Witches and Unicorns

The_Baba_Yaga_by_SamoloPhilosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once suggested that belief in human rights was akin to belief in witches and unicorns – by which he meant that the whole concept was illusionary and fundamentally flawed. As he put it:

“There are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns.”

Listening to a lot of the discussion of the Leveson report, and in particular the cries from some journalists and politicians about the spectre of statutory regulation and how we need to rally round and protect the ‘free press’, I was tempted to suggest something similar.

‘There is no such thing as a free press, and belief in it is one with belief in witches and unicorns.’

After all, our press – and indeed the press in any other nation – cannot in any real sense be described as ‘free’. It is subject to the law of the land – and even in the US, the land of the First Amendment, that means that ‘free speech’ is not absolute. In the classical example, one cannot falsely shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre – but there are other restrictions too. Defamation law exists – even in the US, though it is less powerful, perhaps, than elsewhere. In the US the copyright lobby has a great deal of power – and wields it on videos on YouTube, for example, with ominous regularity to take down videos and music that is suspected of breaching copyright. There is other law that applies too – in the UK, for example, laws protecting the misuse of private information, against malicious communications, against speech that might incite racial or religious hatred and so forth. Plenty of law – and the UK still views itself as relatively liberal in terms of the way the law applies to the press.

That’s just the law – the press is subject to many other pressures that keep it far from free, from the power of the media magnates who own the major papers and TV stations, from the political pressure of the powerful. The so-called ‘Press Barons’ have a huge amount of control over not only their own papers but those of others – to call this ‘freedom’ in any real sense is very misleading indeed. This lack of freedom has its consequences – an apparently comfortable consensus about what should and shouldn’t be published, and a great deal of difficulty for those ‘small’ and ‘difficult’ voices that don’t fit the agenda of the press to get published. What we have in the UK doesn’t fit the image that I have in my head of what a truly ‘free’ press should be. It’s not a unicorn – it’s a rather scruffy looking donkey, past its prime and looking as though it’s just come through a gorse bush backwards.

Witches and Unicorns

lady-and-unicornAnd yet, when I go back to Alasdair MacIntyre’s quote, I remember my original reaction to it: he might well be right, but does that really matter? Is it the ‘existence’ in a fundamental, philosophical sense that matters about human rights – or indeed about the free press? Human rights may not really exist in that way – they may just be a helpful illusion, an aspiration, something that we can believe in, can rally round, and can use to bring about better things in the world. That’s one of the ways that I often look at them – I’m no rights ‘fundamentalist’, but I recognise the power of the language, and the force that it can be for good. I recognise that we may not be able to ever actually achieve anything that we set out in the great human rights documents – from the Universal Declaration of Human Right onwards – but that in fighting for them, in aspiring to them, we can help people to live better, freer, more dignified lives.

The same seems to me to be true about the idea of a ‘free press’. It doesn’t really exist. It may never exist – but we can aspire to it, and make our voices heard more freely and more clearly through that aspiration. We shouldn’t, however, rely on the illusion, and protect the illusion as though it were the real thing. The press, as it currently exists in the UK, is, as I have suggested, very far from the unicorn of my dreams – so let’s be willing to burst that illusion, and to create something newer, more like the ‘real’ unicorn. Let’s be willing to look at a new model of regulation – using a statutory basis, if need be – and understand that we’re not destroying a unicorn, just cleaning up an old donkey.

Our new unicorn, to me, could come from a very different source. Right now, what we have in the social media, in bloggers and tweeters, seems to me to be closer…. and has more chance of gaining the glossy silver coat, the sharp, pearly horn, the magical sheen of the unicorn of freedom that we’re looking for. Let’s protect that – by looking for defamation reform to protect tweeters and bloggers, for reform of public order and communications law, to block such oppressive legislation as the Snooperscharter, and to educate the courts as to how the social media really works. That’s the way to get a real free press….

14 thoughts on “Witches and Unicorns

  1. I am impressed that a man can do a day’s work, come home and still have the energy to hammer a metaphor into a plasma.

    Best just strangle Rupert and his spawn and give Desmond, Dacre and co. a good thrashing. Intellectualism is lost on them.

  2. I read your Blog for free and that is the fundamental difference. The Press is driven by and aspires to Profit. Selling copy overrides truth every time.

    1. To be fair to them, I’m privileged to have a job that allows me to write this kind of thing without the need to generate further income, but it is a big point: where profit is the motive, and profit for the proprietor above all, it’s hard to ever be even close to truly ‘free’.

  3. “This lack of freedom has its consequences – an apparently comfortable consensus about what should and shouldn’t be published, and a great deal of difficulty for those ‘small’ and ‘difficult’ voices that don’t fit the agenda of the press to get published.”
    That you may not like or agree with what much of the press publishes doesn’t mean it isn’t free. That larger circulation newspapers cluster around some common received wisdoms isn’t an indication of a lack of freedom of expression, but evidence that people are also free to choose what they read.
    Lots of people choose, every day, to read salacious tabloids and magazines that peddle material that I’m mostly not interested in – that doesn’t stop me buying (or indeed publishing) something else.
    The ‘press barons’ as you term them are in that position because they produce material that lots of people want to buy.
    Apparently people don’t want to buy unicorns.

    1. I don’t disagree with much of what you say – but there are a few factors that need to be considered. One is the way that an apparently free press is limited when the ‘market’ allows a few players to dominate – market failure is something present in many industries, and many might suggest that’s what’s happening here. Another is the difference between what’s in the public interest and what interests the public…. a difference that is pretty important, but hard for some to see.

      The final point is the way that the internet has disrupted the newpaper industry – and why the papers are no longer, in general, as dominating of the ‘news’ industry as they used to be. For me, they’re only a tiny part of the ‘free speech’ landscape, and an increasingly insignificant one. I don’t know whether it’s clear, but I’m actually not that worried either way about whether any new regulator gets statutory underpinning or not. Either way, it’s unlikely to have a huge impact on how the press behaves. What I do care about is the bursting of the illusion that the ‘free press’ are the one bastion we have against state power and manipulation: they’re not. Right now, the blogosphere is making almost as much difference, and as time passes, that will become even more so. That’s why my final conclusion is that it’s internet freedom of speech that matters more…

  4. Who should make the distinction between the public interest and what interests the public? For example I think it is in the public interest to report that a famous actor had sex in public view and a famous comedian takes cocaine. Others might differ.

    1. There can’t be a single ‘public interest’. In practice, it’s the newspaper editors who decide, and then the courts who decide whether the editors are right, if they’re challenged…. but the point I was trying to make is simply that because people what to read something it doesn’t mean that it’s in the public interest – so just because people don’t want to buy unicorns, that’s not the only thing that matters.

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