March 21, 2013 § 4 Comments
I have just taken part in an exchange of letters with Nada Shabout, director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies at the University of North Texas, which focused on the question: ‘Should religious or cultural sensibilities ever limit free speech?’ These first four letters are published in the latest edition of Index on Censorship magazine. There was no room to take the debate further in print, but we are continuing the discussion. The new exchanges will be published on the Index website, and also here.
I regard free speech as a fundamental good, the fullest extension of which is necessary for democratic life and for the development of other liberties. Others view speech as a luxury rather than as a necessity, or at least as merely one right among others, and not a particularly important one. Speech from this perspective needs to be restrained not as an exception but as the norm.
The answer to whether religious and cultural sensibilities should ever limit free expression depends in large part upon which of these ways we think of free speech. For those, like me, who look upon free speech as a fundamental good, no degree of cultural or religious discomfort can be reason for censorship. There is no free speech without the ability to offend religious and cultural sensibilities. For those for whom free speech is more a luxury than a necessity, censorship is a vital tool in maintaining social peace and order. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 18, 2013 § 10 Comments
I am hacked off by politicians who think that a last-minute backroom deal is the proper way to resolve a critical political issue. Who think that a shabby compromise between two bad proposals makes a good proposal. Who imagine that imposing exemplary damages on those who refuse to sign up to a regulatory quango creates a freer press.
I’m hacked off by campaigners who have so little respect for free speech that they are happy to use legislation to reform libel laws as a bargaining ploy merely to get their own way on their pet project. Who cannot tell the difference between achieving justice for victims and insisting that victims must dictate legislation. Who are so dismissive of public debate that they think ‘no serious person’ disagrees with them.
I’m hacked off by liberals who who seem think that ‘it won’t turn Britain into Zimbabwe’ is sufficient reason to accept press regulation. Who seem unable to distinguish between a good press and an unfree press, or understand why it’s better to have a ‘bad’ free press than a ‘good’ unfree press. Whose pusillanimity has allowed the Murdochs, the Dacres and the Kavanaghs of this world to present themselves as warriors for free speech
Most of all, I am hacked off by liberals who cannot see what is illiberal about illiberal policies.
January 30, 2013 § 24 Comments
How should we respond to the controversy over the Gerald Scarfe cartoon? Last Sunday – Holocaust Memorial Day – the Sunday Times published a cartoon by Scarfe, its regular cartoonist, depicting the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wall with blood-red coloured cement, in which were trapped Palestinians.
The cartoon instantly created international outrage. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, which has complained to the Press Complaints Commission, denounced the cartoon as ‘shockingly reminiscent of the blood libel imagery more usually found in parts of the virulently anti-semitic Arab press’. It was ‘all the more disgusting’ for being published on Holocaust memorial day, ‘given the similar tropes levelled against Jews by the Nazis’. Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Daniel Taub, similarly condemned ‘The use of vicious motifs echoing those used to demonise Jews in the past’. The ‘crude and shallow hatred of this cartoon’ made it ‘totally unacceptable on any day of the year’ and ‘particularly shocking and hurtful on international Holocaust remembrance day’. In Jerusalem, the Speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, wrote a letter Monday to his British counterpart, John Bercow, expressing the Israeli people’s ‘extreme outrage’ at the cartoon. He was ‘shocked that such cartoons can be published in such a respectable newspaper in the Great Britain of today, fearing that such an event is testimony to sick undercurrents in British society’. It ‘blatantly crossed the line of freedom of expression’. ‘We will think about how to act against the paper’s representative here in Israel’, warned Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 8, 2012 § 3 Comments
I took part in a meeting in Geneva last week convened by the UN to help advise the Special Rapporteur for Cultural Rights on a report she is presenting next year on artistic freedom of expression. The UN’s record on free speech has, particularly in recent years, been abysmal, so it was a useful and fascinating discussion, illuminating many of the contemporary faultlines of free speech. All the participants, activists from around the world, were free speech advocates. The issues that have caused much concern in recent years – that of blasphemy and the ‘defamation of religion’ – created little debate here. There was unanimous acceptance that neither should be reason for censorship. There were, however, serious differences between those who, as one participant put it, ‘take the human rights approach and those who adopt the First Amendment approach’. He himself, a representative of a free speech NGO, adopted, in his words, ‘a human rights approach that balanced rights against each other’ and so ‘rejected the First Amendment view of free speech’.
December 1, 2012 § 33 Comments
Everybody believes in press freedom. But what is it to have a free press? And how do we protect it? These are the questions raised by the publication of the Leveson report into the ‘culture practice and ethics’ of the British press and the debate that has both preceded and followed it.
In his report, Lord Justice Leveson talks of his ‘outrage’ at the ‘havoc wreaked on the lives of innocent people’ by the unethical and criminal behaviour of sections of the British press. He dismisses the idea that the press can clean up its own act. He proposes, instead, an independent regulatory body, underpinned by law, to police press standards and impose sanctions including, apparently, up to £1m fines. Newspapers would be free not to join the regulatory body. But those that refused to would face sanctions, including the possibility of ‘exemplary’ damages in court if found guilty of misconduct.
Many, including many advocates of free speech, have welcomed the report. David Cameron has caused outrage by questioning the wisdom of underpinning press regulation with statute. I have little sympathy for Cameron’s predicament. His record on civil liberties is abysmal, and the political difficulties in which he now finds himself are of his own making. Nevertheless, I too reject the core of the Leveson argument. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 28, 2012 § 1 Comment
Tomorrow Lord Justice Leveson publishes his report on the ‘culture, practice and ethics of the press’. I will write about it once I have had a chance to read the report, though I have already set out my stall on the question of media regulation in essays I wrote last year on the debate about privacy laws. I am with those opposed to greater regulation. In the meantime, here is a taste of the recent debate, from both sides of the argument about Leveson and regulation.
Almost every profession has a regulatory regime based in statute or a similar legal instrument (such as a Royal Charter). This includes professions which emphasise their day-to-day independence from the government of the day, such as lawyers and the police. ‘Statutory regulation’ does not, by itself, mean either government control or parliamentary supervision; indeed, statutory provisions can entrench independence from wrongful interference by the politically powerful. In this way, statutory regulation can provide a shield as well as a sword.
David Allen Green, ‘Statutory’ is not a bogey word, New Statesman, 11 October 2012
Some point to regulatory bodies such as the Law Society or the General Medical Council, and say that regulation does not affect those professions. But think. One can strike off a doctor or a lawyer – how does one strike off a journalist? Sure, you can sack her, but what if she starts a blog? Starts making phone calls? Starts covering stories? How do you stop people doing journalism?…Journalism is one way in which people can exercise their right to free expression, and the danger with statutory regulation is that one can actually create separate levels of access to a right – giving the journalist less of a right to free expression than anyone else. That’s not how rights work.
Padraig Reidy, Statutory regulation of the press will hurt free speech, New Statesman, 14 November 2012 « Read the rest of this entry »