Freedom doesn’t grow naturally in the course of human events. On the contrary.
If to err is human, so is to over-correct. And such over-correction almost always turns its back on liberty.
I’m given to such ruminations after the news this past week of a British judge’s recommendations following the 2011 phone-hacking scandal by a tabloid newspaper in that country. Reporters for the News of the World were found to have illegally accessed the voice-mail boxes of cellphones belonging to celebrities, victims of terrorism and, finally, a 13-year-old girl who had gone missing and turned out to have been murdered.
The scandal became a global sensation because the London-based News of the World was owned by Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born media magnate whose U.S. properties include the Wall Street Journal, the Fox News Channel and 20th Century Fox movie studios. Murdoch and his son James wound up testifying before the British Parliament. Adding to the intrigue, a comedian in the audience threw a shaving-cream pie at Murdoch and was attacked in response by the businessman’s much younger wife.
The fallout has been great. News of the World went out of business after 168 years of publishing. The paper’s editor, Rebekah Brooks, and several other staffers have been arrested. The cost to News Corporation, the paper’s parent company, for legal fees, settlements and the like is at $291 million and counting. (Full disclosure: I worked for News Corp. from its December 2007 purchase of the WSJ until my May 2009 departure for the AJC.)
It would appear justice is being served. And the trail of criminal charges, multimillion-dollar expenses and the failure of a business ought to be deterrent enough for anyone inclined to break these laws in the future. But there’s more coming.
The recommendations of that British jurist, Lord Judge Brian Leveson, include a “voluntary independent self-organized regulatory system” for the country’s newspapers. Questions about how “voluntary,” how “independent” and how “self-organized” the system might really be should begin with the fact Leveson suggested Parliament enshrine it — and, importantly, benchmarks for rating its effectiveness in serving the public interest — in British law.
“This is not … regulation of the press,” Leveson insisted, despite all appearances. So far, Prime Minister David Cameron has shown wisdom in rejecting the idea of a new law.
On the surface, the shaping of a regulator for newspapers in another country may seem of little concern here. But I think such an arm’s length example is the perfect chance to recognize some basic, regrettable human tendencies that creep into our own policy debates.
We don’t leave well enough alone. We fall into a trap of responding to ever more complex wrongdoing with ever more intricate rules, prompting the wicked to behave even more creatively when clear, broad prohibitions might work better. Except, of course, when we go overly broad by curbing basic freedoms that can be inconvenient to the powerful (such as the independence of the press, if this member of the press does say so myself).
Gravity in these debates almost always pulls in the direction of more government. The institution meant to guard our liberties has taken on a perverse habit of crimping freedom in the name of protecting it. Only its own prerogatives remain intact or even expand.
Sadly, these weaknesses transcend borders and, yes, political affiliations. They’re found in anyone who believes the world would be a little more perfect if only it were a little less free.
– By Kyle Wingfield