, citizens must be able freely to discuss both their system of government and what each government does.

While there will always have to be some legal restrictions on what people can say or write, for example on hate speech - to prevent one person’s freedom from unnecessarily harming another’s, or many other people’s -  in developed democracies such as the UK the press is free to comment on most issues, including the activities of the government. Stories about possible wrongdoing by politicians, in particular – such as the MPs’ expenses saga – are headline news instantly, and for weeks.

This is never the case in undemocratic nations. Those shocking and moving images from China of the “tank man” – the frail protestor standing alone against a column of tanks near Tiananmen Square in 1989 – have been so thoroughly suppressed in the country itself that most young people there today would not even recognise what they were.

The writer Yu Hua writes in his gripping book China in Ten Words that soon after the event, ‘Tiananmen vanished from the Chinese media. I never saw the slightest mention of it afterward, as though it had never happened . . . Twenty years later, it is a disturbing fact that among the younger generation in China today few know anything about the Tiananmen Incident.”

Disturbing, but not surprising. China’s state-controlled news agency, Xinhua, will cover a story only if the government agrees it can be covered. The reason is clear: if everyone in China had known what was happening in 1989, the pro-democracy movement could have become irresistible. To control the country, information and people are continually wiped out together, like the ‘tank man’ himself: no name, no trial, no past, no information.

In Britain, the importance of independent media to a functioning state is recognised to the extent that we have the world’s largest editorially-independent state-funded broadcaster – the BBC. The corporation has its critics, but when it comes to reporting on live situations, UK citizens - overall, the BBC reaches more than 90 per cent of the population – do generally trust and rely on it, alongside other outlets.

Channel 4 and its Welsh-language offshoot S4C are also publicly owned broadcasters, and when it comes to news and current affairs programmes on TV, all broadcasting on the UK’s main news stations – including ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky News – is regulated to be impartial by the communications regulator Ofcom.

Commercial radio stations, including local community stations, also have some public service obligations.

Overall, though, how aware are members of the public that there are many public service deals, made and funded in their name, with commercial broadcasters? Should UK citizens be more demanding of the public service elements of commercial stations like ITV? The public service broadcasting licence for ITV is coming up for renewal – or not – at the end of 2014, so a good time to expand this debate would be now.

There are many other links between the way our media sector operates, and the proper functioning of a free democratic society – too many to go into here. Issues such as plurality of media ownership; and the need for a thriving local media sector, including community radio stations, and more recently, a resurgent local TV sector.

In 2011 the government and the BBC worked out a deal to slice off up to £40 million of licence fee money to kick-start a new generation of local TV stations. This breaks down as £25 million for technology set-up costs and up to £5 million per year (in total, across all channels – so not a great deal per channel) over three years to fund local content. The government’s vision for the stations is specifically to boost local democracy by telling people more about what is happening in their area.

Ofcom has now awarded the first wave of nineteen twelve-year licences to run local TV services on digital terrestrial television in cities and towns across the UK. The first channels will be on the air before the end of 2013 and are likely to exploit a modern mix of broadcast TV and internet video.

A stronger local media mix allied with the huge digital transformations undergoing the entire sector – from citizen journalism to e-books and mobile apps – might be threatening some long-standing business models, but they also make this an exciting time for a free press.

The scope of all these technologies to expand people’s access to political news, and politics itself, is powerful. But in the end, as in all other areas of our democracy, it will be up to every one of us as individuals what use we make of these new opportunities.

Dan Jellinek Article based on extracts from “People power: a user’s guide to democracy in the UK”, a new book by Dan Jellinek, out now from Transworld. See www.danjellinek.com

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