Onora O'Neill: Freedom of the press cannot be unrestricted

From a lecture by the Principal of Newnham College, given at the British Academy Centenary Conference
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The Independent Online

There are two powerful and well-known arguments for freedom of the press. The first of these is that freedom of the press is a means to truth and discovery; the second is that freedom of the press is necessary for open communication, public debate and interchange. Neither line of argument can establish a case for unlimited freedom of the press.

It is clearly true that some sorts of freedom of the press support the discovery of truth. For example, science could not proceed without freedom to publish experimental results. However, the importance of freedom of publication as a means to truth cannot easily be generalised into an argument to freedom of the press for activities that do not aim at truth, let alone for activities that aim to deceive.

At best the thought that conjecture and refutation, trial and error may help to test opinions can license the publication of speculation and falsehood with the ultimate aim of testing and disclosing truth. But this, of course, is not equivalent to a general licence to publish falsehood without any further aim of correction or inquiry. Just as commodity markets fail when vendors are wholly at liberty to falsify product information, so the supposed marketplace of ideas will fail if invention and passing off, deception and falsification are not disciplined.

The second argument in favour of freedom of the press is that it is essential for communication among members of the public. Freedom of the press is needed not for any range of outcomes or results – truth, justice, or even revelation – but for the very process of communication itself. This argument is the more important because it applies not only to those forms of communication that are mainly aimed at acquiring truth, but also at those that aim at enjoyment or entertainment, at persuasion or mobilisation.

However, if the basis for freedom of the press is that it contributes to communication, then too there can be no unrestricted right to freedom of the press. In particular, there can be no justification of freedom to communicate in ways that undermine or damage the possibility and the standards of communication.

Those who aim to communicate must meet two standards. They must try to be accessible or intelligible to those whom they take to constitute their audience; and they must aim to make what they communicate assessable by that audience. Communication without constraints that make it accessible to and assessable by its intended audiences dims the possibility of discussion and interchange, of debate and inquiry.

The new electronic media in their globalising deployment are cavalier about these elementary requirements. They increasingly lack conventions and genres, standards and disciplines that enable their audiences to feel not only that they can follow the gist of what is being presented, but that they have some ways of gripping and testing what is presented.

It is not particularly difficult to begin a sketch of what is needed to improve matters. We need to develop some clarity about the minimal standards that must be embodied in communication that is accessible and assessable, and some easier ways of telling when those standards are met. We need to develop ways of refereeing websites and channels, and of questioning self-conferred reputations. This task may not be much easier than the ending of censorship, which has been achieved only by curbing unaccountable powers.

The global media – for all their wealth and hype – are new, unaccountable powers. In the very decades in which many – though not all – office holders and professionals have become more accountable and are more stringently audited, the globalising media have achieved a remarkable lack of accountability, which they claim in the name of a usurped and obsolescent conception of press freedom.

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