Sunset over Britain

Article excerpt

Freedom of expression, which ranks about nineteenth on the European list of human rights, may have been crippled for a generation or two in the crash that claimed Dodi Fayed and Diana, Princess of Wales. It was an Englishman who wrote about first killing all the lawyers. Now British public sentiment, guided by the public relations expertise of Harrods, has switched to targeting independent journalists who work with a camera, the paparazzi. Attached to thousands of bouquets of flowers at Kensington Palace are bitter poems offering to protect the two young princes from those who have taken Diana's image for the last thee.

The anger is spreading. Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, would like to toss in the editors of tabloid newspapers. So would thousands of mourners. The editors buy the photos, so Spencer personally telephoned each of them to uninvite them to his sister's funeral. They all complied.

For the moment, the editors of the broadsheets have stayed quiet, since the fire is all directed elsewhere. Their turn may yet come when the critics realize that the only distinguishing feature between tab and "quality" papers, as the broadsheets are known, is not the subjects they cover but rather the way the paper is cut and folded at the end of the printing process.

Next will come owners of flagpoles who refused to lower their standards during the first week of September Come to think of it, the people in the street might place the non-half-masted-flagpole operators at the top of the list. "Off with her pole," they shouted at Buckingham Palace last week.

In the flood of grief there was no room for dissent. Men and women who only a week before had been embroiled in furious debate about the politics of Diana's land-mine crusade suddenly felt obliged to praise her campaign.

Nor was Diana only a domestic phenomenon. So when the hostility against the paparazzi and the tabloids and the non-believers washes across the Atlantic, it will search for new targets. The private lives of public officials may be one of the first subjects to become taboo. Diana's death could accomplish what Vince Foster's final plea could not, the setting of a new boundary to public inquiry, self-imposed by editors but every bit as effective as law. The public support that brought sunshine laws to Florida, freedom of information statutes to Washington and personal tax return disclosures to politicians everywhere met resistance all along the way. Those in authority would be grateful for the chance to turn back the clock.

In most of Europe, there has never been a guarantee of access to public records and public meetings, certainly not to public officials. The eastern half of the continent is only just now learning how to hold a press conference. Far from being free, speaking or printing critically can be very expensive, as libel and slander laws are heavily weighted in favor of the rich and powerful. In the United States there is no such thing as a wrong opinion. In Germany, France and other parts of the continent, some opinions can be not only wrong but also criminal, particularly if they suggest support for Nazism. …