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10 October 2018

Leader: All over the world, the free press is under attack

In Britain, both left and right are culpable. Jeremy Corbyn denounces the “mainstream media” in speeches, just as Donald Trump does.

By New Statesman

On 6 October, the body of Viktoria Marinova, an investigative journalist, was discovered in a park in Ruse, Bulgaria. She had been raped and murdered. Just over a week earlier, her television programme had broadcast an investigation into alleged political corruption involving European Union funds in Bulgaria. In her final on-air appearance, Ms Marinova described an atmosphere of increasing hostility to public interest journalism. “The number of forbidden topics is growing all the time,” she said. “Investigative journalists are being systematically removed.”

Her words were grimly prescient. Ms Marinova is the third journalist to have been killed in an EU country in the past 12 months. In October 2017, the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered by a car bomb. Slovakian Ján Kuciak was shot dead outside his Bratislava home in March. Both had reported on political corruption.

At the time of writing, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident journalist who writes a column for the Washington Post, is missing. He is believed to have been murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and his body dismembered.

Repressive regimes are not interested in a free press and delight in intimidating, and even killing, journalists. Bulgaria, Malta and Slovakia, however, are EU states and signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights. It is supposed to guarantee press freedom. In the age of the strongman ruler, however, it is increasingly ignored.

The right of the media to scrutinise and challenge those in power has been a casualty of our age of upheaval. A free press strengthens liberal democracy, but Donald Trump – whose alt-right fan base has appropriated the Nazi epithet “lügenpresse” to attack the media as pathological liars – considers it a weakness. The extent to which the US president, with his accusations of “fake news”, is willing to encourage the hatred of journalists by his supporters is creating a climate of fear and hostility. Where he leads, other despots follow.

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In Britain, both left and right are culpable. Jeremy Corbyn denounces the “mainstream media” in speeches, just as Mr Trump does. This might delight his most ardent supporters but it is corrosive. His sweeping attacks make no distinction between confected tabloid outrage and legitimate scrutiny. It is notable that the partisan left-wing blogs that amplify his message are propagandists, not independent journalists.

The hard Brexiteers are similarly conspiratorial; they dismiss any journalistic challenge to their dogmatic certainties as an establishment or liberal plot: “Project Fear”. Remember, too, the Daily Mail’s headline denouncing High Court judges as “Enemies of the People”.

Ironically, these malign attacks inhibit an honest discussion about the problems of the media in Britain. Too often, broadcasters mistake balance for impartiality, as ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston, said recently. For many publications, the economic model is broken. There is, too, a problem with media pluralism and the concentration of ownership; the British press is overwhelmingly right-wing (not communitarian but neoconservative or libertarian right) and the BBC slavishly follows its agenda. 

As the liberal world order fragments, a free press and the open society must be defended. Without them, we will enter a new age of barbarism, while the murder of journalists, corruption-exposers and truth-seekers will become routine. 

The legacy of #MeToo

A year has passed since the phrase “me too” became a hashtag, allowing women (and men) across the world to talk about the numbing ubiquity of sexual harassment and assault. In Britain, the movement has felled two senior Conservative cabinet ministers, led to two Labour MPs having the whip suspended, and prompted the House of Commons to look again at its procedures for investigating complaints. As feminists have long argued, sex and power are intertwined. We must find a way for victims in insecure, casual work to feel that they too can make a complaint; equally, as Kate Maltby writes this week, we should ensure that it is not only those who lack the protection of powerful organisations who should face the consequences of their actions. First came the cultural awakening. Now, we should turn our attention to justice: ensuring all complaints are treated seriously, speedily and impartially. 

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This article appears in the 10 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain