Regulating freedom

December 7, 2012

In the wake of Britain’s phone-hacking scandal, a majority of the populace is outraged by the behavior of the scandal-hungry press and is demanding legislation to regulate newspapers.

A recent survey found that 79 percent favored legislation regulating newspapers.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who defends the freedom of the press Great Britain has enjoyed since 1695, is in a difficult situation. Much of Parliament, including many members of Cameron’s own Conservative Party, favor legislation and regulation of the industry, and so an anxious Cameron demanded earlier this week that newspaper bosses urgently come up with a effective system of self-regulation following the latest damning inquiry into reporting practices.

The behavior of Britain’s tabloid media is the subject of intensive scrutiny because of journalists’ intrusive tactics – like tapping phones – to break stories about the private lives of celebrities, and even the parents of missing or murdered children.

The latest inquiry was conducted by Lord Justice Brian Levenson, who called 650 witnesses, among them celebrities like Hugh Grant and J.K. Rowling. Levenson’s report issued last week calls for an independent news regulator, backed by law, to end journalistic practices that have “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people.”

It is worrisome that so many in Britain are so willing to part with their freedoms. Of course, the treatment of celebrities by the tabloids is abhorrent, but prohibiting the publication of some news will open a door that should be nailed shut. If papers are prohibited from publishing certain kinds of news about the stars (who owe much of their celebrity to the tabloids), how long will it be before government strengthens its hold? Will criticizing politicians become illegal, as it is in so many dictatorships?

How can the press be a check on government when government decides what may be published? Will control of information on the Internet be next?

We in the United States have much for which to be thankful in regard to this controversy. First, our reading public hasn’t nearly the prurient interest in the sexual exploits of the famous as do European readers. And secondly, the First Amendment of our Constitution guarantees Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.

Our Founding Fathers were savaged by the press in their day, yet still believed a free press was essential for democracy. Freedoms like these need to be protected, not restricted.



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