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Friday 15 February 2019
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Free press: free growth

KIRAN MATHUR MOHAMMED

Cynical, chain-smoking, and coffee-swilling. Working their sources in dive bars or parliamentary corridors. To the powerful, journalists can be objects of irritation and fear. They have changed history. Twenty-seven-year-old Bob Woodward brought down the President of the United States. Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway transformed statesmanship and literature. Journalism matters.

And it is under threat. We rank 39th out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index, compared to Norway (number one as usual) and Jamaica (number six). Journalistic libel is still punishable by up to two years in prison as well as a fine. Potential legal costs cause many a story to be quashed before it gains legs.

The Cybercrime Bill, the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Data Protection Act, and the Broadcast Code all have elements that could have a “chilling effect” on press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. And the state (regardless of administration) is still the biggest advertiser and wields commensurate clout.

Money is as critical. The Poynter Institute estimates that newsroom budgets have been slashed by more than a third globally since 2005.

This makes quality journalism hard to sustain ­– which further erodes the public’s trust in traditional news. Tired reporters make mistakes. According to veteran journalists, opportunities are missed to fact check, ask hard questions, cultivate sources; and resist outside enticements or pressure.

Beyond its intrinsic value, we should care: because good journalism boosts economic growth. Economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen famously said: "There has never been a famine in any country that has been a democracy with a relatively free press. I know of no exception."

In a panel of 115 countries, Abdullah Alam and Syed Shah found that press freedom positively influences economic growth, and vice versa. All G-7 members (which comprise over 30 per cent of global GDP) have free media.

Christopher Coyne and Peter Leeson have used game theory to suggest that a free press is a mechanism that allows conflicting interests to co-operate to achieve better policy outcomes.

By lowering the costs of information for the public, a free press evens the playing field and makes the government more likely to coordinate with the public to enact policy. As Economics Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has shown, this accountability can lead to better governance.

It can also reduce the power of special interest groups by exposing their motives and can bolster support for needed reforms that run afoul of special interests.

What is good is that the industry’s challenges are creating new models.

The non-profit Ford Foundation funded investigative journalism that exposed government negligence in the poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s water supply.

The UK Guardian still has advertisers and subscribers, but donations now comprise 12 per cent of its revenue.

France’s Mediapart breaks every rule of the business. Mediapart hires well-paid veteran journalists, has no advertisements and focuses purely on high quality investigative journalism; available only to subscribers. In 2016 they reported a 1.9 million Euro profit and 10 per cent growth.

Slovakia’s Dennik N has a similar model: and runs monthly crowd-funded stories to engage with its readers.

Anyone armed with a camera phone is now a citizen journalist. Start-ups like Bellingcat are capitalising on this. Half of its revenue comes from courses on tools for citizen journalists – some of whom first broke the story that the Syrian government was using chemical weapons.

Funding is one element. Technology and training are also needed to bolster quality and build public trust. This will in turn buttress the case for legislative amendments that support press freedom.

Technology is making stories possible that weren’t a decade ago. The Panama Papers leak involved more than 11.5 million financial and legal records. Big data analytics are increasingly indispensable.

The non-profit Solutions Journalism Network has built the Solutions Story Tracker, a searchable database of in-depth reporting on responses and approaches to social problems. Bellingcat teaches courses like: How to Identify Burnt Villages by Satellite Imagery.

The business teams in media houses would benefit just as much from digital training – it would help them sell advertising more effectively.

Newsday editor in chief and author Judy Raymond has brought in outside experts to bolster knowledge in fields such as healthcare or law. Young journalists can also look to role models like Jones P Madeira – who helped build the country’s nascent media industry; or Stacy-Marie Ishmael, founder of the FT’s Alphaville blog, and managing editor of Buzzfeed’s mobile news.

Senior reporters and editors can share their experiences with newer colleagues. Traditional media still has practices that make their reporting credible and relevant. We must enable a trusted and free press. Growth and freedom depend on it.

kmmpub@gmail.com

Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh.

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