If nothing else, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller’s resignation from his position to return to writing columns has accomplished this: instead of inferring his stupidity from years of the Grey Lady’s questionable editorial choices, we can now confirm it directly by reading his essays. After vaingloriously confronting Arianna Huffington — including his now-infamous, yet not inaccurate disparagement of her as “the queen of aggregation” — and variously deriding new media as vapid and emotionless, Keller has now set his sights on the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.
Whether Keller’s latest column, “Why Tyrants Love the Murdoch Scandal,” was penned out of faux-modesty or genuine concern is at once an academic debate and one for which either answer is equally terrifying. For it is not the motive behind his words, but the fact that they exist at all — and in the pages of the vaunted New York Times, no less — that imbues them with such awesome power.
The first signs of trouble appear immediately. Notice, for example, that signature Kellerism: the cloying way he simultaneously feigns to refrain from, while gleefully leaping into, criticism of an arch-nemesis, News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch. “Nor is this the place to celebrate a rival’s troubles,” he writes, before adding, “True, I did pull from my files and savor the indignant letters we received from News of the World’s top editors last year as we prepared to publish an investigation of the paper’s phone-hacking culture and Scotland Yard’s timidity — work that has been fully vindicated in recent weeks.”
But even such condescension is little more than a distracting aside. His real problem lies in the substance of his column. Keller inexplicably uses the fall from grace (from acceptance? from toleration?) of Murdoch’s News of the World to make a broader point about freedom of the press. Apparently, the police and parliamentary investigation of Murdoch’s publication represents some sort of threat to the democratic principle of free expression. We know this because Keller quotes an anonymous South African friend, who notes that his native country, which is already growing increasingly hostile to an unfettered media presence, may indeed find justification for its repression in the goings-on of the phone-hacking scandal. “‘You can be sure they will use the phone-hacking fallout to help make their case,'” Keller’s bizarrely unnamed friend informs him. “‘Nobody pays much attention to the effect of something like this on little countries like ours.'”
Indeed one doesn’t. And that is precisely because the effect is insignificant, if it exists at all. “Despots love to see a free press behaving badly,” Keller solemnly intones. And yet they seem to do just fine in its absence. There is no more enduring truism of totalitarian states than that they will, and do, seize inspiration for their tyranny in the most absurd places. To censor one’s perfectly legal, and even morally necessary, actions in order to appease the beast beyond our shores is patently insane. Paraphrasing Voltaire, if the phone-hacking scandal did not exist, it would be necessary — for dictators around the world, at least — to invent it. By this logic, perhaps Norway should think twice about imprisoning Anders Behring Breivik, for fear this may inspire crackdowns on political protest in Uganda.
Holding sacred democratic institutions hostage to the whims of dictators would seem to be anathema to the current executive editor of the New York Times, which is why its implied advocacy is so shocking. No one is suggesting — even in Britain, where press restrictions are more in vogue — that a nation should block access to the independent media or prevent it from expressing controversial viewpoints. In fact, Keller admits as much: “I’m not terribly alarmed that either Britain or the United States will significantly roll back the protections that allow us to hold our governments accountable — up to and including the hot scrutiny of stories like the WikiLeaks disclosures.”
What is taking place, however, is the mandatory legal process necessitated by News of the World‘s culture of disdain for the laws of the nation in which it operated. To ignore their incursions would be a far greater abandonment of democratic ideals, and would thus provide correspondingly greater fodder for the consistently bad intentions of undemocratic regimes.
- Newspapers’ tag-teaming helps bring story to light (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Phone-hacking scandal – live coverage (guardian.co.uk)
- AP Interview: Hacking reporter says probe widening (sfgate.com)