By Charles Clarke, the home secretary (THE GUARDIAN, 25/04/06):
There is an entirely noble view of the free media as a fundamental bastion against dictatorship and totalitarianism. The advance of democracy has been profound – witness the changes in South Africa and eastern Europe for example – and there are many examples of the media playing an important part in bringing this about. But a pernicious and even dangerous poison is now slipping into some parts of this media view of the world. In the absence of many of the genuinely dangerous totalitarian regimes, the media has rhetorically transferred to existing democracies, particularly the US and the UK, the characteristics of those dictatorships.
So some commentators routinely use language such as “police state”, “fascist”, “creeping authoritarianism”, while words such as “holocaust”, “gulag” and “apartheid” are used descriptively in ways that must be truly offensive to those who experienced those realities.
As these descriptions and language are used, the truth flies out of the window, as does any adherence to professional journalistic standards. In the case of complex debates, for example, on the appropriate balance between liberty and security, much media comment reduces itself to simplistic and flowery rhetoric.
Writing on these pages, Jenni Russell claimed that “Tony Blair’s administration is removing the safeguards that protect all of us from the whims of a government and the intrusion of a powerful state. It is engaged in a ferocious power-grab.” These are ridiculous assertions, unsupported by any hint of understanding of the balance of powers that exist in our society. This and other articles in the press are symptomatic of a more general intellectual laziness that seeks to slip on to the shoulders of modern democratic states the mantle of dictatorial power. Some of this flows from criticism of the US, particularly the policies of the Bush administration, notably in relation to Iraq, but more generally it is in criticism of the response of the US and UK to 9/11. Such criticism fails to understand the immense significance of 9/11.
From 1945 until the end of the 20th century it was the fight for democracy against dictatorship that dominated the media and politics. In that climate, the human rights of the individual in relation to the state were pre-eminent. It was in response to those imperatives that the UN conventions and the European convention on human rights were established.
However, as democracy has advanced so powerfully across the world, other rights become important too. The right to go to work safely on the tube. The right not to be killed by someone who has served his sentence for violent crime but remains dangerous. The right to live at home without being disturbed by antisocial behaviour outside the front door. None of these removes the right of any individual to exercise their freedoms in relation to the state. None of them removes the obligation on the state to operate in accordance with its national and international obligations under law. But when we respond, for example, with counter-terror legislation or proposals to control those criminals who are dangerous to society, many in the media retort that we are destroying democracy and constructing tyranny. And too many resort to misrepresentation and deceit to try to strengthen their case.
So my appeal is to urge our media to come to terms with a modern concept of rights and responsibilities; to continue their historically important campaign to replace dictatorship with democracy; to applaud the differences between democratic states and dictatorships; to accept the modern reality that human rights are wider than those that the individual possesses in relation to the state; and to work with politics to consider how best those rights too can be fulfilled.