That triumphant cry rang around the Washington Post newsroom (in Steven Spielberg’s excellent new film – The Post) as news came through that the Supreme Court had ruled in its favour over the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
“In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors,” opined one of the Supreme Court justices.
Leaving aside the three justices who clearly thought otherwise, the ruling – and, indeed, the film itself – beautifully encapsulates why the Fourth Estate is deserving of special treatment. And… that is why I welcome Theresa May’s decision this week to hold a review “to examine the sustainability of our national and local press”. The review will look at the “different business models for high-quality journalism”.
A fully functioning independent press is an essential pillar of good governance and civic society, yet the press is, due to shrinking revenues, increasingly unable to properly scrutinise and hold the powerful to account. The fact that over 300 regional titles have closed over the past decade also shows that we are struggling to find the answer and need help.
We should not pin too much hope on this review nor should we be looking to live on handouts. As was also made clear in the film, publishers are not charities and must return a profit. Hopefully, the review will lead to an open debate which will improve public understanding of the role journalism plays and how it is funded and also lead to a more level playing field in the areas of regulation and tax. Legislation to force social media companies to properly compensate publishers for using our content would also be a welcome outcome.