The First Amendment to the US Constitution is the keystone of American democracy. It prohibits the making of any law abridging the freedom of speech. Today the Drum has invited Matt Storin, a distinguished former US editor, to comment on Britain's planned new crackdown on the press.
By Matthew V. Storin>It was one thing to engage in a little schadenfreude as one watched Rupert Murdoch squirm before the Leveson Committee, but in the back of one’s mind there was always a fear that however inflamed opinions were at the time, this would not end well for the British public. It didn’t.I believe I can speak for virtually all American journalists in saying the new British press regulations are not only appalling but also, in an American context, unimaginable.In 1971, The New York Times and other newspapers, including my own, published secret documents on the Vietnam War forever known as the “Pentagon Papers.” When the government tried to shut down these disclosures, the United State Supreme Court voted unanimously in favor of the newspapers.The American founders in their great wisdom established freedom of speech and freedom of the press in such a way that it may well be the most fundamental element of our political system. (Not that there aren’t those who would like to see the news media hemmed in.)Yes, the hacking scandals were deplorable. Yes, one could argue that the British press brought this upon itself. But this outcome is wrong and, over time, it hopefully will not stand.The heavy fines are intimidating not only for small new organizations but also, in a time of reduced revenues for major news organizations, for all media. The press is not beloved in most nations, primarily because in doing its job it is bound to offend this group or that special interest from time to time. As has been said in other contexts, friends come and go but enemies accumulate. It is a messy business. The news organizations are looking into dark corners while also competing for scarcer revenues – resulting in a tendency toward sensationalism. Some of the excesses are harmless and some, as in the Milly Dowler case among others, are cruel and damaging. Government regulation is not the answer. And make no mistake, while new laws were not passed the new charter has virtually the same effect. There are many of the same controversies in the US, though few as dramatic as the phone hacking scandals, but such a government response would be inconceivable in our system. There are howls of government protest when classified information is published, but rare are the proposals for regulatory responses.There is also an irony in the Leveson outcome. Going back to the Pentagon Papers case of 1971, it was possible at that time for the government to imagine it could put a cork on that bottle. But if a similar disclosure occurred today it would be viral on the Internet within hours, defeating the government's intentions before the first subpoena had been sought.So the British regulators will intimidate the more responsible and professional news organizations while not really putting a lid on criticism, both responsible and irresponsible, that politicians would love to avoid. I am not in a position to comment on motives within the British government, but my hunch is that while it plays well in protecting the Dowler families of the world, the underlying impulse is to protect themselves.Matthew V. Storin was editor of The Boston Globe from 1993 to 2001. He also edited the Chicago Sun-Times and was managing editor of the New York Daily News. He is now chief communications executive at The University of Notre Dame in Indiana