“The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?”
Lord Justice Leveson
Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into press standards has provided weeks worth of scandalous headlines and opinion columns. Regardless of the standards by which the press conform, they certainly know how to run with a story and keep the British public interested. Scandals, corruption and gossip sell newspapers. Balanced objective analysis sells fewer newspapers. The press cater for the tastes of their customers and that is the driving force behind the “unethical” practices which have been highlighted in the inquiry.
There is great public interest in the close relationship that has been found between the owners and editors of large media organisations and the government. We have learned about police willing to accept money from journalists for information and the lengths to which journalists might go to get a scoop, outrageously hacking the voicemail box of a missing child’s mobile phone! The unacceptable and illegal invasion of privacy and corruption in the press had many people campaigning for reform of the media in the United Kingdom.
But now that media regulation is on the cards, there is a significant campaign against it. Those white collar libertarians are terrified that any form of government regulation of the press would inevitably lead to some sort of totalitarianism from which we would never escape. Isn’t it bad enough, they might argue, that the media incessantly interferes in politics without politicians interfering back! Leveson might ask “who guards the guardians?” The next question becomes “who guards the guards of the guardians?”… and so continues the conundrum.
Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are nice slogans but inherently carry with them contradictions. A free media is seen as the vehicle in a civil society that informs the public as to the activities of government and allows appropriate accountability and political participation. But what if the media is in fact monopolised by a handful of multimillionaire capitalists who are able to colour the opinion of the masses to serve their opinion or their interests? Clearly defamation and libel must carry with them penalties as such publications genuinely harm some individuals. Lines do need to be drawn and the only question is where the line should be. Placing some media regulations does not inevitably lead to totalitarianism as the hysterical supposed libertarians might fear. The lines must be clearly defined and strike the correct balance.
It should be recognised that the majority of media in the Western world is of no particular value to society anyway. Much consists of tabloid gossip, magazines with more gossip and dieting tips, reality TV and other frivolous subjects. A small but important subsection of the media deals with scientific and technological research, economy and politics and these are the boring parts of the media that few people pay much attention to. Many of the unsavoury practices which have been made public through this inquiry, have not been related to reporting of matters of vital public concern. Those defending freedom of speech are expending excessive effort defending the right to insult, and invade privacy for the purpose of coffee time amusement. What needs to be defended is the ability of the press to accurately scrutinise and report on the actions of government independently and without censorship or interference. This does not require slogans about freedom with limitations but rather clear cut protections for the press in their role as public servants and protection for the public from the press either invading their privacy or unduly influencing politicians and policy.
In this regard, concepts of freedom of speech and the press inhibit effective regulation while the press caters to the whims of a public who enjoy distracting themselves with irrelevancies.
The Islamic Shariah strongly protects the independence of the press and forbids any interference or censorship in reporting by government. Similarly, there are strong protections for privacy, defamation and against frivolous gossip. The press has an important role in informing the public and accounting the government in Islam. Islam also emphasises the importance of accounting the tyrant ruler even if it led to death.
Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “The master of martyrs is Hamza bin AbdulMuttalib and a man who stood to an oppressor ruler where he ordered him and forbade him so he (the ruler) killed him.” [Abu Dawud]
With the amount of online media sources through social media, blogs, YouTube and news websites, the idea of totalitarian restrictions on speech are unattractive and probably near impossible. Rather the Shariah lays down clear cut red lines, for which crossing will invite a criminal prosecution and which observing will ensure the producers protection. Goalposts should not move.
The root of this problem is the West’s perpetual commitment and blind faith in freedom of speech. There is no absolute moral or ethical justification for its adoption yet it becomes the basis of their thinking. As it is demonstrably impossible to have absolute freedom of speech, restrictions must be imposed resulting in immediate contradiction. The quagmire simply deepens when the limited freedoms lead to increasingly malicious actions inviting further limitations and regulations. So the argument continues without any logically consistent conclusion possible due to the failure of the fundamental premise, freedom of speech itself.
This illogical contradictory position leads to the absurd situation where proponents will endlessly defend practices that have no tangible benefit to this country and actually confer a great deal of harm for the sake of freedom of speech itself. All this, while those rich enough continue to get injunction orders to prevent the press from reporting their misdemeanours. All in the fear that government regulation would end with a dysfunctional press cow-towing to their governmental masters.
The Leveson inquiry simply demonstrates that a free press in liberal democracies cannot regulate themselves and the root cause of the problem is the irrational belief in freedom of speech. In Islam, speech cannot be restricted unless it contravenes laws that arise from the Shariah and this necessarily includes the accounting of political institutions. Political leaders are not allowed to restrict speech or the press for their own political ends and likewise the press cannot cross clear ethical lines established by the Shariah.