Recent events in England that have led to the closure of the News of the World have focussed attention on the press. It may have all come to public attention and scrutiny because of celebrity phone hacking but it has all led to more serious allegations of hacking. These involve alleged payments to the police. it has also and now become a debate about relationships and connections between the press and politicians. The debate has consequently evolved into analysing the functions of the press in a democracy. It is this debate that I find interesting from a local perspective. Is Gibraltar's press incisive and questioning enough to sustain democracy? Before I attempt to answer that question I need to briefly analyse what the functions of the "fourth estate", the press, are or should be. Also its importance to democracy.
The press does not simply have a two dimensional function. The immediately obvious dimensions of the press are to entertain, to inform and to stimulate economic activity. Entertain with crosswords, other games, cartoons, humourous stories and most importantly sport. The stimulation of economic activity is achieved by advertising. Informing is probably the most important function. Without information, especially about government and politicians, there is little or no democracy because politicians cannot be held to account without an informed public. This is what I consider to be the third dimension.
Manipulation of information or the perception of an ability to manipulate information, into or away from press publication or the emphasis given to it by opinion, undermines the credibility of the press. If the credibility of the press is undermined the credibility of democracy itself will not stand up to scrutiny. Voters will vote on the basis of distorted opinions based on partial or outright propagandist information. Governments will be elected on the basis of partially biased votes manipulated by those politicians who at any given moment in time have power and/or influence that they can exert over the press.
The reason is simple: the press influences and creates debate, opinion and thinking. It does this in the main amongst those of us who do not generally hold strong opinions (undecided voters) or do not hold strong opinions on specific issues. For example, it is most unlikely that the press will change the mind of someone who, on religious grounds objects, to any form of sex outside marriage and, then, only within a heterosexual relationship. However, that same person may well have his/her opinion influenced on another subject, like which political party is more likely to protect against a change of the law that will allow gay marriages. If the information published by the press is purposely or inadvertently wrong on that subject, then the adverse effect on democracy becomes palpably obvious.
It is the obligation of the press to be inquisitive, in a responsible manner, in its search for the truth. It is its obligation to seek out wrongdoers and corruption in every sense of the word. Especially wrongdoers and corrupt persons who and practices that undermine and can destroy democracy. This is a solemn duty owed by the press to any community. What is presently being criticised in the UK is the methodology adopted by the press to achieve this objective.
The reasons for the criticism is that intrusive practices, allegedly in breach of the criminal law, were adopted. These interfered with people's right to privacy, which outweigh the right of free speech and so the freedom of the press. As Mark Twain puts it "There are laws to protect the freedom of the press's speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press". It is this debate that is now being had in the UK. It is about what steps can be taken, not only to protect people's privacy, but, more importantly, to delineate the relationship between politicians and the press. Parliament will have the responsibility of legislating carefully to protect without stifling the requirement that a free press is essential to the survival of democracy.
In a perverted way what a good place for the UK to be in. Much of Gibraltar's press has not even arrived at a stage where such a debate is necessary. Not that I advocate having to reach that extreme and allegedly criminal destination that some parts of the UK press have arrived at. My point is simpler than that. We have two main press organs, GBC and the Gibraltar Chronicle. Both either directly or indirectly funded with public funds. There is absolutely nothing wrong with publicly funded press, after all that is exactly how the BBC is funded. There is a lot wrong, however, if the general perception is that because the source of funding is the government neither of these important press organs are as incisive or as informative as they should be, especially in terms of wrongdoing and corruptions. There is soemthing wrong if there is a perception of bias.
Each of GBC and the Gibraltar Chronicle are ultimately controlled, call it governed, by independent boards, in the latter case, I understand, by trustees. It is these bodies that should provide the primary defensive line against attack and or influence of journalists by governments. The responsibility of these governing body should equate to the repsonsibility that judges and, in relations to appointments, the Judicial Services Commission, have to maintain independence. They should apply the same level of safeguards, both institutional and legal, as the 2006 Constitution provides to the judiciciary.
Persons in power or seeking power will have little or no qualms in exerting their power to massage news for their own selfish benefit. If these governing bodies fail in their duty or fall under the influence of a government or other politicians, journalists lose their primary defence against being unduly and unfairly influenced. I add immediately that they retain their personal moral fibre, principles and ethics as journalists but that can be a lonely position to maintain.
My question is do the governing bodies that I mention feature at all in the eyes of the public? I hate to say but the answer is a rotund no. This is, importantly, unfair on the journalists that work in each of GBC and the Gibraltar Chronicle because it can leave them feeling unprotected. It is also not doing right by the public because perceptions of partiality and bias on the part of either of GBC and/or the Gibraltar Chronicle are more difficult to dispel. Additionally the ambition of journalist to uncover wrongdoing and corruption can be dampened by a feeling that adequate and robust protections will not be available to him/her should the proverbial hit the fan.
There are other press publications in Gibraltar. The Panorama that provides sterling criticism of government, despite the perception by some of partiality because of family connections with the Leader of the Liberal party. A perception that on an objective reading of Panaroma's content is probably unfair because its content is eclectic. There is also, now, Vox online, which is also critical. There is the New People, which suffers by its admitted close connection with the GSLP. Finally we have 7 Days but again, whilst not admitted, this is clearly a GSD partial publication. All of these provide some balance to the discerning but they do not detract from the reality that GBC and the Gibraltar Chronicle are the main organs for the dissemination of news and so the main opinion formers.
All in all not a great state of affairs only made worse by Gibraltar's size. Size dampens the desire to overly or unnecessarily harm someone due to personal or business connections and/or ties. These considerations or influences can also influence what is published. This is even more reason to, first make the governing bodies of each of GBC and the Chronicle perceptively more robust and independent and secondly to achieve electoral and parliamentary reforms.