What “freedom of the press” should mean

The new pamphleteers.

The phrase “freedom of the press” is perhaps so familiar that its historical origin, and its possible meanings, can be overlooked. 

The “press” to which it refers is often identified by many in England with the big-P Press of Fleet Street: the professional journalists who have “press cards” and go along to “press awards”; the very sort of people who we imagine once upon a time wore “press hats”, were inspired by Scoop, and regularly gossiped and drank at El Vinos. 

Here, the “freedom of the press” is the general right of the gentlemen and ladies of the Fourth Estate to do as they wish without impediment.

But this may not be the best way of understanding the term.  In fact, the expression “freedom of the press” significantly predates the existence of the modern newspaper industry, which was largely a product of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Instead, the expression “freedom of the press” came out of the great age of pamphleteering and protest which occurred during and after the civil wars in Britain of the mid-1600s.  The actual formulation seems to have been first used in the 1660s, although the concept was promoted emphatically a couple of decades before by John Milton in his Areopagitica of 1644.

So when the term was first deployed it was not a label for the privileges of any big “P” Press consisting of a professional journalistic class working on a finite number of publications, for such a class of people did not then exist.  It would appear to have had a more straightforward meaning: it described the general right of every person to have access to and make use of (literally) a press so as to publish to the world at large, without the intervention of licensors or censors. 

In this way “freedom of the press” was not some entitlement of a media elite but a more basic right of anyone to circulate their ideas more widely than they could do simply by themselves.

And this general freedom was crucial.  Before the rise of newspapers, and long before the extensions of the franchise and the existence of telecommunications and broadcast media, any right to free expression would have had little effect if all what one said or wrote was limited to being received by those around you and your correspondents.  The ability to physically mass publish material was the key means by which wider circulation could be gained for a contribution on a matter of general importance.

If “freedom of the press” is taken with this meaning then its application to internet-based communication is obvious.  Computers, mobile telephones, and tablets have replaced presses as the means by which any person can publish their opinions to the world and assert unwelcome facts in the face of the powerful.  Accordingly, blogging and tweeting are more akin to pamphleteering than newspaper reporting.  And like pamphleteers, bloggers and tweeters are fully subject to the perils of the law of the land but not to any sector-specific regulatory code. 

Sometimes one hears politicians and others talk of “regulating blogging” as if just by saying it makes it a practical possibility.  However, any attempt to license blogging is as inherently absurd and likely to be as futile as an attempt to license pamphleteers; the whole point is that anyone can go off and produce a pamphlet just as anyone can now write on the internet and seek the public’s attention.  This does not mean that the blogger is free from the laws relating to, say, libel or copyright; but it does mean that, subject to the general law, they can publish and even broadcast on the internet as they please.  It is this ability for anyone to publish which may now be a better meaning of “freedom of the press”.

For, as Nick Cohen has recently argued, we are all journalists now.



David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and the author of the Jack of Kent blog.

A bas-relief (c. 1450) of the German printing pioneer Johannes Gutenberg checking his work while his assistant turns the press. Photo: Getty Images

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.