LONDON -- Nobody likes a newspaper fight like the British. Such fights are great entertainment in a land where newspapers are full of ginger and the language lends itself to insult by rapier rather than bludgeon. London has seen a lulu over the past several days, spiced with accusations of anti-Semitism, disrespect for the dead, invocations of Hitler and the Nazis, reminders of '30s aristocrats soft on der feuhrer and of hatred of Britain.
"Them lyin' newspapers," as generations of politicians right and left have called them in America, are no less the targets of rotten eggs and squishy tomatoes in Britain, where there is no First Amendment, and libel laws are stricter than in the United States.
Everything came together in a perfect storm Wednesday when the secretary for culture in Prime Minister David Cameron's cabinet announced that the government would introduce "press regulation" that editors and publishers say threatens to bridle the press for the first time in 300 years.
Tom Harris, a former Labor minister, says his party is undermining freedom. "My party is turning its back on a core tenet of progressive politics," he wrote in the Daily Telegraph, "that a genuinely free press, however infuriating, is an indispensable foundation stone of democracy."
The very idea sends shudders up the spine of Americans, even those of us who often criticize the bias and arrogance of our own press. If it happens here in the Old Country, whence come so many of our freedoms, it could one day happen to the land of the free.
The politicians here have been chafing forever under the lash of the London newspapers, which left or right make only small pretense of hiding partisan prejudices. One advocacy group campaigning for government regulation, called Hacked Off, met last March with representatives of the Conservative, Labor and Liberal Democratic parties in the offices of Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labor Party, to plot strategy. Nobody from the newspapers were invited. The secretary for culture later admitted "the meeting looked bad."
But most of the politicians, having chafed so long under the lash of the men who buy ink by the barrel, pressed on, waiting for the government to come up with the actual regulatory scheme.