Should the press be completely free?
Under a dictatorship the press is completely under the control of the government. The implications of this are that the authorities discard all stories unfavorable to their policies and supplement the favorable ones with propaganda and disinformation . All this involves control of TV and radio; in many countries, listening to broadcasts such as the BBC World Service, now available everywhere because of short-wave satellite output, is proscribed. People are not fools, however, and such dictatorship can lead to unrest and produce the opposite to the intended effect. In most democracies, there is a varying degree of freedom. In Britain, for example, the government only steps in during wartime, apart from exerting control over stories which the Home Office regards as dangerous to the national interest, i.e. top security information. In these cases, a 'D Notice' forbids publication. Otherwise, and in peacetime, the press is entirely free to publish at will, subject to the following conditions: the material must be truthful, decent, and compatible with the laws of libel. Libelous material of course sells newspapers and magazines, and certain unscrupulous editors will publish for this reason alone, setting aside money to settle the damages in civil law which will inevitably follow. Much of this is based on a section of the people's pleasure in seeing prominent people discredited. For example, Jeffrey Archer was awarded a half million pounds a few years ago because his personal morals were brought into question; Elton John received substantial damages because of a scurrilous and untrue account of the way he was said to treat his pet dogs. The courts now tend to award according to the seriousness of the alleged offence rather than on the prominence of the person concerned. The crux of the matter is whether the story is true. David Mellor, a prominent secretary of state, recently had some aspects of his personal life exposed. He...
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