Letter: Press abuses can harm democracy as much as curbs

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your front-page report (11 January) on the new Calcutt proposals to curb press freedom raises some seminal issues. The alarm provoked by the prospect of tight statutory controls derives in part from the fear that they would prejudice investigative journalism - a consideration, we are invited to infer, that must override all counter-arguments.

But does it? The freedom to write that untrue and ill-researched non-story about the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Access card is not one that I would personally fight to preserve. It is far from certain that the more responsible kind of investigative journalism would be aborted by tighter privacy legislation.

Even if, on a worst-case view, it were to prevent the publication of a few responsibly researched stories, might this not be a price worth paying to protect people's right to privacy - another treasured freedom that is no less a part of the seamless gown of democracy than press freedom itself? Each of our freedoms is defined by the others. Abuse one and they all suffer.

Many would argue that the question now is not whether democracy can 'tolerate' statutory controls on press freedom, but whether it can continue to withstand not having them.

You don't have to be a monarchist to acknowledge that the lack of effective press curbs has already cost this country dear. The facile 'don't shoot the messenger' defence is valid only if the messenger fulfils no other function. But when he is complicit in bringing about the very 'news' he reports it is an entirely different matter.

Adding further curbs to an already qualified press freedom must inevitably hit at democracy. But the issue, surely, is whether democracy would not suffer more from the continued abuse of press freedom. There is a strong case for seeing Calcutt's second report as offering us the lesser of two evils. If we don't bite the bullet now, the 'messenger' may shoot to kill.

Yours faithfully,

ROBERT EDDISON

London, W1

11 January

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