Information is light

I began in newspapers, and I revered them. Perhaps I romanticised them. A journalist photographer in one of my plays says “I’ve been around a lot of places. People do awful things to each other. But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark. It really is. Information is light.” So my other mantra on human rights was: a free press makes all the other freedoms possible.

Tom Stoppard, one of my heroes, has won the PEN/Pinter prize. The Guardian has an edited extract of his prize lecture, Curcumspice. In it, Stoppard recounts how he escaped Nazis in Czechoslovakia, found himself in England, and came to love his adopted country. He says there is still no place he’d rather live. Nevertheless, he has some concerns about freedom of expression here in the UK.

I chose the above quote because the phrase “a free press makes all the other freedoms possible” rang true. I also chose it because I remembered recently reading another sentiment entirely from Jill Abramson, editor of the New York Times, when she was recounting the UK embassy’s efforts to get her to turn over the Snowden files:

The political tradition is different, and British press laws are more restrictive, there isn’t the same acceptance or devotion to the idea that we have here: that a free press is fundamental to free society, and that the free flow of information is essential to having an informed public making decisions about how they want to be governed.

While the freedom of the press may not be enshrined in a document as revered as the Bill of Rights, I don’t think that the British are any less devoted to the freedom of the press than Americans. My personal experience has been while the laws may be different—the ability to issue gagging orders for instance—the attitudes are largely the same. It’s worth noting that according to Reporters Without Borders’ latest Press Freedom Index, the United States is behind the United Kingdom in terms of Freedom of the Press. I suspect that this might change in the next year or so given the UK government’s heavy-handed response to the Snowden papers.

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