Issues of Law and Order

What the foreign papers are saying.
April 28 2000 3:00 AM

Issues of Law and Order

For a week, the British press has been obsessed with the case of a farmer—not a Zimbabwean farmer for a change, but a British one who was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder after shooting dead a 16-year-old Gypsy who was trying to burgle his house. Tony Martin, a cranky 55-year-old loner with racist views, shot the boy in the back with an unlicensed shotgun when disturbed during the night in his isolated, ramshackle farmhouse (appropriately named Bleak House) in Norfolk, an eastern county of England. His defense was that he was frightened and blinded by a flashlight in the dark. Martin was found by a jury to be guilty of murder for using more than "reasonable force" in his own defense. The judge had no sentencing alternative, since a life sentence is mandatory in Britain for any kind of murder.

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A public outcry has followed. An opinion poll published last weekend in the Mail on Sunday found that 44 percent of the British people would be willing to break the law in defense of their homes and that 70 percent thought the sentence was too harsh. Even Hugo Young, one of Britain's leading liberal commentators, wrote Thursday in the Guardian that it was an "outrage." He urged abolition of the mandatory life sentence for murder, saying that it  "nullifies the grades of stigma between a desperate act of domestic violence and contract murders by a professional killer."

The Guardian led its front page Thursday with derision of Conservative opposition leader William Hague, who has responded to the Martin case by promising that "the next Conservative government will overhaul the law with a strong presumption that, in future, the state will be on the side of people who protect their homes and families against criminals." It said his "attempt to exploit public anger" backfired when it emerged that, as a member of the last Conservative government, he had voted against a change in the law that could have allowed the Norfolk farmer to walk free.

The conservative Daily Telegraph led its front page with the story of an assault on the Australian feminist writer, Germaine Greer. That story also played prominently in Australia's Sydney Morning Herald and in the National Post of Canada. Like Martin, Greer lives in the east of England in an isolated house, but her assailant was a female 19-year-old Bath University student who had been stalking her. The young woman, who is now undergoing psychiatric evaluation in a hospital, forced Greer back into her house and tied her up before breaking her spectacles and smashing her ornaments with a poker.

As a Zimbabwean government delegation started talks in London Thursday on the agitation in Zimbabwe over land redistribution, Mark Steyn made a ferocious attack in Canada's National Post on the country's prime minister, Robert Mugabe, whose supporters have killed two white farmers and several of their black workers while illegally occupying their farms. Steyn, a conservative Canadian columnist based in New Hampshire, contributes regularly to the newspapers of the Canadian media tycoon Conrad Black on both sides of the Atlantic. Last weekend, in London's Sunday Telegraph, he said crime was lower in the United States than in Britain because of Britain's misguided restrictions on gun ownership and use.

In the National Post, he dwelled at length on Mugabe's homophobia. "Having been denounced as a homophobe in The New York Times the other week, I know a thing or two about this subject," he wrote. "And if he'd sought my advice, as one homophobe to another, I'd have advised him to lay off the gay cracks. Personally, I thought his denunciation of Tony Blair as a 'gay gangster' leading 'the gay government of the gay United gay Kingdom' was reasonably accurate, given the British cabinet's lack of visible heterosexuals." But he ended with a defence of British colonialism. "[I]nsofar as Zimbabwe is able to avoid the fate to which Mr. Mugabe is determined to consign it, it will rest on those institutions bequeathed to it by British constitutionalism: a reasonably independent judiciary, a respectable political opposition, and a free-ish press. Three very real cheers for the British Empire."

On the subject of freedom of speech, the Straits Times of Singapore commented in an editorial Thursday on the Singapore government's announcement this week that by August the country will have a Speakers' Corner, "available to all and sundry who care to speak their minds." The paper said, "It will be a novelty to Singaporeans, who tend to shy away from contending with people in authority, much less to submit their thoughts and beliefs to public scrutiny. There is no tradition of public jousting." The paper expressed a hope that the Speakers' Corner would not "degenerate into a tourist oddity, rather like the one in London's Hyde Park," but it approved the various government restrictions applying to it, especially the ban on foreigners taking part. "This is consistent with Singapore's standard operating procedure that non-citizens resident here are valued for their economic contributions, but should leave politics and bedrock policies to those whose home it is," it said.

Alexander Chancellor is a columnist for the Guardian.

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