It is said that one of the hallmarks of a democratic society is a ‘free press’.
The recent scandal involving News International and British politicians has illustrated in a very frank way that the press in Britain is intimately intertwined with the political class.
The right wing political commentator Janet Daley wrote recently “British political journalism is basically a club to which politicians and journalists both belong.” She described the result of this close relationship saying that “this familiarity, this intimacy, this set of shared assumptions” is “the real corruptor of political life“. The result, she said is the “self-limiting spectrum of what can and cannot be said” and a “self-reinforcing cowardice which takes for granted that certain vested interests are too powerful to be worth confronting“. This, she argues are “constant dangers in the political life of any democracy“.
These “constant dangers” exist, it could be argued, because the nature of democracy itself. Politicians feel forced to chase popular opinion, which the media has had a role in shaping. Moreover, in capitalist democracies both the media and the political class have disproportionately strong links with the business sector, as compared with ordinary people, meaning they are even less independent.
The principle role of the British media role is to make money for their proprietors.
It is this role that reveals the true meaning of a ‘free’ media: free to sell their merchandise – whether news, comment, gossip, slander, the denigration of others or images that denigrate women – with as little restriction as possible.
It is hard to see what most of this has to do with improving the governance of a society. What Europe called for in its rejection of the authoritarianism of the Catholic Church was ‘freedom’. But the freedom to comment, question and account political authority was never separated from the freedom to gossip, slander or denigrate.
The result is confusion. Serious commentators in the West do not defend the behaviour of their tabloid colleagues, but also fear that politicians will used this scandal to curtail criticism of authority from serious sections of the media. Proprietors know that serious news and comment has never been as easy to sell as tittle-tattle, and is getting harder. No one is willing to try and draw a line between the ‘Jekyll’ and ‘Hyde’ faces of media – between a ‘free’ media and an ‘independent’ media.
In an Islamic society (not today’s Muslim countries that are governed by non-Islam or pseudo-Islam) the media has a vital role to play. But its strength lies in its independence from government and not its ‘freedom’ to disseminate whatever it wants to.
There are distinct Islamic responsibilities, which are instructions to all Muslims, but which media would be central to fulfilling. These fall under the general instruction of ‘amr bil maaroof wa nahi anil munkar’ – that is to enjoin goodness and integrity and forbid corruption.
Islam commands this on the individual – male and female – and upon Muslims as a collective. Scholars who wrote about this emphasized the function of this command towards political authority.
Media are one mechanism by which this task can be fulfilled; and its successful fulfillment requires that they be independent from the government.
A culture emerged in Islamic societies in the past regarding Islamic scholars, who famously said of themselves and others that their integrity was questionable if they were seen in the company of rulers.
This culture is one that is entirely appropriate for any group in society – media, scholars or political parties – that wishes to be taken seriously as upholders of integrity when they address government or authority.
So, the media has a central role in an Islamic society in the accurate reporting about government policy and conduct; public scrutiny and questioning of government; accounting the government. There are no restrictions on private individuals establishing their own outlets – TV, radio, web-based or print – in order to do this.
By contrast with western media, the ‘public interest’ cannot be used as a defence for phone hacking, bugging, illicit recording, breaking-and-entering or any other criminal activity. Ends do not justify means in Islam. Many of these activities fall under the general prohibition on spying – something that is banned by Quranic injunction. Moreover, privacy is an important matter in Islam. Betraying confidences is frowned upon and entering private property without permission is something the state does not even have a right to do.
Similarly, there are many Quranic commands that prohibit in the strongest terms denigrating people publicly – even concrete proof is seen they have done genuine wrong. By greater reason, slander – which is effectively falsifying information about someone, is even worse.
Even upon issues that are criminal offenses, the revelation of these matters should be made to the legal authorities – and then only if the evidential proof meets a standard that warrants prosecution – and not as a means of attacking political figures, bypassing a judicial process and the rule of law.
Finally, the effect on society of revealing the personal misdemeanors of celebrities is not merely irrelevant to the securing of good governance in society – it actually demeans the whole of society. By making such activity, which the individuals concerned may not be proud of, the common currency of entertainment for the masses reduces the agitation society feels about these matters – so making them more acceptable, not less.
In an Islamic society there would be no place for such material – except if the level of evidence was enough in regards to the ruler to present before a judge to challenge his integrity to hold office. The level of proof required to make such a judgment are laid out in books of jurisprudence.