Inside File: Litmus test of freedom

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FREEDOM of expression is held to be one of the benchmarks of democracy, and it might therefore be expected that attempts to impose curbs on it would be more in the line of the Ceausescus than more enlightened world leaders. Yet, the irreverent attitude of today's press seems to be increasingly preoccupying not only British ministers, politicians and diplomats but a growing number of their Western counterparts.

Such concerns surfaced when Chancellor Helmut Kohl arrived in Strasbourg recently for talks with the head of the Council of Europe. This body groups 26 'pluralistic democracies' and lists its first aim as 'protecting and strengthening pluralist democracy and human rights'. Churchill had called for its creation in a letter to the War Cabinet in 1942, and its statute was signed in London seven years later. The Queen last year presented the organisation with a replica of the Magna Carta.

Not just any old state can join the organisation; even post- Ceausescu Romania has not yet established sufficient democratic credentials to progress beyond 'special guest status'. One of the criteria the Council uses in judging applicant countries is freedom of the press.

The Council's Secretary-General, Catherine Lalumiere, is redrafting its Human Rights Convention this year, and it was to sound out views on this subject that she held talks with Mr Kohl. The suggestion foremost on his list may have surprised her. 'You must do something to curb the powers of the press,' he declared. 'For the press is threatening to destroy the very fabric of democracy.'

It was doing so, he said, by its intrusive nature. Young people were deterred from entering politics because of the constant prying by newspapers into the private lives of public figures. They were not prepared to pay that price. Politics would fail to attract the gifted ones of the next generation.

Diplomats who have dealt with Mr Kohl say he has been in power for so long that he, more than other politicians, finds it difficult to conceive of people disagreeing with him. Of the damaging consequences of intrusive newspapers, he had first-hand experience.

Mr Kohl's son had apparently decided to take up parachute-jumping. Having flown up for his first jump, however, his nerve failed at the last moment. Unbeknown to Mr Kohl Jr, there was a press photographer on the plane.

NOW FOR that word 'benchmark', which found its way to the top of this column. It is a new buzzword which has crept into British diplomacy on a particularly tricky subject: how to depersonalise the policy on Russia.

'Yeltsin says he is continuing the reform process - therefore he is your man,' a British diplomat said last week. 'But the benchmark happens to be the reform process. We support the reform rather than the person in power at the time.'

A few days earlier, Douglas Hurd had used the word in a similar context at a meeting in Brussels with his German counterpart. By this week, the word was cropping up in various references to Mr Yeltsin, though the logic of the usage was beginning to appear decidedly shaky: 'The next benchmark will be his speech in a few days . . .' - where diplomatic usage of the old 'litmus test' might have been more appropriate.

'Benchmark' dates from the nineteenth century as a surveyor's mark cut in rock to indicate the starting point for measuring altitudes. It is best known as an oil pricing term.

In relation to Russia, newspapers have written about 'the 50-per-cent monthly benchmark for hyperinflation'. The term was politicised when an editorial criticised the International Monetary Fund for asking Russia to meet unrealistic conditions: 'If the architects of the post-war recovery had been so myopic there would never have been a Marshall Plan (a historic benchmark, against which the IMF package looks puny).'

It may be in reply to arguments like this that Mr Hurd and his colleagues are now using the term. As Mr Hurd said last week, what is the point of pouring money into pockets with holes in them?

Governments got their fingers burned by pinning their entire Moscow policy on the survival of Mikhail Gorbachev. Now, Mr Yeltsin is the only one advocating Western-style reform, but he has also threatened to adopt 'exceptional powers' to win the internal power struggle in Moscow.

A Whitehall source said this week: 'There is an attempt by the West to cut down liability to a set of a few ingredients we wish to promote. This becomes the 'benchmark'. Everything else, like what powers he accords himself, we do not concern ourselves with. Likewise, if he is no longer the leader who symbolises reform, we need not concern ourselves with him.'