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Published: Saturday, 12/21/2013


Press gang

The British press and government are engaged in another battle in their eternal war, normal to a democracy, to grasp the hearts and minds of the public.

British justice seeks to discredit and even jail prominent members of the media team of magnate Rupert Murdoch for alleged misdeeds. The government of Prime Minister David Cameron wants to put a tighter bridle on British media.

The British press has run wild to a degree. Two newspapers of Mr. Murdoch’s News Corp., News of the World and The Sun, are accused of particularly objectionable actions, such as hacking into the cell phone of a murdered teenager to get her messages and bribing senior members of the British police to get their hands on juicy, marketable information.

The normal ideal of a responsible media organization is to acquire and report virtually everything that would be of interest to the public. It would like to see government act in full sunlight. For media, that is both a basic principle and normal operating strategy.

In America, it is enshrined as freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Because the United Kingdom doesn’t have a constitution, the battle there is waged on foggier grounds.

On the other side of the fence, governments of the United Kingdom and the United States would like fuller control over what media reveal to the public about official activities. They mistakenly believe they are able to govern more freely and better if the public doesn’t know what they are doing.

This belief, held by many public officials, is multiplied when government leaders are also leaders of political parties, eager — sometimes desperate — to spin information to improve prospects of staying in office in the next election.

The current battles in the United Kingdom are episodes in this government-media war. The quality of British justice and the sophistication of the public make these battles interesting to Americans and relevant to our own government-media strife.

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