Prurient media discourages free speech

 

In a society in which breaches of personal morality are targets for journalism, few dare to publicly express ideals, writes JOHN WATERS

PERHAPS IT is time to consider this: that, in future when issues affecting the media are considered in the media, there be a temporary standing-down of media voices. Thus, if censorship is to be debated on the Late Late Show, Ryan Tubridy would take the night off and be replaced by, say, Dana. Media interests could be represented according to the same rules applying to other issues. Similarly, for relevant sections of his programme, George Hook might switch seats with, for example, Anthony Coughlan.

Instead of me this week, you would be reading Martin Cullen. It’s only fair. How long would it be tolerated by other Premiership clubs if every game involving Manchester United were played at Old Trafford, with all referees and linesmen being employees of Man U? Yet, this is pretty much what happens with issues of press freedom, defamation, privacy and so forth. The media – the key vested interest – tells us what the agenda is, who should discuss it, and what questions are important.

Much of the commentary on Cullen’s speech about privacy last week was attended by the usual media axe-grinding. Rather then focusing on the substantive issues raised by the Minister, commentators and moderators sought to diminish or discredit his contribution by alleging that he had made an inappropriate comparison between media invasiveness and rape. It is remarkable that people who have undergone neither of these traumas are able to say that this is a disproportionate comparison.

Journalists claim that, in pursuing “stories” involving personal relationships, they are representing the “public interest” in information and free speech. These claims are bogus.

In the Cullen/Leech case, of course, there was no “information” – merely untruths. But, even when the facts of an intimate story are true, there is rarely a justification for publication. Even if a government minister is having an affair with his PR adviser, it is the business of nobody apart from those directly involved. Media people advance all kinds of pseudo-justifications about conflicts of interest etc, but really the only “justification” is that sex sells.

Had we a media capable of honesty in this area, the public discussion would reflect another, deeper element of the freedom-of-speech argument: that, in a society in which breaches of personal morality are legitimate targets for journalism, everyone is potentially rendered silent.

All human beings are frail, weak creatures. At the heart of the human civilisation project is a tension between the need to articulate ideals and the inability to meet them.

Journalists, of course, in order to justify the continuance of what is one of their principal streams of income (the inevitable failure of public representatives to meet the ideals they are occasionally called upon to articulate), claim that there is a legitimate public interest in exposing any inconsistencies between the private behaviour and public stances of someone who may seek to impose moral standards through legislation. This has an ostensible plausibility, but on closer scrutiny reveals itself as specious.

A man from Mars might ask: why are journalists appointing themselves as custodians of society’s moral values? The answer, oddly, is that they are not. The ideological purpose – as distinct from the commercial purpose – of this kind of journalism is not to draw attention to breaches of society’s moral codes, but to demolish such codes by virtue of demonstrating that even their sponsors are incapable of observing them. The imputation of all such journalism is that politicians have no business legislating for private morality. Its purpose is not truth-telling, but punishment.

Ultimately, the “hypocrisy” justification renders it impossible for any public representative to make clear statements concerning preferred options in certain areas of public policy, for fear that his or her own weaknesses will be punished – even though the failures in question have involved no breach of the law and no damage to the public realm. Thus, far from enabling free speech, a right of the media to publish intimate details of, for example, someone’s breaches of private morality, creates a deterrent that ultimately tends to reduce the quality of our democracy.

An ideal is an ideal, regardless of human capacity to attain and maintain it. It has long been established that, as a general principle, the married parenthood of father and mother provides the optimum conditions for the rearing of children. Just because a particular advocate of this unexceptionable principle falls short of living up to his marriage vows does not mean that the general principle is invalid. Nor should the society be deprived of the repeated expression of this principle just because a politician might one day fall short of the ideal.

Thus, the current situation, whereby journalists are permitted to barge into the private lives of public representatives or “celebrities” to expose what is called “hypocrisy”, assists nobody except those who are intent upon tearing down every principle concerning what is better for society. Once you allow for such invasions, you decide in advance all prospective issues concerning how society should legislate for personal relationships. Because no frailty is tolerated, nobody dares to express an ideal, and society moves towards nihilism and chaos.

Perhaps it is time the media declared whether this is what it really wants?

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