Editorial

Monday 28 July 2014

Editorial: Free press is best citizens defence

Published 29/06/2014|00:00

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Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton
Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton

The accelerating disintegration of the banking inquiry may teach us a great deal more about the degraded state of our current democracy than the proposed history lesson about the iniquities of the Coalition's wretched Fianna Fail predecessors.

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In particular,it reveals more than politicians and our permanent government of civil servants might like about the the critical value of a free and argumentative press which lives up and sometimes down to Churchill's famous definition of democracy. Last weeks News of the World judgement may have shown we are imperfect creatures, but, no-one has yet invented a better public defender of the citizen than a healthy media.

In that regard, the sinister incarceration of three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt and the tawdry tales in the News of the World trial might appear to provide us with two very different narratives.The world, however, is a more complex place than those who were so visibly disappointed with the 'not guilty' verdict for Rebekah Brooks would like. In particular, when looked at with a long lens, the most intriguing feature of this trial was that the equivalent of a small expeditionary force in war was deployed to secure a result. Sadly, we should not be surprised by the zestful relish of the hunt, for politicians, vested public and private interests and our new lay episcopacy of 'celebrities' will never recoil from the temptation to 'put manners' on an independent media.

This culture may be far more visible in Mr Putin's Russia or in the degeneration of the Arab Spring into amoral variants of political opportunism and squalid uprisings of jihadist sectarianism. But, whilst the process is somewhat more subtle in the West, the silken chains of ever more stringent libel laws and political enervation over media ownership means the media in Europe and America face their own difficulties.

This, allied to the rise of what Joan Burton has presciently termed the 'Berlusconi complex' where media titles are acquired in a similar manner - and often for similar motives - as Premiership soccer clubs is not without consequences. A growing coarsening of public life, courtesy of the eternal march of the dark princes of austerity has facilitated the growth of what President Michael D Higgins has termed a great moral crisis. Intriguingly, despite the arrival of a new digital age where facts are more freely available than ever, the media is struggling to meet the President's call to create a narrative that might release ethics 'out of the ivory tower'.

The difficulty we have in this regard is not the fault of the now deceased denizens of the News of the World though it assuredly has not helped. The source instead of our current problem is the fallacy that 'comment is free but facts are sacred'. But, ironically, any case study of the success of fascism reveals that 'facts' mediated by a cowed press are infinitely corruptible. The philosophic failure which believes the only future for journalism is as a servile conduit of numbers and statistics to citizens who are too busy to think represents a far greater threat to a thriving media than the squalor at the News of the World.

The concept of thought as a luxury is not just a signifier of barbarism. Such a moral desert is also a palace of gestation for the masque of anarchy that profited so well in the recent elections. It is time those who would use Andy Coulson to 'put manners' on all the media realised that, even with all its imperfections, a sacred space for comment must be preserved if we are to have the sort of public discourse that combats such developments.

Sunday Independent

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