Our free press must not be censored

Allister Heath
ALL too predictably, some politicians and powerful individuals with an interest in a servile media are using the hacking crisis to cripple freedom of speech, to advance their own ideological agendas and to damage commercial journalism.

First, let me reiterate that this newspaper, which is independent and not part of any media group, would never even dream of engaging in corrupt practices. We condemn and despise the sordid going-ons a few years back at the News of the World. Bosses who condoned bad practices must be punished – nobody should be above the law, be it MPs, police or journalists. Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton have rightly had to resign from News Corp; the Murdochs are rightly having to face MPs this week. The media and the police need to be thoroughly cleaned-up, and cosy, crony relationships with politicians must be smashed. In most cases, however, the necessary laws already exist, and this cleansing must target any malpractice across the industry, not just at one firm.

But this doesn’t mean free speech should cease, that newspapers should be licensed, that robust opinions should be replaced by compulsory “balance” (i.e. whatever is acceptable at a particular moment in time to the establishment), that foreigners should be excluded from media ownership, to cite just some of the self-interested positions being spouted by critics. We need a freer market that caters to all consumers in this decentralised, pluralist, technologically advanced age, not the opposite. In the era of global social media, protectionism is stupid.

News International is the biggest newspaper firm (though its market share is exaggerated by the exclusion of free papers) but those who believe it needs to be broken up forget that the BBC is bigger in radio, TV and the internet than Murdoch is in papers and the web (and in many cases the BBC has extremely high market shares and has crushed private competitors). Why then aren’t they also calling for the break-up of the BBC to ensure competition? Private firms need to fight for readers and advertisers – the BBC forces TV owners to pay a licence fee or face prison. So much for moral high horses. The vast majority of people never read the Sun, the Daily Mail or the Telegraph, but nearly everybody consumes BBC news and other content, and hence is exposed to its worldview and unavoidable cultural biases.

Should Facebook, Google and Twitter be broken up for dominating their markets? Of course not. The newspaper market is also more competitive than most people realise. City A.M. didn’t exist a few years ago. Now we distribute 100,000 copies daily and are profitable. By contrast, Murdoch quit the free London market, while the Daily Mail sold the Evening Standard.

Some of the rules being mooted would have prevented the MPs’ expenses scandal as well as the Wikileaks stories. We are even seeing a vendetta against papers with which critics disagree politically or culturally, or a desire to shut those who reflect regular folks’ views on tax, the EU, law and order, masquerading as a concern for competition. The concept of “fit and proper” when it comes to owning media assets is also problematic: it is subjective and too easy to manipulate.

These are dangerous times. The small minority of idiots who have discredited the newspaper industry as well as freedom of the press through their indefensible actions should be holding their heads in shame.

Follow me on Twitter: @allisterheath