St Bride's: Sermons

World Press Freedom Day. May 3

World Press Freedom Day. May 3
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The American President Thomas Jefferson wrote in his inaugural address at the beginning of the 19th century:- 'Freedom of religion, Freedom of the press; and freedom of the person under protection of habeas corpus - these principles from the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution' (1807).

Last Friday was World Press Freedom Day an annual celebration of the fundamental principles of press freedom and it is appropriate here in St Bride's that we reflect for a few moments on one of the stars in that bright constellation of Thomas Jefferson the freedom of the press.

The free press is a central feature of the dominant value system of Western democracy, distinguishing it clearly from, say, military or Islamic dictatorships where state-controlled propaganda enjoys total control. According to the theory, the free press, independent of the state and free from any direct funding y political parties, mediates between the rulers and the ruled, providing the necessary political, financial and social information to the eletorate which they can use to form rational voting decisions. As John O'Neill says (1992: 15) A free press supplies the diversity of opinion and access to information that a citizenry requires inorder to act in a democratic, responsible manner. The free market, journalism and democracy form an interdependent trinity of institutions in an open society.

Charles Moore (1997)

In fact the idea of the importance of press freedom has its origins in the 16th century Reformation and the stress on freedom of religious expression - reflected in that speech of Thomas Jefferson, which became part of a broader assertion of freedom of expression in general, and which has recently been codified in European Human Rights Legislation.

It is a fine ideal - but some of you may be thinking, and ideal that is abused today more than it issued, a cover for newspapers to print whatever they want, however inaccurate or scurrilous and to engage in illegal activity to gain information. As Hannen Swaffer (1879-1962) said:

Freedom of the Press in Britain is freedom to print such of the proprietor's prejudices as the advertisers don't object to.'

Of course, when abuses happen it is easy to become cynical about journalism and the media. And there is no doubt that there are worrying issues facing the media and society - the obsession with sleaze - and with a celebrity culture, the intense competition within the national press that encourages sloppy habits, and over emphasis on scoop-journalism, the cutting of corners and dumbing down of standards. The recent scandals surrounding phone-hacking which have resulted in the Leveson Enquiry have revealed an unpleasant culture of 'anything goes' when chasing a story and a bullying culture both by the big newspaper groups without any very obvious public benefit. So there are real concerns and the Press and Media cannot afford to be complacent.

Bu, I believe, in spite of its sometimes awkward, cantankerous and intrusive nature, we are fortunate in this country to have the breadth of coverage that we do. You have only to look at other countries' media, even in Europe to see that we don't do too badly in this country in spite of our grumbles.

And it is important to look at the international media scene to put the UK scene into perspective. A few years ago I was invited to the screening of a film by James Miller, a reporter and cameraman shot dead in Gaza by an Israeli soldier. 766 journalists were arrested in 2003, at least 1,460 physically attacked or threatened, at least 5021 censored. Our own memorial records the names of 18 journalists and cameramen who lost their lives covering the war in Iraq. It's worth remembering that in some countries in South America, the Former Soviet Empire, in Africa and elsewhere it takes real guts for a journalist simply to go to work in the morning because of the threat of beating, imprisonment or worse. There are many vested interests throughout the world that do not want the truth to be told, and that is the job of the journalist. World Press Freedom Day is a reminder that an informed, democratic society can function only if there are journalists who regard it as a vocation to get at the truth, whatever the cost, of events of vital importance to you and me. In the recent past, too many committed and responsible journalist have been injured or killed in pursuit of that calling. Today, as we pray for journalists everywhere, we pay tribute to those who day by day bring us the news, and who sometimes pay the ultimate price. Amen.

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