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Publish and be damned

Jul 16, 2011 3:29:05 PM - thesundayleader.lk

The End of the World’ was how a British newspaper described the voluntary closure of the News of the World which had a history of 168 years of publication.
Some Britishers welcomed the closure of the Sunday tabloid which they considered to be sleazy, scandalous, crime oriented and titillating. Yet, it relentlessly exposed scandals that involved the highest in the land and on one occasion brought down a conservative government. Directed towards the ‘literate working class’, it once was the highest circulating newspaper in the world.
British MPs, some of whom fraternised with news executives and journalists of the paper who could make or break them, finally reached unanimity in turning against their patron and condemning the publication. They also stalled an attempt by media mogul Rupert Murdoch to spread his media empire further by acquiring entire ownership of the television Channel BSkyB where he already held 39 per cent of the company.
What is important to Sri Lanka, far removed from Britain in turmoil is the impact the fallout of the Murdoch empire in Britain may have on this island. Even though Sri Lankan ‘nationalists’ are usually hostile to most things British, particularly in present times, British examples whether good or bad could serve as an excuse to be emulated. ‘They are doing it even in Britain’ could be trotted out as an excuse.
Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron following public outrage against newspaper practices deployed by Murdoch owned newspapers announced a public inquiry led by Lord Leveson to  ‘look at a new system of independent regulation of the press’, inadequacies of the former Labour government to investigate newspaper malpractices and the potentially critical issues of future cross ownership between press and TV stations. Cameron told the House of Commons that it would be a sweeping inquiry into widespread law breaking by the press, alleged corruption by the police and the failure of initial police investigations into phone hacking.
This inquiry is in addition to the to the  House of Commons Culture Select Committee before which Murdoch, his son Robert and Chief Executive and former Editor of the News of the World, Rebekah Brooks have been summoned to appear.
The suggestion is in the air in Britain that instead of the self regulatory mechanism that now governs the British press, a regulatory system should be brought in to replace it.
Whatever changes are envisaged it would be impossible for any moves to be made to stifle the freedom of the press in Britain. The freedom of the press in Britain has developed through a historical process and cannot be reversed. It should be noted that the British Prime Minister had referred to an ‘independent regulatory system’ to be considered and not an ‘independent’ government controlled regulatory system that is often resorted to here.
One of the main charges made against the Murdoch press has been the illegal hacking of telephones, tapping into voice mail boxes, messages and even removing messages received to give false impressions. Murdoch institutions had employed private investigators to do the hacking. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown told parliament last week that there was a ‘criminal nexus’ between these institutions and criminals.
While telephone hacking by newspapers is a despicable practice, in Sri Lanka the boot is on the other foot. Newspapers have not been accused of attempting to hack into telephone systems of the state or of private individuals but newspaperpersons entertain suspicions of state organisations, particularly police and intelligence agencies attempting to hack into their phones.
The methods deployed by News of the World to intrude into the privacy of every segment of British society – Royalty, politicians of all ranks, state institutions and private individuals – have outraged the British public much. Regrettably the exposure of corruption in public life, criminal activities extending even into areas considered untainted such as cricket and even threats to national security have been cast aside in the heat of the moment. The number of such exposures made by the journal down the years is legion.
There is also the grey area under which some exposures may be categorised, such as Prince Harry smoking pot as a schoolboy or being dressed in Nazi uniform. Some may consider them as being protective of royalty while others would call it unwarranted intrusion.
The fact that millions of copies of the News of the World have continued to be sold is indicative of the fact that the people, particularly the underprivileged, appreciate it. The hypocrisy of the affluent classes with their ‘stiff upper lip’, supposedly impeccable standards of morals, non betrayal of public trust and the like, have been brutally exposed by this British newspaper. The British gentleman is considered an epitome of moral rectitude but representatives of that class have shown a weakness of being unable to resist romping in beds with not so reputable ladies. And these gentlemen have a proclivity of getting caught, thus keeping news organisations such as the News of the World in business and earning sobriquets such as The News of the Screws.
In 1986, Deputy Chairman of the Conservative party, Lord Jeffery Archer and well known author was accused by and was exposed in a story of having a ‘playdate,’ and had to resign from his post. After a prolonged legal encounter with the newspaper Lord Archer is serving a jail sentence. The newspaper alleged a sado-masochistic orgy by Formula 1 Chief Max Moseley and Moseley sued the newspaper for violation of his privacy. He was awarded 60,000 pounds(sterling) in damages.
Perhaps the greatest scoop of all was the Profumo scandal of 1963 which the paper exposed. It was three years after Rupert Murdoch purchased the paper. John Profumo, Under Secretary of State for War was reported to be meeting a call girl named Christine Keeler which was reported in the paper but firmly denied by the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The scandal expanded and later it was reported that Keeler was also having a relationship with the Russian Naval Attaché stationed in London, Yergeny Ivanov. In an exclusive interview with the News of the World Keeler admitted her relations with the British Minister and the Soviet naval officer. It raised the issue of a security threat to Britain at the height of the Cold War. The Profumo Scandal which was called the Scandal of the Century brought down the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan.
The exposure of British MPs diddling their privilege accounts in obtaining homes in London and repairing country homes was a severe blow to the once ‘honourable’ MPs who were considered irreproachable. With the News of the World closed many like them would be breathing much more freely than before.
The excesses of the Murdoch news organisations resulted in the closure of the 168 year old newspaper. While measures should be taken to eliminate such practices, the Freedom of the press cannot be stifled.
‘Publish and be damned’ should be the motto of every paper worth its salt. The Sunday Leader has the name of its murdered founder editor to prove its credentials.