Thought for the Day - Professor Mona Siddiqui - 04/12/2012

The news yesterday that the duchess of Cambridge is expecting a baby will be warmly welcomed by many, a joyous end to a jubilee year. For the next few weeks and months, she will be the media story, her health, her appearance, her highs and lows; the media’s attention will focus on the arrival of a new royal and what this will mean for the monarchy, the kind of parents the couple will make, the next chapter of their lives.

How big this news continues to be will depend largely on the press for the print media in all its forms is as much about power and influence as it is about story. Good news or bad news, the media can keep a story going, ignore a story, shut down a debate as quickly as it can open one. It can be as emotive or as rational as it wants but more importantly it would seem in the current fall out from the Leveson report that the press can be part of using certain words to hijack the public discussion. It can draw the public into taking sides. In the last few days the words statute and freedom have polarised the discussion on the future of press regulation. Statute is bad, freedom is good; make your choice. Most of us know how important an engaged and free press is in holding people, power and principles to account and if asked, ` do you believe in a free press? We would answer yes. But this isn’t the real choice even though it's being pitched like this by many. The choice seems to me more about ethical relationships than ethical regulation. How do we want our media to relate to the wider society, to individuals and especially to those who have become the story?

We have come to see freedom in all matters as the ultimate arbiter of how liberal a society really is. But freedom without principles can be destructive or just meaningless. For the victims of phone hacking the issue which spawned the whole inquiry, the press didn’t just behave unethically, its intrusive means violated standards of basic human decency and the industry not the individuals must pay. Whatever this might look like it seems to me there’s always a price to pay for the freedoms we desire. We only have only to cast a glance at many part of the Islamic world where individual and collective freedoms are an ongoing struggle and where in many places the press is either silenced by or subservient to the state. Yet ordinary men and women persist in wanting change against all the odds, demanding that controlling governments act more ethically. Here in the UK, the question shouldn’t be about where power lies, the state or the press, rather that behind the polarising language of statutory regulation versus press freedom, both work together for a more ethical media which serves everyone.

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