Is the public sphere viable in the twenty-first century and does the press serve as a watchdog on the state? Discuss with reference to at least one recent event or series of events.
The primary role of a journalist is to seek out and uncover the truth and report it objectively to inform, amuse or entertain as widely as possible. Within any democracy there are laws and regulations, a set of standards to live within for the safety and wellbeing of all. These apply to everyone equally; factory owner or cleaner, regardless of personal wealth or status in society. The press must also operate within the law. Recent disreputable and illegal practices within journalism have damaged the longstanding trust and respect that the public hold for the press. At the present time this self-governing body is resisting state control and legislation. The free press is considered part of the British Establishment.
The definition of a public sphere, a space in which people meet to discuss and debate issues is often attributed to the German theorist Jürgen Habermas. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere he writes about the development of the public sphere in Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries. This, he identified, was a significant time of change: “With the emergence of early finance and trade capitalism, the elements of a new social order were taking shape” (1996:14). The main meeting places were the coffee houses where: “private people come together as a public (1996:27).
The origins of the public sphere go back much further according to Caroline Taggart in A Classical Education; with its source back as far as the sixth century BC to the Agora – the place of assembly in Athens. Philosophers such as Socrates and Plato encouraged dialogue and deeper thinking in the public forum. Merchants and tradesmen congregated to sell their goods and exchange news. It was also the place for citizens – free men to discuss politics. Ancient Greece is also acknowledged for the origin of the word ‘democracy’ from the Greek roots Demos (people) and Kratos (rule) (Taggart 2013:17).
According to Dahlgren and Sparkes, the ideals of the modern democratic press and the public sphere are entwined. In relation to Habermas they argue: “The liberal bourgeoisie envisaged and created the public sphere as a set of institutions representing a sort of ‘buffer zone’ between the state/king and the private sphere… to protect them from arbitrary decisions that interfered with what they considered private activities in an irrational way” (2000:89). The press served as “… an instrument and a forum for the enlightened, rational, critical and unbiased public discussion of what the common interests were in matters of culture and politics” (2000:89).
The expression of calling the press the ‘fourth estate’ was attributed to Whig Member of Parliament Edmund Burke in the 18th century by Thomas Carlisle (cited in Harcup 2011:4). Referring to the three estates of the Realm, the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the House of Commons: “Burke said there were three estates in parliament; but in the reporters’ gallery yonder, there sat a fourth estate more important far than they all… Literature is our parliament too. Printing, which comes necessarily out of writing, I say often, is equivalent to democracy”.
With the invention of the first mechanical moveable type printer in approximately 1439, Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized printing and the era of mass communication began. Printed books and pamphlets became more widely available, increasing literacy, education and development of the middle classes. The unrestricted circulation of information including revolutionary ideas threatened the authority and power of religious and political figures. Legislation and taxation was introduced to repress or control what was published.
Several key events led to the eventual winning of press freedom. These include the abolition of the Court of Star Chamber in 1641, a subjective closed court that had power to rule on moral issues even when, strictly speaking, no law had been broken, thereby enabling censorship of the press. Brought in to replace the Star Chamber was the Licensing Order of 1643. This required that all print materials and names of authors and printers be registered at Stationers’ Hall. This was another act of censorship, wielding the power to arrest and imprison those whose writing was considered offensive. The poet John Milton wrote the Areopagitica , A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing in 1644 in protest of the order (Boss and Widger 2006). It took until 1694 to end press licensing.
Monarchy and politicians attempted to thwart press freedom further by levying taxes; on paper, on advertising in newspapers, and on newspapers themselves – known as the ‘Tax on Knowledge’. The Times declared that it: “would no longer accept early information from government offices since this was inconsistent with ‘the pride and independence of our journal’.” (Curran and Seaton 2010:6). By the middle of the 19th century the working class had also developed a thirst for news and information. Illegal unstamped radical newspapers informed and educated the masses, “independent both of government and the opposition in parliament” (Curran and Seaton 2010:7). As newspaper distribution widened and achieved national coverage, the radical press: “helped to extend the highly exclusive occupational solidarity of early trades unionism to other sectors of the labour community by demonstrating the common predicament of union members in different trades throughout the country” (Curran and Seaton 2010:13). As the cost was high, many workers clubbed together to buy a newspaper to share. The working class had joined the public sphere.
Newspaper proprietors have also influenced what goes into print. Wealthy press barons promoted their own business empires or projected their personal politics and views on to their readers. Lord Beaverbrook once told the Royal Commission on the press that he ran the Daily Express: “merely for the purpose of making propaganda and with no other motive” (Curran and Seaton 2010:42), and Robert Maxwell declared of the Daily Mirror: “I certainly have a major say in the political line of the paper” (Curran and Seaton 2010:71). However, not all press owners interfered in this way. Lord Astor, joint owner of The Times from 1922 “was teased by his friends for not reading his own paper” (Curran and Seaton 2010:39).
