Press war: In Britain, media renegades draw a royal reprisal

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The British press and government are engaged hotly in another battle for the hearts and minds of the public.

The tug of war, normal to a democracy, is being waged in a courtroom, where British justice is attempting to discredit and even jail prominent newspeople of magnate Rupert Murdoch for their alleged misdeeds, and in public, where Prime Minister David Cameron's government is attempting to gain acceptance of a new measure to put a tighter bridle on the media.

Queen Elizabeth sealed a new royal charter Wednesday, backed by the nation's three main political parties, that establishes a new regulator of the press, makes it easier for those who feel victimized by the media to lodge complaints and lets the press watchdog impose fines of up to 1 million pounds.

It is a response to some of the British press having recently run wild. Two properties of Mr. Murdoch's News Corp., News of the World and The Sun, for example, are accused of hacking into the cellphone of a murdered teenager to get her messages and bribing police to get their hands on juicy information for news reports.

The common ideal of responsible media organizations is to acquire legally and report news and information that would be of interest to the public. That is both a basic principle and an operating strategy. In the United States, freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The British do not have a constitution, but the battle is still waged in the United Kingdom.

The government of both the United Kingdom and the United States would like to have greater control over what the media reveals to the public about their operations. This is partly based on government officials' mistaken belief that they can govern more freely -- and hang on to their jobs longer -- if the public doesn't know what they are doing.

The press battles in the United Kingdom, including the trial of the Murdoch associates and the fate of the royal charter, are the latest episodes in this ongoing government-media war. The quality of British justice and the sophistication of the public make these fights interesting to Americans and relevant to the United States' own government-media tensions.


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