Banks' Notes 14.07.06

New York City

I WASN'T taking precise notes at the time, but Thomas Jefferson — one of America's founding fathers and the man who drafted the Declaration of Independence so joyously celebrated over here the other day — once famously opined that given the choice between government without newspapers and newspapers without government, he would always plump for the latter.

If you want to know why America's politicians had the old boy so worried, look no further than the dastardly campaign that president George W Bush and his right-wing attack dogs are currently waging against the US media's right to reveal.

"Disgraceful!" was the White House warmonger's comparatively moderate judgement on the New York Times's revelation that the National Security Agency was using wire tapping in its "war on terror" (a fact already known) without first seeking judicial warrants.

"Treason!" intoned the Wall Street Journal's plummy editorial, which condemned not the Times's judgment, but its "unpatriotic"motives.

"Send him to the gas chamber!" (or words horribly close to that) bellowed reactionary radio talk show host Melanie Morgan, damning the Times's scoop that the NSA was using Big Brother software to track those who finance terror, and suggesting such treacherous publication merited the execution of Times executive editor Bill Keller.

Unlikely as THAT might seem, there remains the reasonable possibility that Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau might be served with subpoenas requiring them to reveal their sources, failure to comply with which would see them jailed.

Ironically, the same day's media, which carried news of the ultracapitalist president's panicky attempt to recast the relationship 'twixt government and media also carried details of Communist China's clampdown on domestic and foreign journalists who report "sudden incidents" (breaking news stories, we'd call them!) without prior government permission.

Unlicensed reports of epidemics, natural disasters, major accidents, strikes, riots and demonstrations will in future attract hefty fines for journalists already hamstrung by travel restrictions and serious official surveillance.

How long before Comrade Blair takes a leaf out of Beijing's book or grabs the coat-tails of "King" George's anti-democratic rhetoric?

It wouldn't be the first time that politicians have fomented an uncivil war of words between media outlets on the issue of patriotism: remember Kelvin MacKenzie's Sun and its Thatcher-think defamation of the BBC over its even-handed coverage of the Falklands War?

Beijing, Bush and Blair should be guided by the thinking behind Jefferson's vote of confidence in a free-spoken media: that the one thing worse than a press out of control is a fourth estate UNDER control.

Watchdogs can be sometimes wild, often dumb and even plain obnoxious — one only need survey the red-tops to see that. But more dangerous, by far, to trade in the meanest watchdog for a lazy lapdog.

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