Freedom of media and freedom of speech

There is a subtle and important difference here.

The mainstream media, print in particular, have enjoyed the mantle of the guardians of freedom of speech for hundreds of years, for most of that time in the absence of any other large-scale communication network.

But in the past 30 years or so in particular, the notion of an independent media providing objective news to a population implicitly relying on those media for that information has collided with the notion of the media as a mechanism of generating millions of dollars.

I think this is what has happened at the BBC, where a concern about viewer ratings has subtly eroded its raison d’être in the new competitive world that was introduced with the emergence of Sky in particular in the early 1980s.

Clearly, these two notions are incompatible. Or rather, as a society we need to consider what we want, and how this might work.

And the Leveson inquiry into the activities of British media over recent years brings that collision into sharp focus.

The rest of the debate and argument then becomes one of scales of degree of compromise, but the compromise, the uncomfortable conjoining of these two notions, is already established.

So the cries are then heard that legislated regulation of the media in Britain is a restriction on the freedom of speech.

Well, media proprietors would say that, wouldn’t they? Their multi-million dollar generating mechanisms are suddenly under threat.

But the call is in fact about a gate on the freedom of the media, the press in particular, to do as they please without accountability.

And the reason we are having this debate, as in all similar cases, is that the option of self-regulation has failed and been seen to fail, and has been treated with contempt by those for which the concept of self-regulation offered the most benefit.

(As with most legislation in an elected democracy, it exists either because it’s seen to be for the greater good, or is in response to a failure that society eventually deems unacceptable. Society eventually makes that decision, and for some it’s too soon, for others too late.)

But freedom of speech is in good shape. This blog post is an example. Right now, I can say almost anything I wish to. But I run the risk under common law of being prosecuted if I do say something illegal, and I run the risk of being castigated online of I say something stupid or otherwise too extreme.

It’s freedom of speech. Anyone with a keyboard can do it.

And with it comes responsibility. That’s mine to take or not, and I need to understand the consequences of getting it wrong, be they legal or social.

The responsibility applies to journalists, bloggers, indeed to anyone who wants to express any opinion or present a fact in some form of public forum. The Leveson inquiry has shown that to be the case in Britain. Elsewhere, including Australia most recently, other media organizations seem to have missed that point.

As a society, it also applies to all of us, individually and collectively.

About alansmithoz

Head of Strategic Business Communications at Australian social analytics technology company Digivizer, with a background in corporate public relations and marketing. I do what I do because I believe communications can make a difference.
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