In recent weeks, a number of stories have shown how British media laws, secrecy conventions and unnecessary self-censorship have had effects on press freedom that baffle American journalists.
Shortly after the the attempted suicide bombings of 21 July, it became clear that we knew most about the suspect arrested in Italy and that the London papers were all scooped when the x-ray image of the nail bomb was leaked to American media by US law enforcement sources.
Last week, a few American reporters noted the deafening silence that the Contempt of Court Act places on the British media, even in high-profile cases like the London attacks.
Even stranger, though, is that some journalists seem to favour official attempts to gag the media, no matter how misguided. Sky News editor Nick Pollard criticised the BBC for not falling into line behind a police call to not use CCTV images from the investigation. The BBC home news editor Jon Williams defended the decision to use the images, saying that they were widely in the public domain anyway. A commenter on this blog noted that even the Home Office is still publishing the pictures on its web site.
Now Heather Brooke, an American journalist now living in Britain, correctly point out that the attempt to gag the media on the location of Tony Blair’s current holiday should be the latest item on included on this shameful list. It wasn’t until the London correspondents of the Washington Post and the New York Times noted the media silence on Tony Blair’s whereabouts that it became an issue in the British media. The only exception was Times columnist Alice Miles, who lambasted journalists for being too cowardly to challenge the ban.
But this year is different. For this year, the clamour normally accompanying Mr Blair on his overseas break is absent. The guns of Fleet Street have fallen silent. We are decommisssioned. And the decommissioner is the Prime Minister’s very reasonable director of communications, David Hill, who wrote three weeks ago to newspapers asking them not to publicise Mr Blair’s destination before his return to Britain. The letter is remarkable. Mr Hill says he is acting on the advice of the Prime Minister’s personal protection team, but admits that there is no specific intelligence of a threat to Mr Blair while he is on holiday. Avoiding publicity about his destination is merely “common sense”, he suggests.
And with that, no newspaper dares publish the Prime Minister’s whereabouts in case he gets killed and they get the blame.
It is a cowardly letter, Mr Hill, and we have been cowards not to challenge it.
Now that Downing Street’s reporting ban has been lifted, everybody’s mentioning the open secret that Blair has been in Barbados all along, including the journalists’s trade magazine Press Gazette.
Here’s the Scotsman’s report:
No 10 had earlier insisted that the destination be withheld from the public for security reasons, despite it being reported by foreign media and available on the internet.
But yesterday it said that it was permissible to reveal the Prime Minister was holidaying on the Caribbean island of Barbados after he decided to attend a public government function to honour local veterans.
But, in a bizarre move, Downing Street insisted the fact Mr Blair had stayed at the home of Sir Cliff Richard — an open secret on the island and known to many in the UK &mdsah; should still be kept from the public.
Everyone knows where George W. Bush goes on his very, very long holidays. So why should we no know where the British Prime Minister is? Could it be that some voters might resent that Blair is once again getting a luxury holiday courtesy of a right-wing politican, newspaper-owning prince, or aging Christian pop star? That’s not a security risk. That’s a political risk.