Rupert Murdoch and Elton John
All news organizations do not have equal credibility.
Posted 2008-06-16
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This is a portion of an address given by Anthony Lewis, A former New York Times columnist and author of Gideon's Trumpet and Make No Law: the Sullivan Case and the First Amendment. The entire address was reprinted in the University of Hawai'i Law Review Volume 29 / Number 1 Winter 2006. It is a defense of the widest possible interpretation of freedom of the press. It is excerpted here under the Fair Use provision of copyright law.

The full version of this address is available on the web site of the Society of Professional Journalists, Hawaii Chapter. You will have to go to the page and then scroll down about 1/3 of the way, or just search the page for "The First Amendment in Crisis". The discussion about the First Amendment makes interesting reading.

The Rupert Murdoch mentioned in this portion of the address is, as this page is being written, the owner of Fox News.

A Public Lecture by Anthony Lewis,
The First Amendment in Perspective

I. Introduction

This public lecture, given by Anthony Lewis, took place on Friday, February 24, 2006, as part of The First Amendment in Crisis symposium. The symposium was presented by the William S. Richardson School of Law and the Cades Foundation. Additional support was provided by the Hawai'i State Bar Association, the Honolulu Advertiser, and the Society of Professional Journalists-Hawai'i chapter.

II. Lecture

It is an honor and a pleasure for me to take part in this conference on The first Amendment in Crisis. I cannot think of a happier place to be in crisis, or a more impressive group of conferees.

I am going to begin with a story that may not at first seem exactly on point. It is about the largest-selling daily newspaper in the world, Rupert Murdoch's British tabloid, The Sun. And what it did to Elton John, a rock singer. I remind you that John was a favorite of Princess Diana's and sang at her funeral in Westminster Abbey.

On February 25, 1987, The Sun printed a story that began, "Elton John is at the center of a shocking drugs and vice scandal involving teen-age 'rent boys', The Sun can reveal today." "Rent boy" is British Journalese for male prostitute. The story gave as its source one "Graham X." The next day Graham X was the source for a story saying: "Kinky superstar Elton John loved to snort cocaine through rolled-up $100 bills." Mr John denied both stories and brought two writs for libel. The next day's Sun headline was: "You're a Liar, Elton." And so on through another dozen stories over the next months. During this time, we now know, The Sun was paying Graham X - his real name was Stephen Hardy - the equivalent of $400 a week and taking him and his girlfriend to Marbella, a chic seaside resort in Spain, for an extended vactaion. The last attack on Elton John, published September 28, 1987, was headlined "Mystery of Elton's Silent Dogs." It said Mr. John had his "vicious Rottweiler dogs" silenced by a "horrific operation." Mr. John sued again: his 17th libel action since the start of The Sun's campaign against him.

For some reason, perhaps because the English love dogs, the last of the suits, the one about the non-barking dogs, was scheduled for trial first, on December 12, 1988. It turned out that Mr. John's dogs were not Rottweilers and did bark. It also turned out the Stephen Hardy, alias Graham X, had made up his tales of vice at The Sun's urging. "I've never even met Elton John," he said later. "In fact, I hate his music."

The morning of the scheduled trial The Sun carried a two-word headline: "Sorry Elton." The story said that The Sun had settled all the libel actions by paying Mr. John one million pounds in damages - about 1.7 million dollars - and about half as much again in lawyer's fees. The story said: "We are delighted that The Sun and Elton have become friends again, and we are sorry that we were lied to by a teenager living in a world of fantasy."

What is one to say about behavior like that? I know of only one explanation. Rupert Murdoch is said to make a profit of one million pounds a week on The Sun.

Now why did I start off with that tale? To remind you that the press is not always a noble hero. Of course there is nothing as vicious or contemptuous of the truth in American newspapers or television or radio or the Internet, is there? Not in extremist talk shows? When Ann Coulter says that it would be wonderful if a bomb went off at The New York Times, she's just kidding, right?

Well, ladies and gentlemen, you do not have to be respectable, much less noble, to enjoy the freedom of speech and press guaranteed by the First Amendment. That is one lesson, a lesson often overlooked, of the first Supreme Court decision protecting the press: Near v. Minnesota ex rel Olson [283 U.S. 697 (1931)] in 1931.

[The lecture continues for 8 more pages, concluding with the following]

Let me end with a quotation from an opinion in one of the greatest victories for the press, the Pentagon Papers case. [New York Times Co. v. U.S. (Pentagon Papers), 403 U.S. 713 (1971)] You will remember that the Government tried in 1971 to stop publication by The New York Times and then The Washington Post of a secret history of the origins of the Vietnam War.

The Supreme Court rejected the government's argument. In a concurring opinion, Justice Hugo L. Black wrote:

"In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy... The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do."

That is the vision of the First Amendment in which I believe: a restraint on government and a responsibility on the press.

This concludes the excerpt from the address by Anthony Lewis.


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