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Students at Cambridge Union vote to have more press accountability

By Gretel Cuevas

In a debate about the current power of the press last Thursday (January, 26), the Cambridge Union Society discussed issues such as media scandals, the polarisation of the media, the negative framing of minorities, the Leveson Inquiry, and endorsed the idea of the need for more press accountability.

A packed chamber at the Cambridge Union during an event with Stephen Fry in 2022. Picture: Nordin Catic
A packed chamber at the Cambridge Union during an event with Stephen Fry in 2022. Picture: Nordin Catic

For its second debate of 2023, the Cambridge Union Society debated the motion “This House Believes the Press has too much Power and not Enough Accountability”. Almost a decade after the Leveson Inquiry, which put into question the role of ethics and responsibility in the media, scholars, journalists, and students came together to discuss whether the press has too much power without enough accountability.

With a vote of 153 in favour, 66 abstentions, and 99 in opposition, Cambridge’s students responded by supporting the motion that the press need to be held more accountable.

Arguing in favour of the motion, Alex Horan, a history student at Churchill College, opened the debate by discussing how the press has little to no accountability. Drawing on Kelvin MacKenzie’s Hillsborough disaster coverage, Horan highlighted a case in which the press was misled by authorities to follow a political agenda without any consequence or accountability to the public.

For Horan, the Hillsborough case “was a coordinated effort to demonise working-class fans,” demonstrating the deep interconnection between media and political elites. She emphasised, “the politicians, the state, and the press are not separate entities. They never were, they never will be.”

On the opposition, Jake Sherman, an American journalist and Politico’s top congressional reporter on Capitol Hill, opened the opposition’s argument by stating that there should be no limits to the freedom of the press as it is already sufficiently accountable.

To prove his point, he referred to the case of BuzzFeed News which had to temporarily fold its news operation after publishing an unverified article during the 2020 election and the case of American journalist Dan Rather, who faced career-ending consequences after publishing a series of unverified facts about George W Bush’s military record.

Although he recognised that there should be existing limitations in the media when it comes to narratives that incite violence, he argued that “the freedom of press should be absolute or nearly absolute.”

He then continued to argue that as more countries shift away from democracy and slide towards autocracy, freedom of the press is the only tool societies still have to protect fundamental rights, and for this reason, “information needs to be free, free from meddling and subject to the natural accountability of the public.”

Floor speeches by students in the audience made essential contributions to the debate. In favour of the motion, students raised the importance of fact-checking while discussing accountability. In opposition, students criticised the idea of holding the press more accountable as it could lead to censorship having dramatic consequences on freedom.

Supporting the motion that further accountability is needed, Jonathan Marrow, an MPhil in history student at Homerton College, joined the debate last minute to fill the place of former MP and executive of Hacked Off, Dr Evan Harris, who did not show up.

The façade of the Cambridge Union building. Picture: Nordin Catic
The façade of the Cambridge Union building. Picture: Nordin Catic

Marrow brought up how the democratisation of the press has gone too far. Drawing evidence from Donald Trump’s mediatic sensationalisation, Harry and Meghan’s harassment by the media, and the incapacity of the press to hold Boris Johnson accountable during Brexit, Marrow made the point that there are no mechanisms to hold the press responsible for its actions.

He also raised several cases, from the Iraq War to rape accusations, in which the media has fabricated evidence without consequences, proving his point of the need for further accountability.

In the opposition, Harman Tutt, a third-year history student at Jesus College, highlighted that we shouldn’t get lost in individual accusations of particular press outlets such as The Sun and The Daily Mail, which were a central part of many of the interventions.

He highlighted that we shouldn’t forget that the press, beyond any name, is a democratic institution that aims to inform citizens. It has this democratic function to ensure leaders are accountable. “We should treat the press carefully and in a more dignified way. Treat it like an institution,” he argued.

Miqdaad Versi, founder of the Centre for Media Monitoring at the Muslim Council of Britain, opened his speech by highlighting the dangers of an unregulated press, citing the example of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide where the press played a major role in organising one of the worst crimes against humanity.

Versi also condemned the negative framing of ethnic minorities in the British press supporting his point that further accountability is needed when it comes to preventing the proliferation of narratives of hatred.

Simon McCoy, a journalist and former newsreader who has covered everything from the Iraq War to the Royal Family, closed the debate by arguing that the press is already held accountable when it makes mistakes.

He highlighted how after the Leveson Inquiry, many mechanisms were implemented to hold the press responsible for its mistakes. However, McCoy emphasised that nobody takes responsibility regarding journalist repression.

As he stressed, journalism is one of the world's most dangerous professions, and the question should not only be who holds the press accountable but also who holds the rest of society accountable. “We need trust in journalism. Trust in journalists,” he concluded.

[Read more: Cambridge Union president Christopher George: ‘Sometimes it’s important to have people that provoke controversy’]

Students voted in support of the motion and an endorsement that the press needs to have further accountability.

The next debate at the Cambridge Union, “This House Believes Trade Unions are Still an Effective Force for Good”, takes place at 8pm tomorrow (Thursday, February 2). For more information on the Cambridge Union, visit cus.org.

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