January 3, 2013 § 4 Comments
If 2011 brought the promise of democracy to the Arab world, in 2012 democratic change appeared to founder on political reality. In Egypt, democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi has tried to gather into his own hands powers far greater that that held previously by Hosni Mubarak, and is railroading through a constitution that many fear will undermine the gains of the revolution. In Libya and Tunisia Islamist-influenced governments are promoting laws restricting rights, constraining speech, and maintaining social inequality. In Bahrain a movement for democratic change has been brutally suppressed by the government. In Syria, the struggle for democracy has degenerated into a bloodbath, and one to which there appears to be no end.
From the beginnings of the so-called Arab Spring many people worried that democratic change would bring about the ‘wrong’ kind of governments to power, and would create social instability and entrench political reaction, fears that in many ways have materialized. So, how do those who advocate democracy respond?
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 »
August 22, 2012 § 26 Comments
My ‘Notes on Religious Freedom’, a shorter version of which appeared in New Humanist, was picked up by Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution is True and led to a fascinating debate, much of it critical of my arguments. I am grateful to WEIT for linking to the essay and for hosting the debate. What was striking about much of the criticism was the degree to which it was underpinned by deeply authoritarian sentiments. I have observed before the way that many contemporary atheists adopt an unpleasantly authoritarian stance. Many now demand, in the name of ‘reason’ or ‘science’, state restrictions or bans on views that might cause ‘harm’. It is a strange attitude for those who supposedly believe in free speech and free thought. (And before anyone jumps on me I am not suggesting that all atheists, or even most atheists, believe this – there were many on the WEIT thread who challenged such views; what I am suggesting is that such claims now form an important and objectionable strand in contemporary atheism.)
What is particularly disturbing is the casual bigotry that now seems acceptable and often goes unchallenged. One of the criticisms on the WEIT thread was of my opposition to the burqa ban. One commenter had this to say:
Alexander Hellemans: Imagine you would board the Paris metro, and there is a seat next to some person in a burqa, very fat, and you can’t see its face. Would you feel comfortable sitting next to it?
‘It’ is a person. However much one might loathe religion, however much one might despise what the burqa symbolises, to describe a person as a thing is sheer bigotry. It is to look upon that woman in the same way as do Islamist clerics. We should not need reminding of the consequences, historically, of such dehumanization. Yet no one thought it necessary to challenge Hellemans’ sentiment. Such comments turn up, of course, on many blogs (Pandaemonium included). But the failure to challenge it suggests that people are sometimes so blinded by their loathing of religion that they become inured to such bigotry and do not recognize the need to combat it at every point. That is a dangerous place to be. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 5, 2012 § 9 Comments
As a coda to my previous post on abuse and how to deal with it, I am republishing this essay on changing notions of incitement that was first published in Index on Censorship in 2008. The essay was written in the context of the debate about the war on terror – it is an edited version of a talk I gave at an Index on Censorship conference on ‘Extremism and the Law: Free Speech in an Age of Terror’. It does not relate directly to the controversy about the abuse and threats received by Tom Daley and other public figures, nor to the question of how to deal with nastiness on the web. Nevertheless, the issues raised here are pertinent to the wider debate about incitement and the policing of speech.
Twenty years ago, at the height of the Rushdie affair, a televised debate took place in Manchester Town Hall. On the platform was Kalim Siddiqui, the founder of the London-based, Iranian-backed Muslim Institute. The fatwa, he claimed, was just, and Rushdie had to die. How many of you, he asked the audience, support the death sentence? The majority raised their hands. How many, he continued, would be willing to carry it out? Almost the same number kept their hands up. It was an electrifying moment, caught on camera and replayed on the evening news. It became the spark for a debate about incitement to murder. « Read the rest of this entry »
July 13, 2012 § 6 Comments
‘I’m going to assume that you accept the materialist view of personality, that character/mind is determined by both the brain and environmental factors. You used the examples of trust and anger as emotions that are not necessarily good for the former or bad for the latter. But what about indisputably pernicious tendencies like sexual predation/violence, psychopathy or homicidal urges? If one accepted a materialist conception of the mind, then wouldn’t it be an uncontroversial good to use medical/scientific means to purge these sorts of tendencies from people? And if you answer “no”, what would be the moral justification for letting a portion of society continually pose a (perhaps fatal) risk to others?’
So asked the blogger, Darrick Lim in response to my post on ‘Where Science Harks Back to a Biblical View of Morality’. Darrick poses here questions that get to the heart of the debate about crime, punishment, morality and free will raised by thinkers like Julian Savulescu, Sam Harris and Alex Rosenberg. Two issues in particular are important: What do we mean by a ‘materialist view of the mind’? And how do we decide what is moral? I could write a long book on each of these questions (I am, in fact, writing a book that touches on the latter one), but I do not have the time to write even a short essay. So instead here are a few short points in response, hopefully to kickstart a debate. « Read the rest of this entry »