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Review of The Press Freedom Myth, Jonathan Heawood

Heawood, Jonathan, The Press Freedom Myth, Provocation Series, Biteback Publishing, (London, 2019)

The power of The Press Freedom Myth, written by Jonathan Heawood, does not derive from a ground-breaking original idea but from its dissection of the catastrophic state of the British press. This is supplied through supporting anecdotes and delivered in plain language which leaves no opportunity for distraction or distortion of the truth.

The first chapter, ‘Making Press Freedom,’ explores the development of the press in the Western world, tracing its origins to the Gutenberg press in 1455 (p. 2). Heawood contextualises Isaiah Berlin’s interpretation of negative and positive freedoms through both the beginnings of the fourth estate in the 19th Century and Milton’s role in moulding philosophy for the “marketplace of ideas,” arguing that publishers should be allowed to print whatever they like within the confines of the law and that the press must be free from state control in order to advance the causes of “truth, democracy, and self-expression” (p. 10–32). However, there is an identified argument of the paradox of the fourth estate: if the press do not just serve society but are also actors with their own interests, how can it be said that it serves the greater good if it also has a stake in the outcome?

In the second chapter, ‘Shaking Press Freedom,’ Heawood explains why the British press benefits from lying by referring to The Leveson Inquiry. If a newspaper writes a sensational piece, such as that accusing a recognisable individual of variety of crimes such as “rape, murder, and child abuse,” the worst that could happen is that the slandered individual sues for libel and the paper receives, ironically, negative press (p. 39). The profits made from the false piece almost always outweigh the cost of the libel, and given that the average concerned citizen has a short attention span and a busy life, it makes financial sense for the newspaper to lie (p. 39). Heawood also draws attention to the catastrophic failure of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) to regulate the modern marketplace of ideas (p. 40). Although the PCC handled individual complaints, it could not stop newspapers from intentionally misleading the public nor even impose a fine on the newspapers that do. The body that replaced PCC, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), failed to make any meaningful improvements as those who held critical positions in the PCC held on to their power in IPSO (p. 41).

The Leveson Inquiry and the subsequent rebranding of PCC as IPSO provide substance for Heawood’s sound-in-theory argument: newspapers are social titans whose pursuit of their own interests places them alongside political parties, pressure groups, and international firms. Heawood’s succinct characterisation of the power of newspapers deserves to be quoted in whole:

“Newspapers can bring down companies and create heroes out of ordinary people. By the same token, they can spread hatred and promote discrimination” (p. 56).

Following his exposé of the hypocrisies of the British press, Heawood reminds the readers that newspaper companies have no shame for this, citing how in 2017 The Telegraph, The Independent, and The Daily Mail all called for strict legislation to regulate social media platforms such as Facebook right after Facebook outstripped the newspapers as the most popular source of news (p. 74-75).

Heawood continues the discussion on social media in the third chapter ‘Breaking Press Freedom,’ taking on a subject which is simultaneously daunting, infuriating, and divisive. Heawood discusses why all of us — even the most educated — are susceptible to misinformation, and how the gargantuan amount of false information which is considered credible demonstrates the failure of the marketplace of ideas, which states that wrong news should have low demand and thus not sell (p. 90).

However, Heawood also recognises that social media has changed lives for the better. Amateurs and professionals can share ideas, communities shunned out in the physical world can form support groups online, and families can stay connected due to social media’s annihilation of any concept of space and time (p. 97). Keeping all of this in mind, Heawood shares with the reader the dilemma of regulation: if left unchecked then politically super-charged misinformation threatens our democracy, but if platforms regulate themselves then they run the equal and opposite risk of silencing marginalised voices (p. 114). The reason why we are left with these choices, Heawood argues, is because the press freedom myth had taught us what to do when the state threatens the newspapers but mentioned nothing of what to do when the newspapers themselves threaten state, society, and the public interest (p. 115).

Now having taken the reader on a tour around the chain-collision involving the state, the British press, and social media, Heawood attempts to find the best (read: least bad) way forward. The first truth he establishes is that a state-censored press is worse than the status quo — a claim which the 20th century can attest to — but he reminds the reader that “law is not the same as censorship;” the government has alternative tools with which they can intervene (p. 121–123). Bearing this in mind, Heawood concludes with five suggestions to ensure that the British public get the press that they deserve.

Firstly, law should be used sparingly, but firmly when needed, to ensure that fundamental human rights are protected (p. 123). Secondly, law must be made accessible to the public (p. 124). Thirdly, the state should correct market failures, such as by breaking up monopolies, to ensure that everyone has access to public interest journalism (p. 124). Fourthly, regulations that apply to newspapers must apply to social media as well (p. 125). Finally, and perhaps the most nebulous of his suggestions, the state should help everyone become “active media citizens” (p. 127).

Heawood does not suggest specific policy, nor does he tell the reader what to do – and that is fine. What The Press Freedom Myth is meant to do is to remind us why law matters. If those concerned enough to go out and buy a copy of this manifesto-sized piece do and lend an afternoon to it, then Heawood has achieved his aim: we have been made just a bit more aware of how badly we need to act if we want a functional press for a functional democracy.


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