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Media Rights Compromise in UK?

Great Britain has never been a haven for press freedoms. For one thing, most British despise the media, as a BBC-sponsored poll indicated some years ago: at the time only one-third of British respondents said they approved of their news organizations, and I suspect it is even fewer these days. For another, much of the British media deserve their derision.

It was thus with a certain amount of amusement that, while in London, I grabbed a copy of the Sun, possibly the world’s least informative newspaper and one, moreover, owned by Rupert Murdoch, who is more responsible than anyone for the current disaster facing the British press. “D-Day for Press freedom” read the headline, right atop a close-up of Winston Churchill, whose various quotations supporting independent media were trumpeted squarely below. Well, that was on Sunday, when it looked like Sir Winston still had a chance. And it certainly was a more ringing Sun headline than the one some years ago heralding a photo of Angela Merkel’s backside, which read, “I’m Big in the Bumdestag.”

By Monday, however, that ringing war for freedom was lost. A reluctant Prime Minister David Cameron, bowing to pressure from parliamentarians and movie stars alike, reached a deal with both allies and opponents: the rambunctious, often naughty British press would be fitted with a muzzle in the form of something called “a press regulator,” details to be worked out eventually. A voluntary muzzle, Cameron et al. might protest—if the definition of “voluntary” is refuse-it-and-we’ll-bankrupt-you.

In fact, however, you could also go bankrupt if you trotted up to the muzzle, lowered your head obligingly, and whinnied. Those who are appointed to be press regulators—we don’t yet know who they will be, but I guarantee most of them will be politicians—can fine media offenders up to 1.5 million pounds.

Now what, you may ask, might set off such a fine? Well, in Britain, it can be anything at all, since the country is home to libel lawsuits from all over the world. Get mad in Tanzania? Sue in London! Feel wounded in France, even though you raped a teen? Win big by videoing your complaints to a British courtroom! Discover that your phone was hacked by some disgusting journalists who worked for the late News of the World, also owned by Murdoch? Sue that newspaper and then plough the cash award into a nationwide campaign to make sure none of the others news outlets, however innocent of the hacking offense, can write a critical word about you. Or anyone. Ever again.

Yes, who says politics and the arts don’t mix? The actor Hugh Grant, whose phone conversations were intercepted, is just thrilled his campaign, known as “Hacked Off,” has worked. I’m not so sure that delving into an actor’s private life, however messy, is all that rewarding. But you can be certain matters won’t stop there. When politicians are given license to determine what is and what is not offensive, what is and what is not punitive offense, there is no hope for a democracy. 

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