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Michael Foot and the Defense of a Free Press in Wartime | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Michael Foot and the Defense of a Free Press in Wartime

Michael Foot, the British journalist, author and parliamentarian who has died at age 96, was a comrade and hero of this writer for three decades.

The former Labour Party Leader is worthy of all the tributes that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (who hails her former rival as a "great parliamentarian" and man of "high principle") and so many others are bestowing upon his memory. (As always, Tony Benn says it best.)

But I will remember Foot, above all, for his uncompromising defenses of civil liberties -- especially the freedom of the press.

During World War II, when Prime Minister Winston Churchill's government sought to censor London's Daily Mirror newspaper, Foot was (at the precocious age of 28) acting editor of the rival Evening Standard.

The Standard had especially good connections -- through its proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook -- to Churchill and the whole of the British establishment. And Foot, as the co-author of the best-selling anti-appeasement tome Guilty Men, was in good stead as the Standard's acting editor.

Yet, he came storming to the defense of the Mirror, which had come under assault from the government for daring to criticize Churchill's conduct of the war.

Roared Foot:

The liberty of the press in this country can only be maintained by the vigilance of the people and the vigilance of the Parliament and the courage of the newspapers themselves. That's the only way. Therefore we must fight, fight, fight to retain those liberties. The ministers come along to tell us that, of course, it's only the Daily Mirror they were trying to get at. The attack is over, they say. No other demands on any other newspapers. All other newspapers may continue to live in tranquility and in freedom and in peace. There's something rather familiar about those words. "I have no more territorial demands." I can picture in my mind's eye right now [War Cabinet member Herbert] Morrison himself uttering those words. "I have no more territorial demands," coming down Shoe Lane with a firm look on his jaw and a hot gun in his pocket, with the Evening Standard safely suppressed under [one censorship order] and its proprietor safely looked after under [another such order].

Foot's searing, and darkly comic, speech, ranks as one of the great defenses of freedom of the press in wartime. The boldness with which the editor recalled Hitler's denial of "territorial ambition" placed the government's actions in stark relief -- and shamed Morrison, a fellow Labourite. Foot's words were as stunning as they were necessary.

Remarkably, that 1942 speech was captured for posterity, and Foot can be seen here -- raging in all his glory.

The free press never had a more daring, and delicious, champion.

Michael Foot was the true heir to the legacy of his avatars: Tom Paine and, above all, William Hazlitt.

Foot's fury, not just at assaults by the powerful on the press but by the compromises of corporate media, influenced this writer's thinking about media issues from the time I first came to know his brilliant writing and his even more brilliant personality in the 1980s.

I wish Michael Foot could have made it to 100. We ink-stained wretches could still more of his kind at the barricades in the battle for what remains of journalism and for the democratic promise that can only be realized when the press and the pressmen speak truth to power.

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