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Leveson, Power and the Journalist’s Brain

November 29, 2012



A free press is a crucial curb on the potentially corrupting effects of political power. Journalists’ investigation of business, religious, and social leaders has also been a necessary constraint on the power that they wield. 

Power has neurological effects on the brain which can include a distortion of thinking, a degrading of morals and a blunting of empathy. Democracy and its artifacts were invented to counteract this neurological condition and a free press is one of the great inventions of democracy.  These act as antidotes to power’s effects on the brain, helping prevent the full blooming of the mental malfunctions which unconstrained power induces in all dictators.

This gives journalists great power – which, of course, makes some susceptible to a version of the disease that can affect politicians. But they do not just have power over politicians, they hold the ability to strike fear in people in all walks of life with the terror of exposure to public ridicule or hate. That is in many ways a power as potent as that held by most politicians.

Sally Dickerson of the University of California at Irvine found that the thing that stresses people the most is not health, work, money, fear of death, worries about our children or time pressure – it is the negative evaluation of other people. At the heart of this feeling of shame is a belief that others will judge who you are – your self – as inferior or inadequate. Shame is an ancient evolved emotion that Charles Darwin himself described as relating almost exclusively to the judgment of others.

Journalists, then, hold the power to inflict the greatest stress known to human beings in the maximum possible doses – immediate, global exposure to obloquy. This is a power greater than any judge in the developed world holds, apart from in the United States, where execution is still practised.

And, as today’s Leveson inquiry report documents, some journalists have been corrupted lavishly by this awesome power, which is why Lord Justice Leveson has recommended statutory regulation of the British press.

Of course there are risks. Without the Guardian’s excellent investigative journalism we would never have had the Leveson inquiry in the first place and News Corporation’s authoritarian empire of untempered and corrupting power would have flourished to further interfere with the democratic processes in the countries of the world in which it has operated so malignly.

We welcome the exposure of such wrong-doing by great journalism, but the problem is that so much of the British press has been driven not by the worthy aims of exposing the sins of the bad and the mighty, but rather of callous and casual infliction of the greatest stress known to humankind on individuals who have no right of appeal.

Yes, journalists have been corrupted by wielding this enormous power and there have been no constraints on it to temper them. That is why Lord Justice Leveson is right. 


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