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Journalism, Democracy and Freedom of Speech:


Amending the Regulatory System Without Impeding on
Freedom of Speech and the Free Press

Word Count: 2, 151














Mark Dixon Murdoch University



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Journalism, Democracy and Freedom of Speech

An ever changing democratic society such as ours requires a clear and concise understanding of the
interactions it has with the media. Failing to understand such interactions could lead to potentially
negative consequences as a direct result of ignoring the implications that the media has on us as a
society. This essay will attempt to discuss and outline the principles of journalism in a democracy and
its roles when it comes to freedom of speech, the free press and the issues that a democracy faces
when trying to regulate journalism and media in general. To demonstrate this, this essay will use the
example of the free press and the freedom of speech being inhibited as a result of possible
government regulation of the body of journalism in all avenues of media. Freedom of the press and
freedom of expression have been the clarion calls of those who have sought to resist the oppressive
powers of the State. The struggle for the freedom of the press, is taken so much for granted when it
exists, has been long, difficult and still unachieved in many parts of the world (Sanders, K. 2003.) By
using the rights of free press and the freedom of speech in a democratic society as a candidate for
my discussion, this essay will attempt to show the importance of understanding the principles of free
press, free media and the freedom of speech, and how they could be inhibited as a direct result of
government regulations over a self regulated body. This essay will also outline the overall essential
importance of good quality and highly ethical journalism in a democratic society such as ours.


Freedom of speech can be defined as a cornerstone of democracy. (Britannica. 2010.) Its
importance to the very aspect of living in a free and democratic society is critical, without freedom of
speech our way of living and our free society would not be the same. With freedom of speech also
comes the free press and the free media, the free press is a crucial part of any democracy as a free
press is required for the protection of the autonomy of civil society from the potentially despotic
incursions of the state. (Scammell, M and Semetko, H. 2000.) Without the free press and the free
media in general, the public would have no idea of what would be happening on a political level, in
fact the public would have no clue of what was happening that the State did not want them to
know. So it is the very job of the media and the press to keep the public informed on matters that
otherwise would go un-noticed. A free press is necessary, via the representative principle, to
provide information and enable free debate so that the public can form opinions and make choices
among competitors for their votes. (Scammell, M and Semetko, H. 2000.) The media operates
primarily around the aspect of public interest, if something is of public interest, then it is the press
and the medias responsibility to collect credible and accurate information in an ethical manner
regarding the matter and see that the public are informed. If the freedom of the press is freighted


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with the responsibility of providing the current intelligence needed by a free society, we have to
discover what a free society requires. (Adam, S and Clark, R. 2006.)


The free media and free press within a democracy need to fully understand what a free society
needs and what responsibilities that they need to uphold and keep in order to satisfy the needs of a
free society. Stuart Adam and Roy Clark define the mediated needs of a free society as:
Today our society needs, first, a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account
of the days events in a context which gives the meaning; second, a forum for the
exchange of comment and criticism; third, a means of projecting the opinions and
attitudes of the groups in the society to one another; fourth, a method of
presenting and clarifying the goals and values of the society; and, fifth, a way of
reaching every member of the society by the currents of information, thought, and
feeling which the press supplies. (Adam, S and Clark, R. 2006.)
With such a committed relationship existing between the press and the public, it is important that
the integrity of all journalistic endeavours over all forms over media are trustworthy, accurate and
highly ethical. This can be hard to moderate as a result of the sheer amount of media that is required
by a free society it is obvious that the amount of current information required by the citizens in a
modern industrial society is far greater than that required in any earlier day. (Adam, S and Clark, R.
2006.) Because of the importance of free media and free press in a democracy, self regulated bodies
have been setup to mediate and regulate with the free press to help keep ethical standards high.


Among the self regulated bodies, press councils have been employed to help moderate the free
press for quite some time now. Karen Sanders explains that press councils have proliferated since
Sweden established the first at the beginning of the last century. They can be found across all
continents and all kinds of media systems and have been promoted as a way of regulating the press
with varying degrees of success. (Sanders, K. 2003.) Self regulated bodies such as the MEAA, AJA
and the IPRA all have a set of codes and conducts that they deem and refer to as guidelines for
ethical and honest journalism. But there are issues when it comes to codes, guidelines and laws,
codes and laws have two further difficulties; first, they cannot cover every eventuality and it is
precisely the hard cases that escape them. Second, external regulations can encourage a compliance
with the latter of the law the publication of an apology, for example which is vitiated by
accompanying actions. (Sanders, K. 2003). In addition to these two clearly noted issues with codes
and guidelines, at the end of the day, they are simply guidelines of what the journalist should follow
to be ethical.


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The MEAA/AJA code of ethics even has a guidance clause which states that:
Basic values often need interpretation and sometimes come into conflict. Ethical
journalism requires conscientious decision-making in context. Online substantial
advancement of the public interest or risk of substantial hard to people allows any
standard to be overridden. (MEAA. 2010)
This guidance clause offers a viable escape option for unethical journalism in the way that any of the
guidelines can be overridden if public interest is at stake. It is hard to determine what is and what
isnt in the public interest, therefore often allowing unethical journalism to slip under the radar.


