Privacy laws: Trojan Horse for Censorship?




Are Privacy laws a Trojan horse for censorship? Discuss.

Killed off at age 168. What price press freedom?

The phone hacking scandal involving the Murdoch-owned, UK-based, News of the World tabloid (weekly circulation 2.7m), has brought down the paper and prompted calls in that country for tighter control of the press. The debate is not one that North American readers would have much truck for —  America enshrines freedom of the press  in the constitution and defends these rights with ferocity (the one First Amendment exception excluded ). Not so in Europe where years of socialist equivocation in the name of (now-ditched) multi-cultural  political correctness, has led to dangerous ambivalence towards  insufficiently protected and hard-won freedoms of speech and expression.

As Melanie Phillips, a conservative media commentator in Britain noted in her latest Daily Mail column: “the News of the World scandal has the potential to destabilise not just the Murdoch empire … but one of the central pillars of a free society.”

Curiously just as a UK’s ruling Conservative-led coalition seems set to embrace worryingly authoritarian approaches to freedom and liberty in an echo of the abuses of its notorious socialist predecessors,   France is agonising over how to mitigate the impact on its citizens of its own far stricter privacy laws.  Thanks to L’affaire DSK the French privacy regime lies in tatters. At least for woman’s rights organisations, DSK has exposed ‘disgraceful misogynistic’ behaviour and attitudes of entitlement towards women, on the part of some of the country’s most powerful male elites, that are way out of line with Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.

Motto of the French republic on the tympanum o...

Motto of the French republic on the tympanum of a church. Image: Wikipedia

The avalanche of DSK reporting has sparked an ongoing intellectual reexamination of just how far public scrutiny of the private behaviour of elected officials should be taken.  The voters, goes the argument, have a right to know if leaders imposing morality and law on them are as upstanding as they ought to be.  Thus while the News of the World scandal in as far as it indulged in criminal activity, cannot in any way be  condoned, over-reaction by British politicians must be suspect. The powerful by nature prefer not to be held to account. A free press — and today that term covers the vast digital territory opened by the global Internet–   is, whatever its many failings, far preferable to the abuse and worse, that is the hallmark of the authoritarian muzzler. The British political elites’ illiberal move to clamp down on press freedom, comes at time when creeping privacy laws, epitomized by an Orwellian legal instrument, the super super injunction represent a very serious challenge to liberties in the UK. Just as in France, an idea is taking hold in Britain that the rich and powerful can suppress secrets. Luckily for France L’affaire DSK came along just in time, although President Sarkozy is still, in our view, on dangerous grounds with his Hadopi regime and similar efforts at taming the Internet.

Newspapers are always a thorn in the side of power, interest groups, governments, politicians, big business, banksters and anyone else who finds the dark corners of non transparency a convenient place to be.

Here are the views of a  UK libertarian blogger Guido Fawkes (real name Paul Staines)  on the importance of a free press: “Momentum is building for press regulation, politicians of all parties are keen to tame the feral press. Public opinion is shifting towards them. This would be a mistake. The rich and the powerful in this country would like nothing better than to have a craven and beholden press. In many countries this is exactly what they have and ordinary people are worse off for it. …”

We live in dangerous times indeed perhaps now irremediably so. James Delingpole the resident conservative debunker of things politically correct and climatically catastrophic, blogs: “…in the name of making our “society” kinder and fairer (the liberal-left) is actually eroding our freedoms, stealing our livelihoods, stoking resentment and social division, destroying our economic future.”

Fraser Nelson, editor of the UK’s conservative leaning Spectator magazine sums it up: “the rich and powerful are finally winning a power struggle over what used to be a fearless, investigatory press.”

Finally writing in the UK’s liberal Guardian newspaper, Jeff Jarvis a journalism professor at the City University of New York noted: “Habermas says the public sphere first emerged as a counterweight to the power of government in the rational, critical debate of the coffee houses and salons of the 18th century. But almost as soon as this public sphere formed, Habermas laments, it was corrupted and overtaken by mass media. Now, at last, is our opportunity to reverse that flow and to recapture our public sphere.”

Do you have concerns about an authoritarian threat by Western governments to freedom of speech and the press (particularly in the Internet age)? Why not tell us in the comments?

PS:This blog should in no way be construed as an expression of support for the illegal hacking that appears to underlie the NoW scandal. Our concerns are with the opportunistic measures those keen to curtail liberty and freedom, now seek to impose in the name of “the general good” (meaning we strongly suspect the power-hungry elites).

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One Response to Privacy laws: Trojan Horse for Censorship?

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