‘Free’ Press & All

Living where I do, I hear plenty about (the lack of) having a free press. The Straits Times is often criticised for being too kind on the ruling party and not publishing the ugly side of things. It honestly hasn’t bothered me too much. I hardly get my news from the Straits Times, and I don’t think it’s as bad as some people make it out to be — when I wanted to find out about sex trafficking in Singapore a while back, the most information I got was from a Straits Times feature of a research project done by an NTU professor.  (Personally, I have a bigger gripe with its online / tablet app marketing strategy.) I could be wrong, but I’m fairly certain we’re not just a ‘North Korea with Internet’ as some Western media outlets enjoyed painting us out to be after grudgingly admitting Lee Kuan Yew’s accomplishments two weeks ago.

Maybe, though, we’ve idealised the ‘freedom’ of the press too much. Free means free from censorship and government intervention, and who doesn’t want that? But we are always in chains; what remains is who we choose our masters to be. I just read this article about a scandal at Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed isn’t a news outlet per se, but I don’t think the problem is a unique one, and the article provides more examples. In short:

Whatever motivated it, the decision to delete Sicardi’s post, and her subsequent resignation, speaks to the question of who holds the power to decide what a publication says—advertisers or editors—one arising more often and made all the more complex by digital news’ increasing reliance on ads that look like stories.

Censorship can be brand-driven too. As mentioned in the article:

“We frequently hear about the potential dangers to press freedom from state regulation. But an equal, perhaps greater, danger comes from corporate advertisers,” Peter Wilby wrote in the New Statesman.

With that comes another subtle problem. What drives revenue is advertising. What drives advertising is views, or clicks, or subscribers. Is what’s popular always what’s worth reporting?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn came from, and suffered greatly under, a regime that most assuredly did not have a ‘free press’. And perhaps that is what made these words of his, spoken at a speech at a Harvard commencement 37 years ago, so surprising:

Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislative power, the executive, and the judiciary. And one would then like to ask: By what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible? In the communist East a journalist is frankly appointed as a state official. But who has granted Western journalists their power, for how long a time, and with what prerogatives?

There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the East, where the press is rigorously unified. One gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment; there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership because newspapers mostly develop stress and emphasis to those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend.

Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevent independent-minded people giving their contribution to public life. There is a dangerous tendency to flock together and shut off successful development. 

Which is worse: being controlled by the state, by large corporations, or by the whims and fancies of the populace? Worth considering.

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