Saturday July 11, 2009
This week the British paper, The News of the World, was condemned by The Guardian for hiring private investigators. The investigators were alleged to have accessed messages left on the answering machines of thousands of the UK's social and political elite. The information was used (possibly unknowingly) by the paper to develop its stories.
The News of the World didn't go far enough.
Earlier this year, WikiLeaks released 86 telephone recordings of corrupt Peruvian politicians and businessmen. The revelations became the front page of every major paper in Peru and the journalists involved, such as Pablo O'Brian, became national heroes.
Europe has had its fair share of similar exposes. Italy's Prodi government was toppled by such revelations and in December 2007, Silvio Berlusconi, who was then opposition leader, was himself exposed on a phone call leake from an anti-corruption investigation. Further revelations from Berlusconi's circle were expected later this year, but by May the Italian Prime Minister had introduced "British style" legislation to prevent the Italian press from publishing them. Berlusconi justified the new law by
saying that the privacy of Italian citizens was threatened by the press.
Now in Britain, we see similar sanctimonious hand-wringing over the "privacy rights" of the British elite. These individuals, through active scheming and quiet acceptance, have turned the UK into what Privacy International now bills as an "Endemic Surveillance Society". Barely a month goes by without the government attempting to introduce another Orwellian state surveillance scheme. But now, like Berlusconi, these elites purport a sudden interest in protecting the privacy rights of the
people, not by rolling back such schemes, but by gagging the press.
Despite this, the Guardian, in seeing an opportunity to attack a journalistic and class rival, has been doing its level best to castrate British Journalism by tut-tuting in article after article about the News' alleged sourcing improprieties; A tabloid newspaper doing investigative journalism! Journalists skirting the law to expose the truth! The long suffering of British billionaires-and Royalty! And did we mention that the News' is owned by Rupert Murdoch?-so, um.. you know, the enemy of my enemy and all that! The Guardian's coverage is disproportionate. It is moralopportunism. It is an excuse to mention tabloid stories in a broadsheet. And it is dangerous. The result be will a publishing climate and probably legislation aimed at keeping the British public in the dark.
The right to freedom of speech is not short hand for the right to pontificate. We defend speech freedoms for their connection to a deeper underlying concept-the right to know. Without understanding the world around us we can not function. Without an informed public, democracy has no meaning and civilization is adrift. Through understanding the truth about ourselves and the world around us, we are able to advance and survive.
The News of the World should have released the tapes made by its private investigators. The elite exposed are the usual paymasters of such private intelligence firms. The democratic process should not be denied the same high quality information that businessmen, celebrities and oligarchs acquire on a daily basis.
The real scandal is not that some British papers used private investigators to find out what the public wants to know. It is that more did not. It is that the News' was extorted out of a million pounds because the relevant British legislation does not have an accessible public interest defense for the disclosure of telephone recordings. Until it does, despite the risks, journalists who take their forth estate role seriously are obligated not to take the legislation seriously.
The actions of major newspapers are "voted on" every day by their readers. Whatever their faults, popular newspapers remain the most visible and the most democratically accountable institutions in the country. Their mandate to inform the public vastly exceeds that granted to the unelected and the rarely elected at Westminister, who are nonetheless quick to grant themselves a blanket exemption from all censorship.
Thomas Jefferson had it right when he stated, "If forced to choose between government without the press and the press without government, I would surely choose the latter."