‘Some people’s idea of freedom of speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage…’ – Winston Churchill
Most journalists believe in the idea that they are still part of the Fourth Estate, holding authority to account and preserving freedom of speech.
But the rise of social media has certainly tested this freedom to the limit. Many editors have been forced to wince every now and again when one of their troops says something they are unhappy about.
This is particularly true if their staff are saying something they may not agree with.
So, if an editor spots one of his journalists commenting on something they dislike, have they the right to tell them to stop?
If this was the case, wouldn’t the editor be at the very least going against all the historic and ethical principles of free speech?
I agree that most of us can tell a tale of how one of our colleagues or friends wrote something which made us shudder.
And firms, such as Sky, are keen to view the social media output of people they are interested in employing, to make sure there’s nothing too controversial.
Personally, I repeatedly tell any youngsters I know looking for a job to clean up their social media, or at least have a professional one and personal one, which should be for their mates only.
So, back to journalists. Has an editor the right to impose a gagging order?
Surely journalists should be free to express an opinion or is it right if their editor warns them to be neutral, even if the editor is clearly biased?
I guess, if the journalist is writing under the banner of a media outlet, then they have to think carefully about what they write.
They cannot be seen to bring the organisation into any kind of disrepute, but there has to be a sensible boundary.
So, if impartiality is required by the business, then they have to sit on the fence.
However, what if they are expressing a view on a personal account?
Ok, most of their mates will know that they are a journalist, but even journos deserve to have a private opinion, don’t they?
What’s more, as I have often experienced, editors have a view and ensure the paper or web site support that personal opinion.
I have known editors, for example, who insist on writing headlines on certain issues so the ‘tone’ is right, in other words, supports their view of the story.
So if you are sitting in an office listening to the editor mouth off about their opinion and write headlines to match it, would you perhaps think that you had a right to also have your say?
It is easy to hide behind impartiality to stop journalists having an opinion if that suits your game plan. But the idea that journalists should be gagged because of their profession seems unfair and even unethical.
In the Brexit debate, many people have taken sides and debated the issues, this is real democracy, as opposed to informing journalists to keep quiet, that’s tantamount to tyranny.
Journalism is built around the premise that it is a bastion of freedom and democracy.
These are fine principles as long as you practice what your preach and effectively telling staff to keep quiet is a bit of a blow to this philosophy.
Personally, I always encouraged freedom of speech, but would warn journalists that their reputation was always on the line, so sensible comment was preferred to a bias rant.
In the case of the Brexit, I would have asked for the same. If writing directly under the banner of the newspaper, I would have said stay balanced and pose questions rather than forcing out an opinion.
As for any other account, I would encourage them to choose what they say carefully and professionally, but journalists are entitled to an opinion.
It has to come down to a matter of trust. You have to trust the professionalism of your staff to do the right thing.
Anyway, much of what is written in a newspaper has an opinion behind it, just look at all those campaigns which are so often heralded.
They are clearly designed around a bias opinion, or the editor’s own agenda, so it is nothing new for journalists to have an opinion, like everyone else.
So it would seem rather cheap if an editor was to put the fear of God into his journalists by sending out a ‘Big Brother’ is watching you memo.
If the opinions of a journalist are against the majority, or the editor’s own views, it doesn’t mean that they are not worthy of being broadcast.
Editors who attempt to enforce a policy on journalists inevitably lose the respect of their newsroom.
Are the BBC going to sack Danny Baker for his rather outrageous and possibly offensive remarks about the England team?
I think not. Even the BBC believe in some kind of free speech.
So I would say to all journalists, have a voice, our industry is a broad church of opinion and if it becomes restrained by dictatorial editors, the world will be a poorer place.
Meanwhile, I know I keep saying I’m going to write about skills audits and redundancy. Ok, it doesn’t sound too much fun, but there are some unusually dark arts at play.
More of that to come.