Learning From the Past: The Benefits of an Authoritarian State

I am from Germany. Most people’s first thought about my country of origin: Nazis. And that is no surprise. What happened with Hitler in power from 1933 to 1945 was atrocious. Amongst the many dictatorial changes he made was replacing freedom of speech with mass censorship and media control. Yet an unintended legacy he thereby left was a widespread concern and protection of the exact things he had taken away. It did not come as a surprise that the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung was at the center of the Panama Papers revelation. Undoubtedly, many countries with an authoritarian past will be able to report the same culture of protection of free press. So where does that leave the UK?

Whilst it would be foolish to argue that the UK would have benefited from a dictatorship in the past, it does mean that many things are taken for granted. But people living under the rule of one of 49 dictatorships in the world today would urge us to reconsider our standpoint. More than anything else, we should not just value what we have thus far taken for granted, but we should make sure it remains that way. Before we can even take that step we must first critically think about whether we really do have press freedom.

Sure, there is no direct censorship and laws reinforce press freedom. But this just makes it easy to overlook the subtle ways in which press freedom may be impinged upon. This could arguably have an even more powerful effect than direct censorship. If we know information flow is being controlled we can at least consider that prior to forming opinions. But if we’re unaware of the different influences impacting the information that reaches us, it’s unlikely that we critically assess it. Thus we are more prone to reacting in exactly the way that we are wanted to.

That might seem like a complete exaggeration. Let me be clear: I am not advocating any sort of conspiracy theory. I am, however, trying to make sure that we are all aware of the different influences on the information that reaches us so that we can make informed decisions and consciously form opinions.

Have you ever considered how much of the news we get relies on the government? You might say that makes sense. After all, the government is one of the major news-makers; it creates and implements policies that directly affect our lives. Obviously, we want to know about it. However, have you ever looked at how many news items consist almost solely of government opinions? Even the most prestigious newspapers that advocate unbiased reporting will focus on an idea of ‘objective’ which means including quotes from government representatives from different parties. But what about everybody else? When do our views ever prominently feature in newspapers?

The government is so attuned to this monopoly of information that it’s even set up specific days in which it will meet with the press to supply information. The ‘Lobby’ system of the government provides journalists with access to key politicians who brief them on events and government action. But this comes with the condition that the source cannot be named, often coded in papers as ‘a source close to the government’. What is frightening is the way in which the inherent legitimacy that the government is given can be abused.

Case in point is the Falklands War. The press was explicitly informed a day prior to a major attack that no launch would be made. That’s right: the press was consciously misinformed so as to aid the war effort. Whilst this was over 30 years ago it still goes to show that all sources must be treated in the same way, something which clearly doesn’t happen. Think Tanks, major corporations and governments are often given a special status of legitimacy. But each of these institutions has its own agenda just as much as any other source does. So why aren’t we questioning them?

In today’s world, corporations are increasingly playing a major role in the media. Certain companies gaining a hegemony over the press (hint: Murdoch Group) and shareholders can exert their wishes to create revenue-making news which infringes on investigative journalism or news critical of capitalism. As digital and free newspapers are growing smaller media sites are closing down. Evidently, revenue for the media is increasingly coming from advertisements, which (surprise surprise!) come from companies, thus shifting the focus from news towards profit. Start-up civilian journalism isn’t being economically supported, thus limiting the democratization of journalism many had hoped for following the rise of the internet.

The UK doesn’t need an authoritarian past. The great thing about history is that we can learn from it. Instances like the Panama Papers or the role of civilian journalists providing firsthand footage in the Arab Spring and more recently in the Syrian conflict gives hope and provides possibilities. In this digital age, opportunities are abound for the rise of press freedom. Yet this requires the active support for those risking to provide newsworthy and reliable information. So ask yourself how much press freedom is worth? And more importantly: what are you going to do to protect it?

[Kirsty Campbell]

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