Is it the job of a newspaper to "represent" its readers?
Tweak (or wrench) the paper’s news agenda to reflect readers’ prejudices – I get. Argue for and defend those prejudices – I get that too. And campaigning on their behalf – of course.
All good stuff, well within the finest traditions of Britain’s lippy, gutsy, argumentative, pluralist press.
That’s what the News of the World claims it does – or has been doing with its campaign for a so-called “Sarah’s Law”; a law that would enable local people to find out if a convicted paedophile were living in their neighbourhood.
It was in response to the World Tonight’s interview with Terry Grange, the Chief Constable of Dyfed-Powys and the child protection spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (listen to it here).
The Chief Constable’s criticisms of both the paper and Government was tough; likening the relationship between Ministers and the tabloid press to that between blackmailer and victim. And the World Tonight listeners who joined the debate seemed to share his view.
It’s absurd to argue that newspapers aren’t political players; campaigning does – and probably should – influence Governments, change public sentiment or the law. All the best campaigning journalism has a moral component; “stop this evil now.”
But can campaigning newspapers “represent” anyone?
They can speak for them; articulate their views, or what they perceive them to be; hunt out the facts to confirm their readers’ views of the world. Press the case hard. And in doing all of that they play an important role in our messy and sometimes fuzzy democracy – but do they, can they, “represent” anyone?
There’s a confusion here about the role of elected politicians and their non-elected critics. Editors have the right - the duty - to call for the heads of elected politicians they and their readers think have failed; and they have the right and duty to put the evidence that they’ve failed in front of their readers. That’s accountability.
But that doesn’t put them in the same place in our democracy as elected politicians - for the simple reason that they represent no-one but themselves.
I can’t un-elect the editor of the News of the World, even if I want to. I can’t hold him to account for the consequences of his campaigns - intended and unintended.
That’s fine so long as he doesn’t claim to “represent” me - for better or worse, I am one of his readers.
But once he does claim to represent me, then I want to ask him some awkward questions.
The obvious ones, like - how does he choose which readers he represents and which he doesn’t ? How do I change his mind or get him fired?
Or; what if he fails the readers he chooses to “represent”? What if the Government decides in the end that “Sarah’s Law” would be the charter for vigilantism that some claim and some in the United States claim Megan’s Law already is? Does he apologise to those he “represents” and resign because he’s failed to get them the law?
Or; what if he succeeds and “Sarah’s Law” is enacted? And the casualty list of mobbed paediatricians grows? Does he take responsibility for the unintended consequence and compensate the victims? And does he resign, just as he’d call for an elected politician to resign whose legislation went similarly awry?
The press may be many things; argumentative and campaigning; a powerful and legitimate force in democracy, certainly.
But “representative”? I think not.