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Editorial control

By John Wright - posted Friday, 22 June 2012

In a recent article in The Age, the opposition spokesman on communications and broadband Mr Malcolm Turnbull asks why it should be illegitimate for a newspaper owner to seek influence over its editorial direction. Mr Turnbull's article seems to me to imply it may be legitimate. But there are, it can be argued, powerful reasons why it ought not to be seen as legitimate.

Why should the institution of free speech be seen as something valuable, and worth preserving? There are, of course, many ways of answering this question, but two important answers are the following. In a liberal society, freedom to live as one chooses - provided it does not harm others - is seen as a good. But coercing others to behave in a particular way is not.

Freedom of speech is therefore seen as desirable because it is a more general instance of the freedom of individuals to live as they choose. But there is also a reason why freedom of speech, in particular, should be seen as valuable. Free, open, critical discussion of a wide range of opposing views is a way in which a society solves its problems, and works out which views are best. Free, critical and open debate – "the free market of ideas"-- is a tool for getting us closer to the truth on issues affecting society.


One reason why it is undesirable for a newspaper proprietor to seek to exert editorial control over the papers they own is because it undermines both these justifications of free speech.

First, if a newspaper owner exerts control over the editorial direction of a paper, they are at least reducing the freedom of editors and journalists to engage in public debate as they, professionally, best see fit. If an owner explicitly or implicitly lets a journalist know that they should adopt a particular line or face the sack, freedom has to that extent been replaced by coercion.

Of course, there will be a degree of coercion in any organization. If the boss tells us we must make green widgets rather than blue ones then that is what we must do, even if we personally believe blue would be better. And I suppose most of us would see nothing wrong with that. But there is a reason why freedom of speech is a very different matter. This relates to the second of the reasons, given above, why we regard freedom of speech as valuable.

The institution of freedom of speech is a way society works out which views are best. But if it is to do this, there are a number of conditions that must obtain.

First, views ought not to be excluded from public discussion merely on the grounds that some powerful agency – whether the government or a wealthy individual – does not wish to see them discussed. Any view which has at least a reasonable possibility of turning out to be correct ought to be permitted to enter the ring of public discussion in order to see if it can withstand fair criticism. That is a way we sort out good ideas from bad.

Second: whether a view attains widespread acceptance in society or not ought, ideally, to be determined by its merits: whether the arguments for it are sound, and whether it can be cogently defended against counter-argument. But there is surely a danger of these processes being corrupted by owners who seek editorial control.


Such owners might use their power to act against some ideas entering the ring of public discussion in the first place, or tilt the playing field to the advantage of the ideas they like and disadvantage of the ones they don't.

Perhaps most importantly, the possibly corrupting effect of owners using their power to influence public discussion is at its most dangerous in countries, like Australia, where is a very high concentration of media ownership. Owners exerting such control may move us away from a "free market" in the realm of ideas, where all ideas are free to enter in to public discussion and compete on their merits, to something rather more restricted. To continue with an economic metaphor, it is to move at least some direction away from a fully open free market, towards something that might resemble an intellectual oligopoly.

Allowing owners to exert editorial control over newspapers is not as harmless as allowing the boss to tell us to make green rather than blue widgets. It is, potentially, a corruption of one of the most important and fundamental institutions of an open, liberal society.

We, as a society, have no problem with institutions designed to ensure fair competition exists in the economic market. Free, fair competition makes it easier for customers to work out which products best serve their needs. But the institution of free speech is also one of our most important institutions. It is a means by which we, as a society, work out the general directions in which our society is to go. We are all affected by its outcomes.

If we are willing to accept institutions that ensure fair competition, and which prevent oligopoly in the economic market, why not also in the "free market of ideas"?

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About the Author

John Wright lectures in philosophy at the University of Newcastle. He has published books in philosophy of science, metaphysics, and ethical issues of economic rationalism.

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