Leaders: Threats to free speech are cause for disquiet

A banner for The Interview in Los Angeles. Picture: AP

A banner for The Interview in Los Angeles. Picture: AP

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WHAT started out as Hollywood satire on a North Korean dictator has turned out to be no laughing matter whatsoever. Instead, what has unfolded is a threat to deploy terror in a bid to deny freedom of expression.

Confirmation by media giant Sony that it has scrapped plans to release satirical film The ­Interview, about a plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, raises disturbing questions on a range of fronts.

The first, and most serious, are strong suggestions that the North Korean regime has played a covert but major role in forcing Sony’s hand. It has denied involvement, but this has not ­allayed suspicions. Another is the vulnerability of major companies to cyber-attack and the venomous release of hacked confidential material. Yet another concern is the involvement of anonymous organisations in threats to US and Canadian cinema-goers hoping to see the film.

Finally, there is the failure of Sony to stand by the principle of free speech. Its pusillanimous response effectively opens the door for other groups to force withdrawal of material to which they have taken a dislike.

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Sony says it was obliged to act in the way it did after hackers calling themselves Guardians of Peace released e-mails and data stolen from the company last month. In a later warning to US cinemas screening The Interview, the anonymous group referred to the 9/11 attacks, claiming “the world will be full of fear”. When America’s top three cinema chains cancelled screenings of the film, Sony pulled out.

It has already suffered reputational damage from the leaking of hacked material causing embarrassment to some of its best-known stars. Hackers stole reams of confidential data, including an early version of a script for the next James Bond movie, Spectre. Five Sony films including the new and unreleased version of Annie turned up on illegal file-sharing sites and were downloaded. And much private information was exposed to the public, while sensitive and embarrassing e-mails were leaked.

Few would concern themselves with the blushes of screen celebrities. But the veiled threats of attacks on cinemas has escalated matters into a major issue of public concern. It emerged this week that actor Steve Carell’s planned film project, a thriller called Pyongyang about a westerner working in North Korea, has also been scrapped. This can only fuel concern that companies undertaking films and documentaries about undemocratic and unpleasant regimes may find themselves subject to similar attack and ­harassment.

The use of the threat of terror to deny freedom of expression cannot but give cause for deep disquiet. No less concerning is corporate vulnerability to hacking. An early priority must be to ensure that those behind the attacks on Sony – the so-called Guardians of Peace – are tracked down, unmasked and arrested.

Why is abuse inquiry taking so long?

What started out as a low-key investigation into historical child abuse involving prominent public figures has now taken an altogether more serious and sinister turn with news that detectives are now investigating three ­alleged murders.

No confirmed identities have been established and no bodies of victims have been found. But this is the first time Operation Midland, part of the larger Operation Fairbank inquiry into allegations of historical child abuse, has confirmed the number of possible murders officers are investigating. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Steve Rodhouse said the allegations were that the murders involved three children. Police say the inquiry is working through missing persons reports and unsolved child murders to look for possible links to the case.

Detectives have made a public appeal for information relating to Dolphin Square estate in Pimlico, south-west London, amid claims boys were abused there. The paedophile ring is alleged to have included senior military, law enforcement and political figures. Detailed allegations made by a source claiming to be a victim of child abuse at Dolphin Square have been described by officers investigating his account as “credible and true”.

It is the persistence of these reports over the years that has ­increasingly concerned the public and fuelled suggestions of a high-level cover-up. Now, with potential murders involved, concern will intensify.

Why is this investigation taking so long to come to a conclusion? And is it being given the priority and the resources it ­merits? The public needs early and ­robust assurance that this inquiry will be swift and thorough.

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