Malaysia has just had its general election. The ruling party Barisan Nasional , which has governed Malaysia for fifty years, was returned yet again. While there had been reports of “a tight race”, informed commentators were not at all surprised at the outcome. The Barisan Nasional gained 133 seats, while the opposition Pakatan Rakyat gained the remaining 89 seats, although bizarrely the opposition won the popular vote (by a tiny margin). Perhaps they need a boundary review.
I happened to see a copy of Malaysia’s English Language newspaper of record, the New Straits Times for May 2nd, just before the election on May 5th, and I was (to reach for a term from the vulgar vernacular) gob-smacked. The first six pages were solid election coverage. No surprise there, perhaps. But the whole six pages might just as well have come straight from the Press Office of the ruling party.
I’d say that around two thirds of the coverage was about the opposition, and it was relentlessly negative. The opposition were dishonest folk, raising totally unjustified scare stories. They were telling lies about the issues. Pakatan Rakyat activists had been arrested and accused of disseminating falsehoods, and of hacking pro-ruling-party web-sites. A spiritual adviser to the opposition (Malaysia is of course an Islamic country, and the opposition has a stronger religious agenda than the more secular ruling party) had warned voters that they would “burn in hell” if they voted for the Barisan Nasional.
The other third was glowing coverage of the government. It told of policy successes, firm commitments, a wonderful cornucopia of benefits for citizens and voters that could only be assured and sustained by voting for the governing party.
Malaysia benefits from the legacy of the British parliamentary system, but clearly the principle of press freedom has fallen by the wayside. It is clear the government controls the main-stream media (MSM). It is equally clear however that it can’t control social media, or at least not so effectively. It is trying, though, with bloggers arrested for “spreading false rumours”, and accusations of hacking. Indeed two of the stories in the May 2nd issue dealt with social media, and warned readers not to be “taken in by false reports”. Denied access to the MSM, the opposition has of course been making the most of electronic alternatives.
Against this background, it is sad to reflect that in our own country, which I should like to regard as a beacon of liberty and democracy, the Leveson report is going down a route that clearly leads to more control over the press by politicians. We are assured that there will be safeguards, that we will merely tip-toe down the slippery slope. But the attractions for politicians in being able to control the press are so powerful that the process will be difficult to stop.
Hugh Grant and his Hacked Off campaign are putting at risk one of the main bulwarks of our freedom. They say they’re a campaign for a “free and accountable” press. But if they succeed, we shall find that we have the opposite. A press which, as in Malaysia, is accountable only to the government of the day.
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