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More Guns, Less Beeb? - UK

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By Scott Norvell Published 01/23/2004

For a group that holds itself up as champions of Democracy, Britain\'s chattering classes sure can get their knickers in a knot with the will of the people offends their liberal sensibilities.

Case in point: a recent stunt by BBC Radio 4\'s Today program. As an exercise in grass-roots lobbying, Today asked its 6 million weekly listeners to propose a new law for the new year. A labour MP, Stephen Pound, was drafted to front the bill when it was all over.

More than 10,000 new laws were suggested over the course of a couple weeks. Of those, five were short-listed and voted on via email and telephone by some 26,007 respondents. The results, as one wag put it, \"blew up\" in the face of Today\'s producers and presenters.

Clearly expecting some sensible law mandating fat-free potato chips or renewed efforts to save the ruby-throated thrush of Upper Equatorial Guinea, the organizers were obviously aghast when the winner, with 37 percent of the vote, was a law allowing homeowners to use \"any means\" to defend their property from intruders.

Runners-up included measures forcing people to opt-out if they didn\'t want their organs donated for transplant after death, a bill to ban smoking in all workplaces including bars and restaurants, a double-headed one on term limits for prime ministers and compulsory voting, and, finally, a ban on Christmas advertising before December 1.

The winning law quickly became known as \"Tony Martin\'s Law\" after the Norfolk farmer who spent nearly four years in jail for killing a 16-year-old burglar who had broken into his home.

Currently, the law allows the use of \"reasonable force,\" but in practical terms it tends to weigh heavily in favor of the wrongdoer instead of the wronged, and draconian weapons laws mean homeowners are unlikely to have more than a cricket bat or soup ladle to defend themselves. Tony Martin, in a far-from-unusual act of gall, was sued for lost wages by a second burglar he merely winged.

But after he heard the result, the Labour politician appeared to withdraw his support, arguing: \"This bill is unworkable,\" as it \"endorses the slaughter of 16-year-old kids.\"

Mr. Pound was apoplectic. The bill was \"unworkable,\" he said. \"I can\'t remember who it was who said \'The people have spoken - the bastards,\'\" he quipped.

Radio 4 later insisted that the remark, a paraphrase of Mark Twain, was tongue-in-cheek, but in the next breath he said his enthusiasm for direct democracy was dampened by the experience.

Other commentators were similarly outraged. The Daily Telegraph predicted the mass slaughter of 16-year-olds with pump-action shotguns across middle England. Simon Jenkins, writing in The Times, was frothing. How dare they, he said.

That the law \"should be presented to Parliament with all the dignity of the nation\'s public service broadcaster is a mockery of democratic process,\" he wrote.

As usual, the much-maligned tabloids were more in tune with the frustrations of the common folk than the opinion-mongers of the broadsheets. The Today poll was a clear indication of just how frustrated folks in England are with rising crime and the apparent inability of police to do anything about it, they said.

And while a few listeners of Today wrote in to express horror that their compatriots could \"endorse vigilantism,\" most nailed the real problem illustrated by the whole exercise. \"Is it surprising that the public is disenchanted with politicians when they patronisingly treat clearly expressed majority democratic wishes like this?\" one viewer wrote.

Martin\'s Law is clearly not going anywhere anytime soon. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott found the wishes of thousands of the citizens he ostensibly represents to be \"amusing.\" The Guardian called it \"embarrassing.\"

And people wonder why Brits are cynical about their government and media?

Scott Norvell is the London Bureau Chief for Fox News.