The press and the powerful

In a democracy, the exercise of power is a proper object of press scrutiny.  By making those who rule more visible than ordinary citizens, the press exerts greater pressure upon them to account for their actions.  This watchdog function is a necessary check against the abuses of power, that is not easily replaced by the available recourse to judicial courts.

In general, people in power accept this role of the press, though they may differ in the manner in which they respond to its negative reports. Some are extremely sensitive, reacting to every criticism as if it were a personal assault, while others tend to dismiss newspapers as though they were only an annoyance one has to learn to suffer.  I personally think it is better to have someone who takes the press seriously even to the point of suing it, than someone who habitually ignores it while pretending to a certain high-mindedness.

The press and the powerful are bound to clash.  Public officials will always complain about biased and underhanded reporting, and newspapers will always cry about subtle and overt attacks on press freedom.  It is what democracy is about.  What is important is that the public develops and maintains a sense of what is fair and reasonable journalism, and what constitutes a just and morally acceptable exercise of power.

In a democracy, society assigns to courts of law the role of final arbiter of what is reasonable and just.  Neither the press nor presidents can arrogate this unto themselves.  That is why we have laws on libel, just as we have laws on abuse of authority and misconduct in public office. Of course, people do not always go to court to seek redress for every grievance.  Beyond the legal arena, there is the terrain of everyday politics, where pressure is applied in a variety of ways in order to change the way the press and the powerful behave.

Some of the means used may be illegal, that is for the courts to decide.  Some may be foul but not necessarily illegal, that is for the public to decide.  A newspaper that uses foul means to attack its targets may suffer a withdrawal of public patronage.  A president that uses foul means to attack a hostile newspaper may suffer a withdrawal of legitimacy and public support.  It is a risk they both take.

Both will insist that the means they use are legitimate, but this does not mean they are always responsible.  Because there are far more truths in the world than can be reasonably contained in a newspaper, the choice alone of which truths to report is a source of enormous power.  The exercise of that power is subject to discernment.  One can be factual and, at the same time, relentlessly negative.  On the other hand, the power and influence of a public official like the president go beyond what the Constitution may provide.  Where newspapers are owned by groups with diverse business interests, an offended president may take action against the owners in those areas where they are most vulnerable.  In a decent society, newspapers are interesting without having to be irresponsible, and presidents affirm their power precisely by the exercise of restraint.

In the current exchange between the Inquirer and President Estrada, my view is that the President has every reason to complain that the reporting of his activities as well as those of his family has often been laced with undeserved scorn.   He has always been particularly sensitive to any suggestion of financial wrongdoing on his part or of his immediate family.  Though no newspaper is expected to defer to such sensitivity at the cost of forgetting its public obligations, I do believe that the quality of Inquirer reporting can be reexamined in order to remove the tone of elitist contempt that sometimes stains its pages.  Yet I do not believe that the President is being singled out for such scornful criticism.

Up to what point may a society guarantee freedom of speech without risking long-term damage arising from its abuse? This is a question that has often been debated in relation to hate speech.  Hate speech or extremist speech may succeed in nurturing prejudice and intolerance against specific minority groups in the community.  Must it also be protected in the name of free speech?  Liberal constitutions believe it should be, so long as it does not libel or defame, or incite anyone to violence.

The anchor for this policy is the assumption of a free marketplace of ideas, where words are to be fought with words, and the only force that is recognized is the force of the superior argument.  In the U.S., the guarantee of free speech is almost total in keeping with the libertarian commitment, whereas in Canada, the courts have permitted some restrictions to hate speech in the name of an egalitarian and multicultural ideal.  But nowhere in the liberal democratic world is restriction to freedom of speech justified in order to protect the image of public officials.

I think it is a mistake for the President to wage war on any newspaper. A newspaper may go down in defeat and be punished for its real or imagined mistakes, but that will never add to the prestige or credibility of the President.  The sudden closure of a newspaper after a bruising encounter with people in power has the same shuddering effect on the civilized mind as the burning of books.

For all the abuses to which it is subject, the uninhibited exercise of the freedom of expression, rather than the use of force, remains our best hope for achieving peaceful progress as a nation.


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