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Baroness O’Neill at St. Anne’s College, 21 November 2011

On 21 November 2011, the Oxford Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism hosted its annual Memorial Lecture at St. Anne’s College, exploring “The Rights of Journalism and the Needs of Audiences.” The topic shed light on the phone hacking scandals that occurred last summer, shaking both media and consumers alike, and culminating with the closure of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. The Institute had the distinct pleasure of hosting renowned philosopher and former President of the British Academy, Baroness Onora O’Neill, to deliver the lecture.

O’Neill framed her talk around the complicated relationship between the rights to privacy and free press, emphasising that the debate between these two key features of democratic societies fails to adequately show how claims of privacy and calls for press freedom are to be weighed against one another if and when they come into conflict. “The comforting rhetoric of speech rights,” the Baroness said, “does not show which of those rights are most important,” implying that freedom of expression encapsulates both the right to say (in print and aural form) whatever one wishes, as well as the right to maintain a degree of privacy in so doing.

According to O’Neill, the case for press freedom, in the liberal tradition, posits that the open debate of thought through an uncensored media produces unfiltered knowledge and gives way to “truth-seeking.” O’Neill characterized this romantic (if a bit naïve) view as a weak argument, because it does not consider that many public speech acts are not, in fact, aimed at delivering the truth. “Freedom is only a necessary, and not a sufficient, condition for truth-seeking,” she said, continuing, “A marketplace of ideas works only when the right standards governing the exchange of information are in place.”

Given that the defining attribute of journalism is its intended use for public consumption, she argues that the rights afforded to individuals in matters of expression ought not to be laterally extended to the Media. Rather, forms of communication produced with the express intent of public readership, generated not by the creative autonomy of individuals but by persons employed by a news entity, must be subject to legal scrutiny. Up until recently, however, this issue was scarcely touched upon. The term “freedom of expression,” O’Neill explained, has been the dominant phrase for speech rights over the past 60 years. An ambiguous slogan that broadly incorporates a wide range of acts, it is neutral not only in regards to the various forms that individual expression takes, but also the content that it generates. Of particular consequence to the rise of media conglomerates over the past century, she notes that this typology blurs the lines that define who (or what) constitute an individual.

For O’Neill, the distinction between private persons, and agents working on behalf of the news media, is that the self-expression of individuals does not require an audience. Just as the comings-and-goings of corporations and government agencies are held to a certain degree of transparency, O’Neill insists that journalistic enterprises ought not and cannot be immune to conforming to similar standards. “Intelligibility and accessibility are absolutely essential to the regulation of the communication of the Powerful,” the Baroness quipped, going on to say that if only one lesson is to be learned from the events of last summer’s News International fiasco, it is that of the critical need to curb the unregulated freedom of expression still widely enjoyed by the press. “Hidden persuasion is too easy for those with hidden powers,” she imparted.

This cautioned wisdom runs counter to the popular notion that the media ought to operate on an honours system of self-regulation, the proponents of which tend to hide behind arguments against the “risks” posed by censorship. As O’Neill points out, the force of this rationale is undercut, however, by their same support of the 2003 Communications Act, which lifted restrictions on cross-ownership of media enterprises, effectively limiting the diversity of the press. This move towards increased corporatisation of the media is directly opposed to the idea of the press as a public, social good, whose intrinsic value would be compromised if threatened by censorship and over-regulation. Responding to this dilemma, O’Neill importantly asks: “Can we regulate media processes without censoring media content?”

In the wake of the controversy that made the once sinisterly incognito Rupert Murdoch into a household name, the public has called for “something to be done.” Baroness O’Neill warns “that ‘something’ is still in question,” but concludes that central to any serious efforts must be the consideration of how to legally monitor  how information is obtained— to protect the privacy rights of individuals— without restricting what news is reported.

The Reuters Memorial Lecture, delivered by Baroness O’Neill, can be viewed here.

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