How free is the media? Question Time

Sunday 14 October, 12:0013:00, Cinema 3Culture wars

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It was Thomas Jefferson who said that liberty depends on press freedom, which ‘cannot be limited without being lost’. It has long been argued that a free press is essential to democracy. But not everybody agrees on how far that freedom should extend.

Today, everyone from politicians to journalists to ordinary news consumers seem to be constantly questioning the role and influence of the media. President Donald Trump dismissed US news outlet CNN as ‘fake news’ and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn recently announced plans for introducing more government influence over the media.

In the UK, since the Leveson inquiry – inspired by the phone-hacking scandal – politicians and prominent campaigners, such as Max Mosley, have called for restrictions to be placed on print publications. The BBC is forever being criticised for left-wing or right-wing bias from those with opposing views. Meanwhile, popular online campaigns like #StopFundingHate claim to call out the ‘bigotry’ of certain newspapers and call for advertising boycotts to put pressure on publications and journalists to rethink their output.

At the same time, traditional news outlets appear to be losing their influence. Newspapers and magazines have been grappling with competition from ‘alternative media’ outlets as sales and subscriptions dwindle. And long running current affairs programmes like Newsnight have seen a decline in viewers.

Ironically, while fighting off accusations of bias in mainstream media (MSM), many journalists seem preoccupied with fake news on social media. The past few years has seen a steady stream of scare stories about Russian hackers’ false stories influencing elections and referendum outcomes. As a result, there are demands for greater regulations (including third-party fact-checking) over what can be posted on social media and hosting sites like YouTube.

So what, if any, restrictions should be imposed on the press in 2018 and who should decide? In an era where everyone armed with a smartphone can become a ‘citizen journalist’, and the idea of objective truth is considered a fallacy – what constitutes real journalism? If we live in a ‘post-factual’ age, is everything just a matter of opinion? And if so, should all opinions be heard? Are democratic outcomes really driven by what voters read and hear in the press? Just how important is the media? Do we always believe what we read in the papers? And can we trust the reader to make up their own mind?