Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The 1st Amendment wasn’t a reward for “responsible” journalism

Phone hacking by the News of the World is a very political crime because it involves the hospitality of three Prime Ministers and the thwarted ambitions of others who’ve sought high office and received less than gentle treatment by NOTW. It’s a shabby excuse, however, for the state to assert an overriding public interest in the quality of western journalism.

Real liberals and today’s conservatives have lots of great causes to attend to without looking for ways to empower the state to help journalism improve its public standing.

Jeffrey Scott a former tabloid reporter and now a criminal lawyer put forward an amazing proposition in the Los Angeles Times. Over the headline “Tabloids don’t deserve the 1st Amendment” he complains that our “respect for freedom of the press” shelters their illegal conduct.

“Although the law provides us with the tools we need to punish crimes related to free speech, the judicial system is too quick to bow before the 1st Amendment, and as a result we end up shielding criminals who misrepresent themselves as journalists and activists.

“If Congress truly wants to resolve this issue, it should take a cue from the British Parliament and hold hearings to investigate this systemic problem.

“Crime is crime. Tabloid journalism uses illegal tactics, and it does not deserve absolute protection from the 1st Amendment.”

Scott is a frustrated prosecutor. However, “freedom of speech, or of the press” was not enshrined in the US constitution to assist public administration or reward responsible journalism.

The 1st amendment paid no regard to the uneven quality of social discourse in the 18th century. Its authors assumed that the state would always enjoy an advantage in asserting popular notions and, indeed, in exploiting inflamed opinion.

As with the whole Bill of Rights, protection of the press was unqualified because it was written to serve a universal idea: that the truth will most likely be found in the free exchange of ideas, opinions, stories, gossip and new evidence amongst free people.

It was not written in a time when journalism was better than today and it wasn’t written to protect a particular standard of good practice. What it was absolute about was the right of the people alone to choose what to believe.

When John Milton laid out his immortal case for free speech in “Areopagitica” in 1644, London was teeming with annoying, unlicensed amateur pamphleteers. In his time, organized government in Europe—often on behalf of God’s insiders—arbitrarily blocked the publication of fanciful ideas that established opinion demeaned to be evil blasphemy.

Milton’s case for free expression and its most wholehearted realization in the American constitution shouldn’t be dimmed by persistent evidence that some people still abuse the market and break the law.

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