Regulation, Privacy and Censorship

Posted on July 22nd, 2011 by jo1hpc

In the last few years we have seen corruption in Parliament, in the police and in the Press, often involving the collusion of members of all three.  Business is rife with corrupt practices, from misrepresentation to tax-dodging. The eagerness with which each of the major institutions turns upon the others when given the opportunity is an amusing reminder of how anxious each institution is to divert attention from its own shortcomings.

Corruption is hard to avoid, even when there are high personal and institutional standards and I cannot think of a single trade or profession free of it. In a modern civilized society it is absolutely vital that wherever possible abuse of the law or of professional standards is minimized by the creation of transparent rules against such practice and their stringent enforcement. Here Parliament is responsible, and Parliament is largely to blame for the lack of such rules and such enforcement. Self-regulation (especially by Parliament itself) is a laughable solution because such regulation can easily become mired in the corruption of the profession that exercises it.

Parliament should not, of course, exercise sovereignty, or else its own corruption cannot be adequately monitored and controlled. Hence a further necessity is a mechanism by which all our institutions keep watch on the others. The most important of these mechanisms is the investigative journalism of the press, which other institutions would obviously like to be curtailed in their own interests. The current issue of ‘privacy’ is the slogan by which this is currently being done.

My own view on this is while we all like privacy, so long as no-one else is particularly interested and we have nothing to be ashamed of, why should we care? The fear of being exposed might even make us behave better. I concede that there are domestic matters where public knowledge contributes nothing good except grief for the individuals, and here it is our responsibility as readers or viewers to make clear our disgust. Such breaches of privacy are motivated by the belief that we are actually keen to find out. If we are, we must blame ourselves.

If not, then we have the power to censure.  We have the power to influence the media through our choice as consumers. On the whole, we are either broadsheet or tabloid consumers, depending on how highly we value information over gossip and opinion over prejudice. But even broadsheet readers like the flavour of facts enhanced or even disguised in an appetizing sauce of opinion, while even the BBC now accepts that information and entertainment are not separable. In a consumer economy, consumers get the media they choose. We do not need laws to protect people in the public eye from invasion of privacy. We have laws about phone-tapping and theft of personal property. Since we will never get a system that allows individuals to use, without fear of huge financial loss, the laws of defamation and libel to challenge false or malicious reporting, we need an independent regulator to adjudicate and where necessary to demand retractions that occupy the same amount of space as the offending item (ouch!). As with politicians, we will continue to get what we choose to pay for. And most of us are not choosy enough.

 

Emeritus Professor Philip Davies
Department of Biblical Studies

University of Sheffield