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When is news not fit to print?

There is an adage that the documentary film genre flourishes in tough times such as the Great Depression or the Second World War. To make the point, who remembers a memorable documentary from Pat Boone's white buck days of the 1950s? Yet in the decade of the Sixties, any number of outstanding documentary films come to mind: Beryl Fox's Mills of the Gods or Pierre Schoendorffer's The Anderson Platoon, to name just a few films from this astonishing decade of dissent and conflict.

If troubled times produce great art, then it is equally true that democracy's severest test comes in times of crises, a daunting challenge as well for a free press.

Already we have seen not so subtle attempts to influence the media by the Bush administration since the dreadful events of 11 September. Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. national security adviser, approached American TV networks to "exercise judgement" in airing taped video rants by Osama bin Laden which are being fed to the western world because they might carry coded messages for other terrorists to launch new attacks. The networks agreed at least to screen and study such videos before airing them. In what certainly is going to become a long, costly and emotional campaign to eradicate the terrorist menace, the press will find itself walking a tightrope. To accede to government direction of what should or should not be published leaves the media open to a charge of being manipulated. On the other hand, to reject future "requests" lays open the offenders to accusation of being unpatriotic.

The question of what constitutes a breach of national security or what is deemed by the press of what to publish in the national interest has long been an area of disagreement and disharmony between governments and a free press.

No one learned the lesson harder than President John Kennedy who inherited the dubious plan hatched by the CIA under President Dwight D. Eisenhower to train and equip an army of Cuban exiles to liberate communist Cuba under the dictator Fidel Castro. Among the many reasons his advisers recommended that he endorse the Bay of Pigs invasion was for the interests of national security because the Russians were arming the Cubans at an alarming rate and was posing a threat to the U.S.

Kennedy was told the exiled Cubans of brigade size could achieve their goals without U.S. military intervention. Faced with this information, Kennedy gave presidential approval. The invasion, launched in April 1961, was a debacle. The liberation army ran out of ammunition and supplies. A ship standing offshore to re-supply the exiles was sunk by Castro's air force.

Long after the disaster, Kennedy accepted the fact the advice was flawed in that the situation posed a threat to American security. Kennedy concluded it did not, and came to believe the national interest would have been better served had he nixed the questionable operation.

(A real threat to U.S. national security changed dramatically in the autumn of 1962 when it was discovered that the Soviets were installing missile launching sites in Cuba, some containing medium-range ballistic missiles, which could hit Washington, D.C. and all the SAC [Strategic Air Command] bases in the U.S. This real threat resulted in the United States' blockade of Cuba and eventually the removal of the weapons.)

What makes the decision so difficult is assessing the credibility of government, politicians and most worrisome, faceless bureaucrats who almost never are held accountable.

After nearly 50 years of practising and professing journalism, I'd rather rely on the judgement of an editor of some prairie provincial newspaper or the instincts of a hard-nosed network news producer of what to publish than listening to the oblique intimidations of spinmeisters.

In the mid-1970s, I spent two weeks filming Albert Speer in various locations throughout Germany for the Global Television documentary, The Last Nazi, on the life of Hitler's architect.

On the final night of shooting we dined with Speer in the famous Hotel Kempinski in Berlin. One of our party, in a most casual way, asked Speer if there was any one single thing that could have prevented Hitler's rise to power. "Yes," Speer replied without skipping a beat, "a free press."

The media faces wrenching decisions in the days and months ahead in weighing the difference between what is in the national interest or what becomes a risk to national security.

Further, an equally profound debate is shaping up over the proposed anti-terrorism legislation introduced by Anne McLellan, the minister of Justice, which would give police vast power of arrest. Suspects could be arrested without warrant and held for three days without being charged.

The legislation raises questions, such as at what point are basic freedoms undermined?

"Terrorists seek to undermine the rule of law and the preservations of human rights," said Prime Minister Jean Chretien the day the legislation was introduced in the House of Commons, raising the question, When does a nation suspend the rule or law?

"Never," said Alan Dershowitz, legal scholar of the Harvard School of Law. "When you do," he said in an interview with NBC News, "the terrorists win."

Who would have imagined that the rantings of a bearded fanatic hiding out in a cave in distant Afghanistan could have caused such utter turmoil and chaos? One cannot think of a more perilous time for democracy. These are no days for the faint of heart in journalism and law.
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Author:Nolan, Brian
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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