Paul Foot

Stop press

(February 1993)

From Socialist Review, No.161, February 1993, pp.20-21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Nothing can be more discordant than the noise of editors and proprietors of British newspapers howling in unison about their dedication to the freedom of the press. A group of people more dedicated than any other in the country to the distortion and corruption of the truth cover themselves with glory for their truth telling. Loaded down with bias and deceit they proclaim the values of fairness and veracity. Ignoring a million lies, they unearth a rare expose and pretend that it is the norm. From Kelvin MacKenzie of the Sun to Andreas Whittam-Smith of the Independent, the editors and their masters stuff their newspapers with frenzied diatribes in support of their right to do just as they please.

A perfect example of this hypocrisy was the Daily Mirror leading article of 11 January. It started:

‘The freedom of the press is no more no less – and must never be more or less than the inalienable right of every citizen to speak his mind in public without fear of penalty, prosecution or persecution.’

Five days later Tim Minogue, a subeditor on the Sunday Mirror, who had written a marvellous defence in a letter to the UK Press Gazette of those like him who had been summarily sacked without a word of explanation a few weeks earlier, was told he must swear in writing that he will never again denounce his employers in public – or be sacked. Thus did the Mirror management practise the ‘freedom from persecution’ which it preached.

The full horror of the mass hypocrisy of the capitalist press in recent weeks has converted many socialists to the notion of some form of state control of the press. By far the least offensive of the various proposals for such control has come from Labour MP Clive Soley, whose Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill has got wide support in parliament.

Soley, of course, is not after protecting rich people’s privacy or the royals’ nakedness as other people are. What sickens him, he says, is the inaccuracy of reports which so often damage the humble and meek. He proposes a Press Authority which can force the bumptious editors to correct mistakes with the same sort of prominence with which the mistakes were made.

It seems fair and reasonable. But like so many things which seem fair and reasonable in our society, the proposal does not take account of the fact that the state itself, which enforces every law and would certainly enforce this one, is unfair and unreasonable. A fair and reasonable law will be enforced unfairly and unreasonably. One result would certainly be a restriction on the few miserable advantages which a press unfettered by the state can bring to the dispossessed and to labour.

Competition between newspapers and the desire to bring readers new and fresh material occasionally allows a bold spirit or an inquiring mind to break free from the mould. A whole host of exposes even in the last 10 wretched years, even in some of the most Tory newspapers, are evidence that the rich do not always get everything their own way. For all their reaction and corruption, the newspapers do publish a good deal of information which is hostile and embarrassing to ruling class interests.

It is this material which is constantly threatened by the oppressive measures with which the ruling class protects its privacy and its purse. The law of libel, more vicious in Britain than in any other industrial democracy, and the associated laws of confidence and even copyright, are a constant menace to anyone who threatens the rich (the poor are not protected, since actions under these heads are not eligible for legal aid).

Yes, say Clive Soley and his supporters, we agree – but what has this to do with our idea for a law to force the press to correct their mistakes? The answer is that such a law will simply take its stand alongside the others – and become a threat not to lying editors but to the already shrinking area of challenging and revealing journalism.

For what is a ‘mistake’ and what is the meaning of the word ‘inaccurate’? Is it a mistake or inaccurate to repeat the drivelling of generals during a Gulf War? Certainly not. Is it a mistake to devote a front page to a picture of an innocent black defendant in a murder trial? Not at all. The defendant no doubt is black – the trial is taking place. Is it a mistake to hound a gay vicar or a left wing child abuse counsellor or an Irish republican? Not at all.

But if a mistake of the slightest degree is made in an article attacking, say, the Kuwaiti royal family or the medicine industry or (worst of all) their lawyers, an enormous pack of lawyers and PR men will descend on Clive Soley’s statutory authority and demand that the mistake be put right.

It was instructive that when Clive Soley introduced his bill to a press conference he brought with him a very rich woman called Mona Shabajee. She assured the press that if Clive’s bill had been law, she could not have been hounded as she was. But wait. How was she hounded? She paid for a freebie holiday for a secretary of state, David Mellor. If Mrs Shabajee had not been ‘hounded’, perhaps the freebie holiday would not have been exposed, and David Mellor would still be lecturing us on sexual morality and high principles in office. Perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing that Mrs Shabajee was hounded. But certainly she is right. She, and probably the whole Mellor scandal, would have been well protected by Clive Soley’s bill.

Mistakes and inaccuracies are defined by our class society like everything else. A mistake which helps the people who own property is not really a mistake. An inaccurate defence of the fine qualities of British millionaires would not really be considered inaccurate. The right to reply would hardly be relevant. But if there is one mistake in an otherwise accurate expose of those millionaires, then whoever is responsible would, thanks to Clive Soley, have to apologise in the most abject terms.

The liberal objection comes at once: surely some control of press inaccuracies is better than none. No it is not, because that control will direct itself not to the great mass of press distortion and corruption but to the very few areas where printed journalism tried to run against the stream. Rotten as the press is, it is better without a law which would still further boost the people responsible for its rottenness.


Last updated on 27.11.2004