Free Speech, the Press and #Leveson

It’s supposed to work like this:

  • You can say or write anything, no matter who it hurts
  • If what you say is wrong, someone else is free to say so and expose you
  • If you’re exposed as being wrong, people stop listening to you

This is the basic idea of free speech. Many people have tried in the past to prevent people saying things that are not “true”, this usually fails and almost always involves persecution of innocent people.

If the Roman Catholic Church could not keep a lid on the idea that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, how much harder will it be, in this internet age, to prevent people from getting a message out there.

But it occurs to me that the much of what’s wrong with the press is not about truth. Almost everyone agrees that what’s written in the tabloid press is not true, or at least rarely true. Yet people buy them anyway. Why? Because they’re entertaining.

Say what you like about the morals of people who buy tabloids and fund this system. Or the people who willingly offer themselves up to this soap opera as celebrities for celebrity’s sake; we have to assume there’s nothing we can do to stop them. Instead we should focus on how to prevent people from being harassed by the press when they don’t want to take part in this ecosystem. How do we protect the actor, musician or victim of horrific crimes from becoming the raw material on which tabloid fiction is based?

If Leveson simply recommends regulation to prevent the publication of something that isn’t true, for me, that will be a failure. The ability to decide on matters of truth are above the pay grade of any public official or regulator, and it will do nothing to stop the press harassing people in the pursuit of that “truth”.

A cleverer system would be one in which people who’ve been the subject of a press story can invoice the papers for the use of their image and identity. A formula would be needed which factored in column inches used, newspaper circulation and a premium applied if approval was  not granted, with a rebate if you’re later found guilty of a crime that the press were accusing you of. And an ombudsman could enforce the collection of these image usage fees and rebates.

With such a system in place, if the press really really want to talk about you in a story, they can. They just have to pay you every time they mention your name or include a picture of you. If, for example, a paper is full of stories about the parents of a murdered child who do not want to be in the press, that paper would simply be unprofitable. There would be no point printing that paper. Whereas, if a celebrity glamour model wants to get coverage, she could choose to give consent and thus reduce the papers costs as an incentive. If the press uncover corruption or criminal activity they will have to pay you initially, but will get the money back if you are later convicted.

Put simply, lets make it unprofitable to fill newspapers with stories about people who haven’t done anything wrong and don’t want to be covered.

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  1. An excellent concept and one that should be endorsed by all concerned with the outrageous lengths that newspapers reach in order to ‘sell papers’. Newspapers that continue to sell perhaps because we have become so used to their content that until a murdered child’s phone is hacked we do nothing. I have stopped buying all but the local Advertiser for this very reason – I don’t want to know about other peoples private lives.

    Perhaps a similar threat to those who choose to portray people in a negative light through social media might be called for too.