Today’s blog is based on my column in the Argus Newspaper: The concept of the ‘free world’ has its origins in World War II when the nations fighting the axis powers described themselves as the free world in contrast to those they were fighting against. This phraseology was helped along by Frank Capra. As the focus on International politics moved to the cold war the accolade of leader of the free world was granted to the Presidents of the USA mostly by people working alongside him. This is despite the fact that many nations not directly involved in the fight with the communists were far from comfortable with this use of language. Since January 2017 some commentators have endorsed the first woman leader of the free world. No doubt supporters of Donald Trump and opponents of the EU are incensed that Chancellor Merkel is seen as owning that title and that the President of the USA has lost his crown. The idea that the leader of the free world was the political leader with the biggest array of weapons to fight communist forces may well have worked for some in my parents generation. However a free world is surely one in which voices of all can be heard in an equal manner. If the freedom to speak is not evident, then the nation cannot be described as free and the person leading it cannot be considered as the leader of the free world, even if they are the leader of the nation with the best set of military hardware.
A few days ago ‘reporters without borders’ published their annual ‘World Press Freedom Index’ which was first published in 2002. Once again the UK was far from the top of the list, our ranking this year was our worst ever at 40th. The USA was 43rd but that is better than their worst position of 56th in 2006. Germany at 16th was also better than their 2006 performance at 24th. If the leader of the free world was measured on their ranking in this list then Finland followed closely by Norway would take the crown. Of course just because the press is free to investigate and publish what it believes to be right, does not mean that the rest of society is free, but it certainly acts as one indicator that seems a lot less toxic than how many nuclear warheads one possesses. The BBC correspondent John Simpson tweeted “Absolute disgrace that UK shd have fallen to 40th in World Press Freedom Index (US even worse, at 43rd). Since 2013 UK has fallen 10 places” There are many people, whose view of the BBC is not complementary, but the index is produced by a wide range of journalists and so unless one believes that all journalism is bad, the list should be of concern to us. If the press are not free to report, then the rest of us are probably being denied information about the way our nation works.
I studied electronic engineering several decades ago. One of the things I learned was that it is impossible to measure electrical current or voltage without the device used to carry out the measurement having an impact on what one is trying to measure. Later on I met someone studying at the Institute of Development studies who explained that when anthropologists study groups of people, they have an impact on the people being studied. Extrapolating this to Governments, one would hope that after 15 editions of the world press freedom index, and the UK having dropped around 20 places, that our Government would be making changes to our approach on such matters. Let us hope that the next Government can be persuaded to reverse some of the legislation that has put us in a worse place on the index than nations such as Costa Rica, Namibia, Liechtenstein and Chile.
No one outside of the editors of newspapers such as the Argus would treat this index as being the only thing that matters when the press is being considered. As we argue for freedom for journalists to investigate and report on matters such as Government behaviour and politicians priorities, we need to ensure that there is a level of responsibility being exercised by the press. I am sure I am not alone in finding the way in which this Government and its coalition predecessor handled Levenson disturbing. The extent to which Rupert Murdoch and his chums (or opponents) gain unique access to the House of Commons and No 10 Downing Street as well as other places of power is something that needs to be ended. In recent days the latest Mirror phone hacking trial has been taking place. We need a free press but we also need a proper basis for regulation so that innocent people are protected from unjust intrusion and doorstepping.