Perhaps the most striking aspect of the response to COVID-19 is its general assault on freedom. More on that another time, but there is one freedom in particular that we might wish to single out, and to defend to the penniless end. It’s the freedom of the press.

The point has been made that the crisis may well put swathes of the press out of business, in some cases permanently. I can see why, and I also sympathise tremendously with the many journalists who, as is, work hard for little money. They may well end up losing their jobs.

Even so, I think it’s a big mistake for journalists to look to state support as a means to weather the moment. And in the event that support is offered, I think the press should refuse it outright. Thanks but no thanks and all that.

Partly the clue is in the word ‘offered’. With respect to state aid, what we’re seeing is a kind of potlatch in which the government dispenses aid ‘packages’ at will. As expected, and quite understandably for the most part, different groups and sectors respond by jockeying to position themselves as worthy recipients.

Thing is, these are not any packages. They’re gift-wrapped, and like all gifts they come with obligations of reciprocity. Which is where journalists run into a problem: by the very nature of their calling, obligations of reciprocity are the very last thing they need. They may as well lose their jobs and earn a more filling crust elsewhere. Many of them are eminently qualified to do so.

Why do I call it a potlatch? Because it is. The gift is written all over the way state aid is being promised. Never mind the collectivist babble: the aid will benefit some more than others, yet others not at all. It all depends on being in the line of sight of the state’s benevolent gaze. 

Some have said that it is in the state’s interest to subsidise the press, because the press ‘informs’ – the public about the need to wash hands regularly and stay indoors, for example. Problem is, that’s not a proper valuation of the press. Rather, it is a perversion of value.

A newspaper is not a newsletter. The reason I value journalists (and I don’t mean myself – I’m a tourist, at best) so highly has nothing to do with their services to information. The Government Gazette is big on that service, and I don’t usually jump out of bed to get my copy. Rather, it has everything to do with their willingness to ask uncomfortable questions.

Journalists are not, or shouldn’t be, a state institution

With respect to the matter at hand, they might include questions about the devastating economic consequences of the ‘cut risk by banning everything’ model. Or about why some goods and services, but not others, are deemed essential. And so on. Not a tune that he who paid the piper would be too happy to listen to.      

Now one might plausibly argue that receiving money from the state doesn’t necessarily make you its puppet. Take judges, for example. They are salaried employees of the state, and yet they are regarded as being independent – so independent, that they are expected to rule against the government if necessary. They often do.

There are, however, two differences. First, the reason why judges are on state salaries is that they are agents of the state. (Not the same as puppets of government.) Judges do what they do by virtue of the power invested in them by the state. Which is why disrespect to a judge in court is so severely sanctioned: it implies contempt of the state and its laws.

Journalists are another species altogether. They are not, or shouldn’t be, a state institution. Their value and power and vitality come from elsewhere. Indeed, the litmus of good and functional journalism is the distance it is able to put between itself and state power.

Second, judges draw salaries based on their tenure – a very secure form of tenure, tellingly. They are not gifted money by the grace of the state. A judge who rules against the government will still get their pay cheque at the end of the month. A salary and a gift are two different things entirely, and they come with completely different obligations.

There is, however, another thing. If state-funding the press is wrong because it threatens to ensnare journalists in a gift economy, how about other sources? Much the same argument could be made for advertising, for example.

How exactly is it better to depend on advertising by private business? Surely a major advertiser would compromise the freedom of the press as effectively as a generous state?

The answer to that is an absolute yes. It’s also my point exactly, because it’s unwise of a newspaper or radio station to let itself depend on any single source of advertising revenue. We had that kind of situation in at least one case in Malta not so long ago, and it didn’t end very happily.

When people sing the national anthem and Viva Malta across the rooftops and Malta hasn’t won the World Cup, I run a mile. When journalists join the chorus, I run 10. It’s the sound of groupthink, a tune made more likely by government bailouts. 

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