The newspaper industry may be considered, just as any other industry in a free market economy, as primarily a business. To succeed they need to sell more copies than the competition and make a profit. Colin Sparks (1999) argues that newspapers: “… do not exist to report the news, to act as watchdogs for the public, to be a check on the doings of government, to defend the ordinary citizen against abuses of power, to unearth scandals or to do any of the other fine and noble things that are sometimes claimed for the press” (cited in Harcup 2011:6). He may have had a point. At the time of writing, the newspaper industry had seen significant changes both in production methods and staffing levels.
A major contributor to these changes was Rupert Murdoch. In January 1986, when print workers at News International went on strike, Murdoch moved his printing empire into new premises which had been built and equipped secretly in Wapping. This broke the print union and without them the journalists union lost power as well. Nick Davies states in Flat Earth News: “that process released a chain reaction of internal changes which have had a devastating effect on truth telling journalism” (2009:62). From the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s news proprietors have introduced computer technology and cut costs by reducing staff.
Concerned with the quality and truth of newspaper writing, Davies commissioned a group of researchers from Cardiff University to investigate a sample of stories from quality daily newspapers. The findings showed that: “a massive 60 % of these quality-print stories consisted wholly or mainly of wire copy and/or PR material and a further 20% contained clear elements of wire copy and/or PR to which more or less other material had been added. With 8% of the stories they were unable to be sure about their source. That left only 12% of stories where the researchers could say that all the material was generated by the reporters themselves” (2009:52).
One young journalist wrote a work diary from a regional daily tabloid. The summary for one week Davies reports was: “Number of stories: 48 (9.6 per day). People spoken to: 26. People seen face to face: 4 out of 26. Total hours out of office: 3 out of 45.5”. This says Davies: “is life in a news factory. No reporter who is turning out nearly ten stories every shift can possibly do his or her job properly” (2009:59). The term ‘churnalism’ was born. Journalists have no time and limited resources to get out of the office to make and develop contacts. They rely more and more on the internet for stories. They copy and paste stories from news agencies and public relations companies and under pressure to meet deadlines fail to check facts or even the authenticity of what they submit.
In the unrelenting pressure for journalists to write stories quickly, beat the competition, please editors and proprietors and increase sales figures to maximize profit something had to give. It appears that the moral compass may have gone askew. What began unraveling in 2006, the practice of hacking into phones to listen to voicemail messages has unfolded into one of the biggest scandals of recent times. The main targets were celebrities, prominent sports personalities, victims of crime and grieving families, though many friends and family members of targets were also hacked. News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were arrested for hacking into the phones of members of the royal family and subsequently jailed. Parent company News International insisted that it was a one off incident. In Everybody’s Hacked Off Brian Cathcart writes of the stance taken by News International which they stuck to for over four years, insisting: “to the public, to its shareholders, to parliament to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and to anyone else who would listen that Goodman was a ‘rogue reporter’ whose hacking activity had been a secret and unlicenced operation utterly unknown at the time to his colleagues or superiors” (2012:20).
In July 2011: “The Guardian revealed online that the News of the World had hacked the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. There was instant and widespread horror…” (Cathcart 2012:6). The lack of coverage in many of the national daily papers was clear indication that they wanted to bury the story quickly, and Cathcart argues that this was indicative that they were also using illegal practices to acquire their stories. “It was only the latest though perhaps the most shameless act in a sustained effort to suppress the story of hacking, to hide it from the readers…” (2012:6). The Leveson inquiry exposed a catalogue of illegal and immoral practices that ran through the British press. It is felt by the many people who have signed up to the ‘Hacked Off’ campaign that the press have had free reign for too long, abused their position and now it is time for statutory regulation.
It is still possible that the press can serve as a watchdog on the state using publicly available and legal sources. In 2009 The Daily Telegraph exposed the scandal of MPs excessive claims on their expenses. The British public was incensed. Most will tolerate paying their taxes if it benefits society with new schools and hospitals or keeping the streets clean and safe. But for public money to be spent on extravagant spending sprees by public servants who consider it a perk of their job was beyond belief. Gordon Rayner, chief reporter on The Daily Telegraph wrote: “Not only were MPs claiming public money for such fripperies as home cinema systems, antique rugs, silk cushions and ride on mower servicing, some were guilty of dreaming up scams which in some cases netted them tens of thousands of pounds” (Rayner 2009). Peter Osborne summarised in The Telegraph online that to date: “More than 300 Members of Parliament have paid back wrongly claimed expenses. Several of the worst offenders have stood down from Parliament. Now that the former minister Denis MacShane has at last pleaded guilty to fraud, no further prosecutions are planned…” (Osborne 2013).
It is this type of investigative journalism that serves the public interest and demonstrates the actions and behavior of those in public office should be transparent and that they are held to account by the electorate.
The idea that we have a completely free press in the 21st century is open to debate. Harcup (2009:22) list over 60 pieces of legislation that: “regulate or restrict the ways in which journalists in England and Wales may gather information, what information they may have access to, and/or what may be published.” However, other legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Aarhus Convention offer a means for journalists and citizens to become informed of and participate in matters of public concern. The continuation of a public sphere into the future is feasible as new digital technologies enable information to spread globally in a matter of seconds. Investigative journalist Heather Brooke sums this up in her TedTalks video: “… our printing press is the internet, our coffee houses are social networks” (2012).