The great Sunday Times editor Harold Evans famously, in the 1974 Granada Guildhall
Lecture, described the British press as „half free.‟ Giving the Index Lecture in 2002 at the
Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival, he said he was amazed at his own moderation 28 years earlier:
“I should have said the
Risibly Half Free Press.”
So where are we today? 55 per cent free? 47 per cent free? Since its creation 11 years ago as aresult of the merger of the Guild of Editors and the Association of British Editors, the Societyof Editors has placed great emphasis on its lobbying and campaigning role in the defence and
expansion of media freedoms in Britain. Its stated mission is to work „to protect the freedomof all sectors of the media to report on behalf of the public.‟ Society members share these
The universal right to freedom of expression
The importance of the vitality of the news media in a democratic society
The promotion of press and broadcasting freedom and the public‟s right to know
The commitment to high editorial standards
The society, since its inception, has grown in standing and influence. It is regularly consultedby government over policies and legislation affecting the press. It gives evidence to selectcommittees. Its advice is sought by public bodies, from local authorities to the police andsecurity services, from the armed services to the Royal household, from the judiciary to theChurches. It reacts to controversial issues. It works closely with media managements andregulators, with trainers and other influential campaigning groups. Its concerns areunambiguously journalistic and its annual conference is the most high profile gathering of theleading movers and shakers in the media.
While there has clearly been some progress the need for vigilance is undiminished. Freedomof Inform
ation law may have brought us the facts about the House of Lords and MPs‟
expenses; super injunctions and the restrictions on reporting and photography at some footballgrounds have had the opposite effect. Family courts are open to the media but reporting is stillstrictly limited and contempt orders and (over) interpretation by judges of the Human RightsAct in the area of privacy give continuing cause for concern.
It is not only legislation that affects press freedom, although for obvious reasons it is the mostpowerful restraint. The ever- increasing sophistication of those who seek to protectinformation from public scrutiny, the use of media management and spin, the denial of accessto events and people all play their part. So too do economic pressures on media organisationsthemselves. The lack of physical capacity among newspaper staff to report courts andcouncils is now giving rise to the so-
called „democratic deficit‟. There is no doubt that the
Freedom of Information legislation has had the opposite effect, despite government attemptsto weaken it. The society played a lead role in resisting that and politicians and corporationscan now be made to reveal certain kinds of information. But that does not stop themdeveloping new strategies to avoid it.
New media forms, like Facebook and Twitter, once ignored or scorned by professional journalists, are now, used in the right way, excellent and valid reporting tools, which broadentraditional ideas of sources. Likewise, the digital camera buried in the mobile phone. Theyplayed a great part in piecing together the causes and detail of the G20 demonstration deathand play an increasing role in everyday reporting across the media.
There is one further vital component in the media freedom debate which is the public. Thepublic, our audiences, hold the media, like politicians, in low regard and cannot be relied