A Free Press, Moral Outrage and Leveson

There has been much discussion recently about the sad story of Lucy Meadows. I won’t go into the details of the case here, as this is still very fresh for the people involved. A lot of the focus has been on one particularly-renowned hate-peddler, from my least-favourite national ‘newspaper’, so this is another reason not to name or link to them; I don’t want to grace them with any traffic that they may benefit from. However, for a libertarian this case raises some interesting challenges.

I read the article by this author and found it very distasteful, poorly hiding an ugly streak of bigotry under a very thin veneer of sympathy. I was offended by antediluvian views that I would have hoped to have died out by now; it demonstrated prejudices that you could imagine a decade or two ago referring to homosexuals, or forty years ago referring to black people. Whilst pretending to care for the subject the author expected them to quit their job and seek work elsewhere, which may have been difficult given the nature of their situation. The reason cited was the old faux-outrage mantra “will anyone think of the children”. Having my own children grow up with contemporary relationships amongst their peers’ parents I know that children adapt easily, especially at primary school, which is where Lucy taught. Parents, on the other hand, may struggle more, especially where their own prejudices take control. I am not surprised that this happened at a faith-based school (in this case ‘Christian’), as prejudices and dislike of outsiders no doubt are factors that encourage parents to send their children to such a sterile monocultural environment. Reading the published information it appears the school was supportive of Lucy, but at least one of the parents was so disturbed about this change that they felt obliged to contact the hate-rag in question.

So the initial situation caused some moral outrage that then was referred to the professionally outraged. They treated Lucy with disrespect and contempt and now she is dead. There may be no causation between these facts, despite correlation, but the fact does remain that she received awful treatment from the media since the story broke. Now there is moral outrage from another group about her death and (understandable) vitriol against the author and newspaper. Sadly, coming so soon after the disastrous agreement on how to implement Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals by the various political parties, there is considerable mileage in using this sad case to further the cause of the pressure group Hacked Off. As a libertarian I oppose any additional controls over the press, believing that there are plenty of existing laws to cover the press’s worst shenanigans (and many people will undoubtedly be going to prison for the worst of these soon). There is a case for libel reform and for ensuring legal aid is available to victims of newspaper smears and innuendos. And I for one don’t care what a paying customer of sex workers gets up to in the privacy of a hotel room –  that is not public interest, just prurience.

So what am I suggesting if not legislation? Do nothing? No, not necessarily. There is a vigil planned for Lucy on Monday outside this particular newspaper publisher’s offices. I don’t know if I would attend this, as unfortunately it will probably be high-jacked by too many special interest groups with their own agendas; I wouldn’t be surprised if the usual rent-a-mob idiots from the Socialist Worker Party will be there, for instance. I’m certainly not signing the petition to get the article’s author sacked: I’d rather this scummy hate-monger stayed where he was rather than polluted another newspaper. I can’t boycott the newspaper as the last time I bought it was 1986 at University, and that was simply to wind up the socialists in my flat as I disagreed with its headline policies then (pro-hanging, anti-immigration, etc.).

So where does this leave me as a libertarian? I can hope that the family of Lucy bring a civil case against the newspaper and its vile columnist. I can hope that it turns out one of their crew did something illegal, like hacking for instance, and faces prosecution. The one thing I don’t want is more legislation, especially anything that limits press freedom. Remember it was the Telegraph (acting illegally) that brought the MPs’ expenses scandal to light? And the Guardian that uncovered phone hacking within News international. The British press can deliver amazing high points of journalism, and simultaneously leave you in the depths of despair with its underhandedness, stupidity and depravity: this week has demonstrated that. So what answer is there, how do we as libertarians deal with this? Apart from civil action or boycotts there’s little we can do; nobody said being a libertarian was easy. But we can stand for a free press, although sometimes that press can leave you with a nasty taste in your mouth.

 

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