Freedom of the press is sacred in a democratic society

According to Reporters Without Borders, the UK currently scores 28th in the Press Freedom Index. The situation with media freedom is “satisfactory”, which is not bad (considering there are 179 countries listed and in some of them there is no media freedom at all), but it’s not the best either.

In a democratic country, there are two things you don’t mess with—freedom of speech and freedom of the press. We all know things with freedom of speech aren’t very good in this country—people definitely can’t say what they want and some are even sent to jail if they utter words that are not “acceptable”. The only thing we have left so far is freedom of the press.

If the government were to adopt the Leveson suggestions and create a law that regulates the media, it would render the entire profession of journalism meaningless. The UK would, in the Press Freedom Index, drop to somewhere near Russia. We would never read about MPs abusing expenses, corrupt public servants or politicians’ dark deeds.

I am very proud of and grateful to my Prime Minister that he so profoundly opposed the Leveson suggestions. And I am appalled that a party that calls itself “liberal” has actually declared its support to a media law. If the Liberal Democrats had any integrity, any belief in the classical liberalism left, it’s all gone now. Nobody in their right minds will ever take them seriously. (As for Labour, I’m not even surprised—after all, they’re responsible for the Nanny State.)

I worked as a journalist in Estonia for ten years. Estonia ranks 3rd in the Press Freedom Index behind Finland and Norway. (Note – Estonia 3rd, the UK 28th.) There are no laws that in any way could curb media freedom in this tiny Nordic country. All media have agreed to a guidelines and principles of ethical journalism, and they are self-regulated.

The Estonian media have created a body, consisting of editors-in-chief of major newspapers and media outlets. It’s called the Press Council and it acts as the mediator between people who feel they’ve been wronged, and the media itself. When a person feels he’s been wronged by the media, he can lodge a complaint against the outlet to the Press Council, and the editors-in-chief then decide whether there’s basis for it. If the media outlet is found responsible for breaching the principles of ethical journalism, the media outlet will publicly apologise.

And, of course, everybody has the right to sue a newspaper or a media outlet if they feel an apology is not enough, or if they’ve encountered losses due to the article(s) in question. They can do that regardless of the Press Council ruling, and they don’t have to file a complaint with the Press Council and go straight to court. But, as I’ve seen many times, the Press Council is not about defending themselves, the media, but quite often rules against a newspaper and for the “plaintiff”. If you break the rules you yourself have come up with and promised to abide by, you pay the penalty, simple as that.

Self-regulation works when there’s real will to be ethical. No, we don’t need the media to snoop around in people’s private lives, we don’t want them to listen to people’s voice mail, we don’t want them to endlessly and deliberately hurt people. The media have to take responsibility when they publish lies or stick their noses to something they don’t have a right to.

However, the media must have the right to write what they want. If they fuck up, they have to bear the consequences – either apologise or, if that’s not enough, pay for damages. But in order to be free to report on anything and everything, there can be no law, no government regulation, no rules that curb the media’s freedom.

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