Debating the principles of a free press: is the media too free or not enough?

Thursday 6 November, 19.00 until 21.00, University of Malta, Valletta Campus, St Paul Street, Valletta, Malta International Satellite Events 2014

In 1644, in Areopagitica, John Milton launched a passionate argument against the Licensing Order of 1643, railing against the idea that the press should have to be licensed by a higher body – whether monarchy or the government: ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.’

Now it seems that Milton’s ideals are considered out of date. In the UK, Lord Justice Leveson’s report into the ‘culture and ethics’ of the British media has led to a debate about who has the right to determine who should be able to ‘press’ ideas and who should not, leading to increased state involvement in regulating the press. Meanwhile, the contentious issue of media ownership is said to challenge the very principles of press freedom. Whether it is the Berlusconi or the Murdoch media empires, or the more unusual tradition of media ownership by political parties as in Malta, there are frequent complaints that the media is not as independent as it should be or as we need it to be for a healthy democracy or vibrant public debate. Many feel that for the media to be trustworthy it must be truly independent of both private interests and political concerns: the media should neither provide free advertising for business nor disseminate propaganda for political parties.

What though can guarantee the independence of the media without compromising its freedom? Some argue that deregulation allows pluralism and a diverse media, free from state interference, while others fear it leads to corporate monopolies and homogenized opinions. Does regulation by the state act as a sufficient safeguard or should there be concerns there too? After all, even when the media is independent in this sense - in other words, acts as a public broadcaster - it is still open to accusations of unfairness or partiality in its coverage, as endless debates about bias in the UK’s BBC illustrate. While it is accepted that print journalism is often openly partisan, public-service traditions demand balance. But how far must broadcasters go to demonstrate an even-handed approach? Must every opinion be carefully balanced with an opposing voice? Does such a journalistic quality approach not spell the end for editorial judgement? And for all the grandiose claims about the pursuit of truth, print journalism’s quality is now questioned, with editorial, comment and news often seeping into each other, and factual accuracy sacrificed in the scramble to get stories and attract readers, even appease advertisers and shut out voices that disagree with interests.

All sides lay claim to the romantic notion of the fourth estate’s services to democracy, and truth seeking. Public interest is espoused by regulators and libertarians alike. But whose truth, and who decides what constitutes public interest? Are we even right to demand independence even if it is possible to achieve? Why assume that it is impossible to challenge the dominance of the big networks with smaller media outlets? This is especially true given that the internet revolution means that the barriers to entry are so much lower than they were: with minimal capital, anyone can set up an online TV channel or magazine. Is there a sense in which the call for independence in the media is really a call to be protected from the sort of media (Fox News, etc.) that one does not like? Would it not be fairer to challenge such media rather than try and limit their access to the airwaves? Or is it just naïve to think that small independent media voices will ever be heard over the cacophony of rolling 24-hour news feed and the boom of Twitter?

Just how can we make sense of the mass media today? Is advocacy journalism just an honest acknowledgment that objectivity if impossible or is the ideal of a search for truth still a worthy journalistc aim? An independent, free media: is it just pie in the sky?

Rev Dr Joseph Borg
lecturer in media studies, University of Malta; former media policy adviser to the Government and Archdiocese of Malta; editor

Professor Mark-Anthony Falzon
associate professor, Department of Sociology, University of Malta; columnist, Sunday Times of Malta

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Ranier Fsadni
assistant lecturer, anthropological sciences, University of Malta; columnist, The Times of Malta

Raphael Vassallo
journalist, Malta Today

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Produced by
Joe Friggieri professor of philosophy and former head of department, University of Malta; poet; playwright; theatre director; three-times winner, National Literary Prize
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
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