Leveson: Freedom of expression and the press are different rights

Professor Chris Frost, the Head of Journalism at Liverpool John Moores University, has testified before the Leveson inquiry “in in his role as Chairman of the National Union of Journalists Ethics Council, alongside NUJ General Secretary, Michelle Stanistreet”, and I think he raised a point that is important not only with respect to the press corruption scandal in Britain but also in a lot of other debates that we’re currently having in terms of rights and responsibilities in democratic societies. I’ve heard a number of times recently people confuse freedom of the press with freedom of speech or of expression. These are different rights. 

Frost drew a distinction, and I think an important one, between freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Just as important in terms of making distinctions between these freedoms, he also speaks about limits with respect to these freedoms. 

Clearly other people have other freedoms which may come into conflict.  The obvious ones are reputation, privacy, fair trial and so on, all as mentioned in the Human Rights Act, and clearly journalists need to balance their – and indeed everybody needs to – balance their right to freedom of expression against those other rights.

This becomes particularly important for the media, which is in a particular position of power, so that whereas the kind of freedom of expression you and I enjoy when talking to other people can have a little more licence, when it’s driven by a media which is talking potentially to millions, there needs to be much more concern about the rights of others, such as privacy and so on.

The difference between the rights of the individual to expression and the rights of journalists as members of the press and media are different. The individual right of expression versus the institutional right of freedom of the press have a different relationship to the democratic process. I’ve made the point before that the press, the Fourth Estate, is an institution with power. It needs this power to hold other institutions and other holders of power to account. However, power corrupts, and in the case of the British tabloids, in particular, they not only became corrupt but also had a corrupting influence on public officials. When other institutions, whether they are in government or in the private sphere, we call for reform.

Recent attacks on the process of the Leveson inquiry by powerful interests of the press worry me. The British press is in need of reform, not to protect the powerful from being held to account but to protect ordinary British citizens whose reputations have been smeared and whose right to privacy has been trampled by an unaccountable tabloid press. Leveson is about stamping out corruption in an important democratic institution, the press. It is not an attack on freedom of speech.