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NICOLA MILLER: If you want a free press, buy a paper

By Newsdesk Bury

Nicola Miller. (3041891)
Nicola Miller. (3041891)

One of the popular T-shirts worn by Trump supporters at his rallies says, starkly: ‘Rope. Tree. Journalist,’ writes columnist Nicola Miller.

Now, this brevity could be because Hillary Clinton stole the majority of their vocabulary, leaving them with fewer words (they managed to hang on to her emails, I note) but most likely it is because they are indoctrinated by a president running scared of a press pack which might – just might – hold him to account, but only if the newspapers they write for can raise enough revenue to actually fund their investigative journalism.

You might read this and think that snarky writers like me deserve to be hung from a tree for saying such things in print and you’d be wrong of course, because the concept of going high when they go low is not one that tends to produce better behaviour in these people. Rather, it gives them free rein to go even lower. And by even lower I mean the kind of threatening, abusive behaviour whose end result is the killing of journalists and writers as we saw in Maryland a few weeks ago; in Denmark when reporter Kim Wall was murdered by an interviewee; and on a sickeningly regular basis in countries like Mexico and Russia.

Be it a result of a personal vendetta against a paper which publishes information in the public record, a chance encounter with a sociopath, political agenda, or organised cartel crime, the process and outcomes are appallingly similar and the febrile climate encouraged by certain politicians and dubious ‘political commentators’ merely arms the aggrieved with more ammunition.

I’ve always believed that the best way to protect a free press is to actually go out and buy a newspaper and this especially applies to those that are locally published. Sales + ads revenue = investigative and reporting power = well-resourced safety measures to protect reporters. It doesn’t matter if you feel your paper’s content isn’t particularly pertinent to you. If you believe in democracy and a free press and the right of journalists to do their jobs in as safe a way as possible, then buying a copy for less than £2 per week is a pretty simple way of exercising that belief, even if you only read it to find out who has been hatched, matched, and despatched or sentenced for not having a TV licence.

The Capitol Gazette, in Annapolis, is a local newspaper and the recent attack which left five of its staffers dead was motivated by revenge after the perpetrator unsuccessfully sued the newspaper group in 2012 for defamation. I would imagine that most local newspapers have to field the anger of locals when a story is printed which does not show them in their best light. I know that editors are sometimes threatened with litigation and had Leveson II gone through, it would have been even more challenging for smaller newspapers to investigate and report on stories involving allegations of nefarious conduct. The awarding of crippling financial litigation penalties even if the newspaper wins its case would discourage the press from conducting often-complex investigations. Whether it be councillors wanting to award themselves inflation-busting pay rises when everyone else is tightening their belts; the possibility that a piece of land that is planned for residential development is contaminated with off-the-scale levels of poisonous chemicals; or squabbles about two giant metal dandelion sculptures that half the town thinks were paid for out of public money (they were not!), would you really rather remain in ignorance? Following up stories like these requires money and a fair bit of that will have to come out of readers’ pockets.

In his blog reported on Hold The Front Page, University of Gloucestershire lecturer Paul Wiltshire writes about ‘resentment of the kind . . . that anyone who has sat on the press bench of a court will have experienced’ which can and does manifest itself in the most extreme cases as actual rape threats against female reporters. He talks about the insidious and damaging effects that under-moderated online comments sections have on writers, especially females, who are subjected to a level of misogynistic abuse that many male reporters are not.

All of this hatred is designed to wear legitimate journalists down and in doing so little about it (or believing that journalists ‘deserve’ it), we get the press we deserve and a big old unregulated, hostile mess; online pile-ons that incite offline aggression; clickbait and fake news; and what Matthew Hancock MP refers to as ‘malicious disinformation’.

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