The idea of the free press emerges out of the belief that government should have no official say on what gets published. The free press cannot exist if certain ideas and writers are prohibited from their independent voice.
The dominant publishing industry, the mainstream press and now the corporate nexus of social media giants, are all in contravention of the fundamental ideal of a free press.
Free speech matters only in conjunction with a free press. One of the most common arguments against complete, unlicensed free speech, is that some speech does more harm than others. Debate is fine, but only if it doesn’t give a platform to ‘hate’, and the definition of this special form of speech varies from discussion to discussion.
This is a weak argument, but it continues to be the central strategy of those who think they know best when it comes to speech. The reason for this is because the notion of the free press has been discredited for decades.
This process of discrediting is in no small way the fault of individual journalists, who have betrayed their readers by breaking the law and taking no interest in the quality of public life in the west.
However, these individuals are given license by a culture that emerges out of the monopolised press, whereby a kind of mafia control of news raises them and their employees above the law.
We saw this during the Leveson Inquiry depositions in the UK. Private Eye editor Ian Hislop said in his own deposition that the phone hacking scandal at The News Of World occurred not because of a lack of legal control, but because huge press companies were so close to government that they were able to act above the law.
We already have laws that protect citizens from invasions of privacy and harassment. Good laws, in fact, that allow for the context of the crime to determine the nature of the charge.
Press companies like Associated News and News International, are able to get away with degrading our public space and turning the news business into a showbiz, lowest-common-denominator freakshow, not because the laws and protection don’t exist to challenge them, but because those in power jealously seek the favour of these press barons.
Free speech must be total, because the free press must be total. A brief course in the history of printing and publishing will drive that home sufficiently.
The idea of the free press emerges from the confluence of rights around speech and religion, ensuring that no one idea dominates the market of thought, and that the state is limited from imposing one idea on the country at large.
Monopolies are a violation of this, and they allow press barons to behave as if they are above the law, just as kings and Popes did prior to the Reformation.
Hateful or destructive ideas can indeed damage people. Words have the power to ignite wars, to rob individuals of their dignity. A passing knowledge of psychology and history tells us this is true.
However, whether we are talking about the rise of Hitler or emotional abuse of small children, the answer is not to sanction the use of words. The answer is always to widen the market of ideas and words available to the victims.
Totalitarian propaganda requires the control of the media to work. Emotional abuse uses gaslighting tactics to disarm the critical abilities of the victim.
Controlling words in order to protect people from these assaults only serves to centralise the very powers that can do the most damage.
The value of the free press is that it is essentially the anti-centralisation of power. It ensures that citizens determine what enters their minds on the basis of their own critical, independent thought only, as opposed to the careful sanctions of higher-ups, however benevolent these higher-ups claim to be.
In the late nineties, the great promise of the internet was that it was going to fully realise the democratic idea of the free press. And there is an argument to say that it has. Each of us can run a media company, each of us is a reporter. None of us is forced to fall back on mainstream sources of knowledge.
However, in the last ten years, the centralisation of power in the hands of Google, Apple and Facebook, presents the same challenge as that of the hegemony of UK press barons.
A centralised press is never free, and the current state of the internet means that all the gains of independent publishing add up to a negative for independent thought. If anything, we are more hungry than ever for a mainstream, for a central authority to help us navigate the uncritical online space.
The great irony of our age is that total democratisation silences real dissent better than any totalitarian regime. A challenging voice is robbed of its danger if it is just one voice in a cacophony of 80 million other voices. The mainstream consolidates itself as the gaggle of commentary grows on the internet.
A voice can only truly be dissenting if it actually impacts the mainstream.
This may leave us feeling depressed. But the real challenge to the free press is not cultural overload. The facts of life in a social media world only make dissent impossible if we cave in to apathy and frustration.
What we often forget is that the free press is part of individual rights. It guarantees us a right to not only say what we want, but to have our voices heard – if we are prepared to do the work.
A free press requires us to take the risk of failure. It means a long-term battle, a war of attrition with the centralised status quo. In that sense, the state of the free press is as it was in Milton’s time, a dangerous, arduous fight with no guarantee of victory.
All that is different in our age is that we apply social media values of instantaneity and popular trend to measure our impact. None of these have anything to do with the free press.
If the free press is under threat, we only have ourselves to blame. We must be aggressive, disruptive, unapologetic, dissenting and above all things LOUD. We must not let the internet fool us into the current, yuppy version of dissent and cultural disparateness that results from the overpraised democratisation of the media.
Yes, write your blog. Yes, start a YouTube company. But the mere existence of your independent voice doth not a free press make. Like all rights, the free press must be active, we must insist on being heard.