The Mucky Glory of a Free Press
Events continue to demonstrate the reason why a free press matters so much. Without it, plenty of people, often in positions of considerable power, can get away with absolutely anything. A free press is messy -- and when wrong, culpable -- but it is also one of the only tools we have in the West to stop our decline into a form of permanent, systemic corruption. Two very different recent cases should remind us of this fact.
This month's example comes in the guise of that most essential staple of British tabloid life: the naughty vicar. Or in this case, the extremely naughty Methodist Minister. The Reverend Paul Flowers has just been revealed, thanks to a disgruntled friend and the Mail on Sunday newspaper, to be a buyer and user of a variety of Class A drugs. Since that first revelation, he has also been exposed as having indulged in plenty of other distinctly non-Methodist activities. Needless to say, the British press -- which bows to no one in its ability to turn a pun -- has dubbed him 'The Crystal Methodist.'
All of which might be deemed to just be so much fun or personal tragedy. Except that there is a serious dimension to this revelation. Which is that the Revd Flowers was also the chairman of the Co-operative Bank, a bank with 4.7 million customers in Britain, which has gone through an appallingly turbulent and mismanaged period in recent years, during which savers have suffered and the government has been forced to step in. Suffice it to say, without going into the scale of the mismanagement, that the Revd Flowers had absolutely no qualifications for running a bank. Yet, unfathomably, this was the important and personally lucrative position that this man ended up in. Why does the role of the press matter in all this? Because every other arm of state or civil society had failed to expose the problem, and it was down to the press to do so on behalf of everyone else.
Earlier this month, for instance, the Revd Flowers appeared before a Parliamentary Committee and was asked various pertinent questions about the bank which he ran until June of this year. Much of it was pretty basic stuff. He was asked what the size of the Co-operative Bank's total assets. He said he thought the bank had about £3 billion of assets. There was some incredulity from the MPs, and it took the chairman of the committee to inform Flowers that the actual figure of his bank's asset was closer to £47 billion. On other questions, the Revd. did not perform even as well as that, barely making a stab at some answers, and repeatedly having to inform the committee that he would have to get back to them on that one.
Although Parliament did not have time to do much about this, it did not actually expose him. This was just another unsatisfactory and ignored grilling in a committee room. During an earlier period, when it might have done something, the now broken-up Financial Service Authority (FSA) had absolutely nothing to say about Flowers's unique lack of qualification for his role. It did nothing significant -- so far as anyone can see -- to prevent or curtail a major British bank being run by somebody utterly unqualified for the task.
The point is that it took an undercover journalistic investigation and a tabloid splash to expose Revd Flowers and cause all the long-overdue repercussions of resignations at the top, and so on. Many investors and taxpayers may have wondered in recent years, "What are the people at the head of the co-op smoking?" It took the press to tell them.
On a completely different note, take another case of media correction. Last year the Al-Madinah school opened in Derby, and took advantage of the current government's "free-schools" initiative. The policy allows parents to set up their own schools with taxpayer support. Generally a highly successful policy, it has nevertheless always been open to abuse, and the Al-Madinah school was a specialist in this regard.
In the summer, the Sunday Times revealed what actually went on at the school. It was reported that, among other things, everybody -- pupils and teachers alike -- whether Muslim (a majority) or not, were forced by the school to wear ultra-conservative Islamic dress. Other rules also enforced the most hardline Islamic rules, including a ban on bringing any products that were not halal [permitted by Islamic Sharia law] onto the premises, in what was, after all, a state-funded school. These revelations, and more, were immediately picked up by other media outlets, created a national outrage and caused government inspectors to be sent in early. After several rounds of inspections, temporary closures and more, the news emerged that the school's leadership has been forced out and the institution has now been taken over.
Both of these cases -- the "Crystal Methodist" and the Al-Madinah school -- obviously relate to very different places. But most other parts of the state, and indeed civil society, had failed to root out two very different, but scandalous, problems that directly affected taxpayers and citizens. It took the free press in all its mucky glory to expose these problems and for something to be done about them.
Will a free press go wrong on occasions? Certainly -- and where it breaks the law it must be punished. But in the eagerness to punish an entire profession, Britain's lawmakers and others have forgotten one of the most important lessons of all: that a genuinely free press is not just one of our best protections against despotism, it is one of the only tools we have to root out corruption. One can understand why some people may be opposed to it. But long may it remain free.
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