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PRESS FREEDOM The Good, the Bad, and the VERY Ugly in Journalism

Jill Havern | Published on the 20.04.20 14:41 | 783 Views

New chapter from PeterMac's e-book: 'What really happened to Madeleine McCann?'


The Good, the Bad, and the VERY Ugly in Journalism

A free press is one of the foundations on which modern ‘liberal’ democracy rests.

“ Freedom of speech ” has long been recognized as important “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” George Washington

We have become used to reading and hearing, and more recently actually seeing, proceedings in Parliament. Our Parliament. It was not always so.

Hansard, which publishes a verbatim but edited record of proceedings in the House, was founded only in 1771. Before that date only decisions had been reported, not the content of the debate, and to attempt to do so was punishable by both Houses. A commentary at the time refers to "the difficulties faced by independent newspapermen who . . . in varying degrees, attempted to educate the populace to the shortcomings of their rulers.” Hansard we know today began only in 1909.          


We have also become accustomed to access to a range of newspapers. We accept that each will have its own political agenda reflected in the leader article or evidenced by the general tone of the editorial and commentary.

There was a time when journalism was a respected profession. It was referred to as the 4th Estate, with a mission to hold the Establishment to account by reporting the truth and by fearlessly exposing corruption and deceit.

Thomas Carlyle attributed the origin of the term to Edmund Burke, who used it in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons of Great Britain

     "Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all”


Relatively quickly however, that importance and power began to corrupt. As Lord Acton observed in 1887 “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely”

Oscar Wilde wrote in his 1891 pamphlet The Soul of Man under Socialism:

     "In old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralising. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism."

Though he was also scathing about its purpose: “There is much to be said in favour of modern journalism. By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.“ 


What are the gradations, the categories of truth and of truth telling?

Is truth indivisible? Can it have context or nuance?

Can you have your personal “version of the truth”?

Can it be placed onto a scale according to some level or quantum of truth or mendacity, or by assessing the spectrum of damage caused to individuals and to the freedom of us all?

And when that truth is reported, what then?

I have tried to fit it into a scale here.

(I use the word Truth to mean objective and provable fact, and I use Mendacity to mean deliberate, calculated falsehood, as opposed to error, mistake, misunderstanding, or misinterpretation.)

You may observe that I include a category not normally associated with Journalism, but I believe intimately concerned with Truth and Mendacity and able to influence freedom of speech. Libel Lawyers.

Let me try to develop this

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