6th July 2023
Impress Insights: High press standards and freedom of expression can go hand in hand

Richard Ayre: High press standards and freedom of expression can go hand in hand

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I woke up one morning at the age of sixteen and knew I wanted to be a journalist. It took me by surprise and, when I went down to breakfast and told my parents, it left them in a state of shock as well.

Back upstairs, I sat at my Imperial typewriter and hammered out a blistering criticism of the ethical standards of the local newspaper (name withheld owing to the passage of time) and posted it off to the Editor, exhorting him to show his readers his commitment to freedom of expression by publishing it. Oddly enough, he didn’t.

Freedom of expression means different things to different people. To editors it means they should be able to publish whatever they like, especially if someone somewhere is trying to stop them. But it certainly doesn’t mean they have to give a platform to people they disagree with.

It’s one of the great liberties the British press enjoys, that – unlike public service broadcasters – they can be as partisan, as opinionated, and even as downright biased as they wish. For many millions of us, we buy into partisan journalism, when it suits, either in print form or online. It often feeds – and sometimes even seeds – our own opinions.

But the British public is perhaps the most news-literate in the world. For three centuries we’ve had a robust array of domestic journals to draw upon and now we have the added benefit that our own language is the lingua franca of the online world.

So we Brits are good at judging when we’re simply being told what we want to hear and when we’re being told the truth, and we know that the two aren’t necessarily the same. When the chips are down, when there’s a story that really matters to us, we want the unvarnished truth and each of us decides which media to turn to for it.

Being truthful is perhaps the single most important ethical standard that Impress expects of its member publications. It’s none of our business what opinions our publishers hold (provided they are expressed within the law) but they must not be evidenced with falsehoods.

Overwhelmingly, journalists come into the profession to discover the truth and to tell it to as many people as possible. Readers may prefer publications that share their own point of view, but they don’t like being misled or taken for fools. Trust is the most hard-won asset in a journalist’s armoury, and it’s also the easiest to lose.

Impress will always stand up for freedom of the press and for the widest possible spectrum of voices to be heard. But it will expect integrity in the way news publishers treat their readers. Discovering the truth is often very difficult, sometimes impossible. But readers have a right to expect us to try. Truth matters to them, whatever their point of view.

And the really good news is that telling the truth also helps journalists sleep at night.

By Richard Ayre
Chair, Impress 

About Richard Ayre 

Richard Ayre has had a career in journalism spanning forty years, beginning in the early 1970s at the BBC in Belfast and going on to become the corporation’s controller of editorial policy and deputy chief executive of BBC News. He is a former member of the Ofcom Content Board and chair of its Broadcast Review Committee, and also chaired Article 19, the international freedom of expression charity. For fourteen years he was the Law Society’s freedom of information adjudicator before returning to the BBC as a member of the BBC Trust and chair of its editorial standards committee.

About Impress 

Impress is a champion for news that can be trusted. We are here to make sure news providers can publish with integrity; and the public can engage in an ever-changing media landscape with confidence. We set the highest regulatory standards for news, offer education to help people make informed choices and provide resolution when disputes arise. 

Media enquiries

Louie Chandler: louie@impressorg.com / 02033076778