Although some of this unethical journalism goes un-noticed and generally un-sanctioned, there are a
few watch-dog like mediators that try to govern and shed light on un-ethical journalistic
endeavours. One example of these watch-dogs is Media Watch, a weekly Australian television
show that highlights key points in recent affairs of un-ethical journalism, in a hope to help abolish it.
Rob Johnson talks about the importance of such watch-dog organisations:
Youd expect a journalist to be hostile to a show like Media Watch whose bread
and butter consists of exposing bad journalism. Like many other journos in Sydney,
however, Hardaker would say that Media Watch is good because it helps keep the
profession honest. At a time when both public and commercial newsrooms are
under financial and political pressure, such a role is important if quality journalism
is going to survive. (Johnson, R. 2000.)
Just as important that the freedom of speech and the free press is to us as a democracy, the
governance from an unbiased and un-affiliated watch-dog organisation such as Media Watch is to
us also. It helps protect our society from the negative aspects of unethical journalism, and helps to
uphold and maintain a general high level of honesty and ethics throughout the free press as a whole.


The publics opinion of journalism is at an all time low, journalists are seen as dishonest and unethical
by the people. This can be seen statistically, in polls conducted in 1993 estate agents received the
lowest rating in British public esteem; journalists were just above them. (Sanders, K. 2003.) This is
from a large range of factors and cannot be blamed or attributed to any single cause, but rather of
journalism as a whole. Journalists have been described by the satirical magazine, Private Eye, and
the Royal Family as the reptiles, compared to jackals and vultures feeding on human carrion, this
image of the journalist reached it apotheosis at the time of the dead of Diana, Princess of Wales in
1997. (Sanders, K. 2003) This is an unfortunate depiction of journalism in the publics eye; from their


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point of view they see journalists as untrustworthy and un-ethical. Whereas in fact not all journalists
are un-ethical, but it only takes a few to tarnish the name.
Self regulation does not seem to be playing the role that it was designed to do in the field of
journalism; this can be seen from the guidance clause in the MEAA/AJA code of ethics and all other
self regulated bodys guidelines and codes of ethics. The MEAA/AJA code of ethics has been
described as a toothless tiger, that seems to have no power in stopping unethical journalism taking
place. A government regulated body that mediated and governed over the press and over the media
would cause the press and media to cease being free, as the government would have full control
over the press and media. This would therefore cause the loss of free speech and our democratic
society would no longer be a free society as we would have no idea as to what was happening on a
political level or any other level that the government chose to block out from us. Free media is
essential because a free media is a manifestation of the principle of freedom of speech; this is
intrinsically a good thing, both as defence against despotism and for the achievement of truth
through unrestricted discussion. (Scammell, M and Semetko, H. 2000.)
The medias duties to democracy flow clearly and logically from these premises:
1. Most importantly, to act as a watchdog against the state;
2. To supply accurate and sufficient information;
3. To represent the people in the sense of adequately reflecting the spectrum of public
opinion and political competition. (Scammell, M and Semetko, H. 2000.)
These duties could not be successfully upheld and maintained if the media was over headed by
a government body that regulated media, because how could the media act as a watchdog
against the state if it was regulated by the state. Secondly how could the media supply accurate
and sufficient information to the public, if the information infringed upon anything that the
state deemed as unfit for the public. Overall, a government regulated body could not work,
simply because it would not allow the media to report on information of public interest.


In conclusion, it is fair to say that the system in which the free press is governed at the moment
is flawed, but operates in a more ideal manner than it would if the free press was regulated by a
government body. Freedom of speech, the free press and free media in general all contribute to
our society being a free society and being a democratic society, without those elements
existing, our society would no longer be free. These elements of the free media are far too
important to be simply discarded. As Karen Sanders says the struggle for the freedom of the
press, is taken so much for granted when it exists, has been long, difficult and still unachieved in
many parts of the world (Sanders, K. 2003.) It is critical for us to understand as a society that
the freedom of speech, the free press and free media play such an important role in keeping us
free as a democratic society and informed about the goings on in local, current, national and


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international news. A recommendation to supply a better governance of the free press, without
imposing a draconian government regulated body, would be to have more watch-dog
organisations that are willing to name and shame unethical journalists and shed light on
examples of unethical journalism. This would help keep wraps on certain aspects of the free
press and would also help to account for unethical journalists being forced out of the industry.
To conclude, the free press and the freedom of speech are what gives us the rights to know
whats going on without government without these key elements our free society would no
longer be free, it is important for us to appreciate the freedom that we have as a free society.







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References:

Adam, S and Clark, R. 2006. Journalism: The Democratic Craft. New York: Oxford University Press.

Britannica. 2010. History and Society: Democracy.
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/157129/democracy (accessed April 21st, 2010)

Henry, N. 2007. American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media. California:
University of California Press.

Johnson, S and Prijatel, P. 2007. The Magazine from Cover to Cover. New York: Oxford University
Press.

Johnson, R. 2000. Cash for Comment: The Seduction of Journo Culture. Annadale, New South Wales:
Pluto Press Australia Limited.

Mayes, I. 2007. Journalism: Right and Wrong. United Kingdom: Guardian Books.

MEAA. 2010. Media Alliance Code of Ethics.
http://www.alliance.org.au/media_alliance_code_of_ethics/ (accessed April 22nd, 2010)




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Sanders, K. 2003. Ethics and Journalism. London: Sage Publications.

Scammell, M and Semetko, H. 2000. The International Library of Politics and Comparative
Government: The Media, Journalism and Democracy. United Kingdom: Dartmouth Publishing
Company Limited.