Timothy Garton Ash: Phone Hacking Scandal ... Britain Should Seize This Chance to Break the Culture of Fear at its Heart
Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist. His personal website is www.timothygartonash.com.
Britain's drama has penetrated the carapace of American self-preoccupation. Legendary reporter Carl Bernstein compares it to Watergate. On morning television, Hugh Grant appeals to Americans to wake up to Rupert Murdoch's pernicious influence on their own media. Business reporters track the impact on News Corp shares. Senator John Rockefeller calls for an inquiry into whether Americans' phones were hacked. If it turns out that 9/11 victims were targeted, as suggested by the campaigning MP Tom Watson in prime minister's questions, then this will no longer be just a foreign story. Only on Murdoch-owned Fox News is it as if none of this had really happened. A clip from Fox News Watch, filmed during a commercial break, shows the panellists joking about the one story they are not going to discuss. News watch indeed.
But what does it all mean? "A kind of British spring is under way," writes the media columnist David Carr in the New York Times. "Democracy, aided by sunlight, has broken out in Britain." Hyperbole, of course, but he has a point. I'd put it like this: the Murdoch debacle reveals a disease that has been slowly clogging up the heart of the British state for the last 30 years. This is the heart attack that warns you that you are sick, but also gives you the chance to emerge healthier than before. The root cause of this British disease has been overmighty, ruthless, out-of-control media power; its main symptom has been fear.
To talk of a British spring, by analogy with the Arab spring, is obviously poetic exaggeration. Compared to most other places in the world, Britain is a free country. In many ways, it is a better one now than it was when Murdoch bought the Times in 1981. But at the apex of British public life there have been men and women walking around with small icicles of fear in their hearts; and fear is inimical to freedom...
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