Prime Minister David Cameron is in political trouble because of his close association with journalists who have used phone hacking to increase sales of the now defunct News of the World. He wants desperately to share his embarrassment broadly, proposing a government commission to look into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the British press.
Like any run-of-the-mill narcissist, Cameron insists that everyone in journalism and politics has participated in his mistakes. Cameron declared, that “we” have all been in this together, “Yes, including me.”
And then he got serious:
“Of course it is vital that our press is free,” Mr. Cameron said. “That is an essential component of our democracy and our way of life. But press freedom does not mean that the press should be above the law.
“While it’s vital that a free press can tell truth to power, it is equally important that those in power can tell truth to the press.”
This is trite and dangerous. The prospect of government “reform” only makes great journalism less a sure thing.
Politicians cozy up to the press because they want a tame press, not a free one.
Governments don’t necessarily tell the press the truth. The journalists that democracies rely on verify what governments claim to be true. That is an adversarial responsibility. It is not informed by empathetic dinner parties.
(As the cynic Sir Humphrey Appleby in the satire “Yes, Minister” warned, “You can’t believe anything, until the government denies it.”)
Being exposed for hanging out with hustlers and sucking up to a press baron, of course, diminishes Cameron’s image. However, they are exactly what image-obsessed Prime Ministers do. His discomfort provides a learning opportunity, not an excuse for his government to “reform” Britain’s free press.