Is America the free press’s last stand? It can feel that way when you look around the world. English-speaking countries and Europe have traditionally been relative bastions for independent media in a world where political leaders have little tolerance for dissent, but Britain is on the verge of adopting explicit state regulation of the press and the European Union and Australia seem poised to follow. That’s especially frightening when you consider that many European nations currently rank above the United States in terms of press freedom—but their collective advantage could be wiped away in a single legislative moment.
The British press has, traditionally, been … spunky. That means that U.K. journalists put their U.S. counterparts to shame when scrutinizing government officials and other public figures, but that can also translate into a cavalier attitude toward the boundaries of propriety when pursuing a story. Specifically, the News of the World, an old and widely read newspaper and part of Rupert Murdoch’s press empire, was caught “phone hacking”—breaking into private voicemail messages—with the assistance of friendly police officials. Looking for scoops, reporters gained easy access to personal lives, including that of a murder victim, and military personnel killed in action. In the fallout, the newspaper was shut down. Nasty stuff, for sure, and seemingly settled by the closure of a large publication, unless you have a coterie of offended snooping victims, privacy-shy celebrities, and a clacque of authoritarian radicals looking for an opening to impose state control on the press. Those constituencies came together in Hacked Off, a lobby group for press regulation. And Hacked Off was able to leverage the scandal into an inquiry led by Sir Brian Henry Leveson, a jurist more than happy to deliver arecommendation that the British government institute formal regulation of the press.
CONTINUED at Reason. Written by J.D. Tuccille.