In England, our press has not always been ‘free’. The concept of a free press developed over centuries in response to state control over the media, which was historically seen as essential for maintaining peace and preventing revolution. However, in post-‘civil war’ England, free speech and a free press became indispensable to society with the rise of democracy and a move to government by consensus. Newspaper publications are now recognised for their role in holding government institutions accountable to the people and hailed as a cornerstone of democracy.
However, in failing to acknowledge the reasons why freedom of the press is vital to society, we often prioritise the interests of billionaires over the interests of individual citizens. The present-day press is effectively controlled by a few powerful corporations, who can disproportionately influence public opinion in a way that should shock society. Yet, because of our disillusion around the concept of a free press, attempts to criticise these corporations are struck down as a de facto attack on democracy. When climate change activists held a protest against media-giant Rupert Murdoch, our political leaders denounced them for restricting the free press and freedom of speech, without acknowledging the threat to both principles from the media corporations themselves.
Extinction Rebellion Incident
On Saturday 5 September, Extinction Rebellion (XR) held a protest outside two major printing presses, stopping lorries full of newspapers from leaving the premises. Both sites were targeted for their ownership by the media-giant Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Sun and The Times. The official XR Twitter page explained the move as a stand against the “consistent manipulation of the truth” and failure to report on the climate emergency. People were encouraged to leave ‘free the truth’ pamphlets where patchy newspaper distribution left empty shelves. At the end of the 13-hour protest, protestors came down from blockades as planned, volunteering themselves to the police. XR called the protest a great success, having drawn attention to the issue of media dominance and the climate emergency.
However, these protestors came under heavy criticism from all walks of life, who presented the incident as a threat to democracy. Many saw their attack on the press as a step too far. Among the outcry was Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors, who compared the group to totalitarian dictators in “shutting down free speech and an independent media”. Both the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition publicly condemned XR, while the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, believed their actions were so unacceptable that she called for the group to be criminalised. But even our leading politicians failed to acknowledge what a free press really means and could not give a compelling reason why the protestor’s actions were so destructive to democracy.
Origins of Press Freedom
It is important to note that freedom of the press developed in response to state control over the media. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, all printing and publications were in the royal jurisdiction, meaning that all materials had to be pre-approved by the King’s Privy Council before publication. Those who produced publications without a license could be imprisoned under the crime of seditious libel and, in extreme cases, sentenced to death for treason. When the English Civil War abolished the courts responsible for trying offenders, licensing laws became less effective. The state turned to taxation to stop the surge in journalism, and common law judges expanded the crime of seditious libel to cover the content of publications regardless of licenses. As a consequence, anybody who was critical of the crown could be imprisoned.
The eighteenth-century radical Whigs were perhaps the most responsible for bringing freedom of the press into political recognition. They argued against government by divine right, following the philosophical arguments of John Milton, a poet and academic of the seventeenth century. In Milton’s seminal work Areopagitica (1644), he laid out the principle of free speech, arguing that moral and intellectual development was only possible in a society that allowed ideas to be freely circulated. Milton argued that when all opinions are welcomed, censorship is unnecessary, because good (truthful) arguments will naturally triumph over erroneous ones. He saw the right to speak freely as fundamental to society, with free speech allowing development of consciousness, and free press allowing this consciousness to be shared in the public domain. The government is not truly governing by consent if public consciousness is being controlled by the state. This argument gained increasing traction and support in the seventeenth, eighteen, and nineteenth centuries.
Interestingly, a landmark victory towards freedom of the press was the repeal of newspaper taxation in 1861. Unlike the licensing laws and seditious libel, taxation had not targeted the contents of publications. Instead, the series of taxation laws (starting in with the 1712 Stamp Act) placed a tax on each newspaper sold, regardless of cost or contents, becoming known as the “tax on knowledge”. Anti-taxation campaigners criticised these taxes for cutting deeper into the pockets of cheap newspapers and allowing dominance of the market by the more expensive papers who could still make profit from their sales. In accordance with Milton’s arguments for open discussion in the public domain, campaigners were unified by the belief that society would be more secure with an “expanded capitalist press”: a press that was accessible for all opinions and not disproportionately representing certain views over others.
John Milton’s arguments for an open marketplace of ideas laid the foundations for recognising freedom of speech in a free society. The sentiment that no state, body or corporation should control which opinions are made freely available should remain at the forefront of our minds when discussing the free press. However, society seems to have forgotten about the struggle against taxation and the importance of welcoming all opinions – mass media and protestors – to the discussion. Attempts to silence the voices of the Extinction Rebellion protestors as ‘undemocratic’ and ‘unacceptable’ is neither constructive nor in line with Milton’s conception of a free society.
To amuse the argument that the protestors interfered with Murdoch’s right to free speech and a free press, the aims and impact of the protestors are notable. The aim was clearly disruption and not total silencing of The Sun and The Times, with both papers’ main distribution via digital readership and not from printed papers. The protest was planned to last for only one morning, and protestors volunteered themselves to the police at the agreed time. Other printing presses were able to produce last-minute papers and some pre-printed supplements went out to minimise the impact. Clearly, although their methods were unorthodox, the protestors were not attempting to silence The Sun or The Times (a virtually impossible task), but tried to levy the popularity of Murdoch’s papers to bring their opinions into the public domain.
XR’s criticism of the media comes amid growing concern over the monopoly power a few wealthy individuals exert over the press. Rupert Murdoch is one of five billionaires who control the vast majority of mainstream media corporations, joined by: Richard Desmond (former owner of the Express), Viscount Rothermere (owner of the Mail), and the two Barclay Brothers (owners of the Telegraph). Collectively, they own 70% of Britain’s newspaper market. Concern is not just of the financial ownership, but the influence these individuals have over the content published. Ex-editors at The Sunand The Times have confessed that Murdoch has a direct influence on publications and would pressurise them until the papers reflected his own political opinions; a former employee reported that editors were trained to consider “what will Rupert think?” before running any story. Although the fight against taxation should have taught us the importance of having a diverse media, it has clearly been forgotten as we revert back to a press controlled by a handful of individuals.
Perhaps the criticism of XR by our political leaders can be explained by the close relationship between the media giant and the government, rather than a genuine concern for the protection of democracy. In 2018 and 2019 alone, government ministers or their advisors met with employees of Murdoch’s newspapers a total of 206 times and Boris Johnson has met with Rupert Murdoch directly at least twice since becoming Prime Minister. There is a lack of transparency here, as government have ignored calls to publish discussions on media policy within these meetings. There comes a time when we should question whether our politicians are prioritising corporate interest over genuine free speech.
As famously said by A.J. Leibling, “freedom of press is guaranteed only to those who own one”. Over-protecting this freedom without considering its origins ultimately prioritises the freedoms of a few billionaires over the freedoms of the people. However, it is even more concerning that the political representatives who we entrust to uphold our democracy are using its name to silence criticism of the media. The real threat to our democracy arises from politicians manipulating this notion of a free press, into one which silences criticism of the media. Our free press is being threatened, but not by the actions of a few Extinction Rebellion protestors. The threat comes from our acceptance of media dominance and the demise of the open marketplace of ideas in the public domain.