Carla Carlisle on the importance of a free press

Not long after Richard Nixon’s victory in the 1972 Presidential election, the New Yorker’s legendary film critic Pauline Kael said: ‘I live in a rather special world. I don’t personally know anyone who voted for Nixon.’

I, too, live in a rather special world. I don’t personally know anyone who ever read the News of the World. In my rural universe, I know readers of the Telegraph, Guardian, Times, Independent and Weekend Financial Times. I have friends who read The (other) Spectator, Country Life (keep reading), The Oldie, the London Review of Books, Decanter, The Field, The Times Literary Supplement, the Farmers Guardian, The Economist, The Church Times and House & Garden, plus the quarterly magazines of the CLA, the National Trust, the Suffolk Wildlife Trust and the Royal Academy.

You may think I live in a world of greedy readers or that I’m surrounded by people who need to get a life, but my point is this: not one of my acquaintances ever forked out taxed income for the News of the World. Not even The Sun.

Which could make me sound as sheltered as Miss Kael. Not only did she live in a special world, she inhabited a veritable hamlet of sensibility. Nixon’s victory was a landslide, with Democrat candidate McGovern winning only 17 votes in the electoral college, against 520 for Nixon. And yet, less than two years after her dazed observation, well, you know the story. Nixon resigned to avoid being impeached, his aides went to jail, hardly any of the 47 million folks who voted for him ever admitted it and, forever after, every misadventure that involves criminality, incompetence, bad judgement and deception is christened ‘Watergate’.

Perhaps I’m cautious by nature, but here on the prairies of Suffolk, it doesn’t feel like Watergate to me. Even as I write this, the Sun on Sunday is being drilled into the compost heap of the News of the World, and BSkyB is having a spell of set-aside. It’s a bumper crop for lawyers, but it’s not history.

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When the volcano is erupting, you think that life will never be the same. After Watergate, we believed that politics would never again be so craven or callous, that a new era of decency had arrived. We failed to recognise the real change in all our lives ushered in by the Nixon era: the ping-pong game in the Rose Garden that led to Nixon’s visit to China. No one predicted on that sunny day that, in less than 40 years, America would owe her enigmatic new acquaintances two trillion dollars. No one warned America’s buddies in Britain that the day would come when Hunter wellies, Padding-ton Bears and Roberts radios would all be made in China.

Right now, we’re feeling revulsion that the News of the World operated like the Stasi in East Germany, hacking into the phones of some 4,000 people, although, for years, we just winked and nodded as the paper and its sibling The Sun fed a passive audience of subliterates a toxic diet of intellectual transfats. We’re especially outraged that the contamination spread into every nook and cranny of our lives.

But the Murdoch empire, although vast and powerful, isn’t China. The true story got out, thanks to a newspaper (The Guardian). We now see the rot and we can treat it. I want to see the Murdoch empire chastened and improved, but not impeached. In this digital age, all newspapers are on life-support-Rupert Murdoch subsidised The Times to the tune of close to £50 million last year-and I genuinely believe that this country would be worse off without The Times.

In the end, it’s not the observations of Miss Kael I turn to, but those of Thomas Jefferson. ‘Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or news-papers without a government,’ he wrote, ‘I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.’

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