The fraudulent, the offensive and the idiotic

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”88714″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Time was when the political right and social conservatives were enthusiasts for censorship – for “no-platforming” drama, film and books deemed obscene, disrespectful of authority or unpatriotic. The left, and liberals, were the supporters of freedom – calling for the publication of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960; supporting the editors of Oz Magazine in the 1970 prosecution for obscenity; and opposing the charge of gross indecency in the staging of Howard Brenton’s Romans in Britain in 1982.

In every one of these cases, the liberals won, mocking those who were active in the prosecution. The victories effectively ruled out any further action to stop publication or staging.

It is different now. Significant parts of the left now wish to rule out speech they deem offensive.

In the USA, especially on college campuses, the view that freedom of speech furthers understanding, broadens the mind and sharpens, modifies or even changes one’s own beliefs is now frequently opposed by another view, often militantly expressed.

This holds that institutions of all kinds have a responsibility to protect people from opinions they find odious because they will sustain psychological damage from exposure to them. It dictates that the person or group who would cause such harm should not be given any kind of platform – in person, on the web or in print.

In the UK, several universities have been drawn into the struggle around the allegations of “hurt” and efforts to deny hearings for speakers accused of spreading hurtful speech.

Those university authorities tend to be more robust than their US equivalents in insisting that, once invited, a speaker be heard – though not invariably.

Freedom of speech and publication is passing, on the left, from being necessary to being suspect. One strong voice is that of Nesrine Malik, a Guardian columnist, who believes that “freedom of speech is no longer a value”, writing that: “It has become a loophole exploited with impunity by trolls, racists and ethnic cleansing advocates… aided by the group I call useful liberals – the ‘defend to the death your right to say it’ folk.”

The notion that freedom of speech is a neutral principle uncontaminated by history or social bias is, she believes, a “delusion”. Liz Fekete, director of the Institute of Race Relations, takes the same approach. She believes that “it is the privileging of freedom of speech over freedom to life that has emboldened identitarian and neo-Nazi activists, who are experts at manipulating naive liberal arguments about freedom of speech”.

These themes, if less strongly put, now appear in official discourse. A government white paper – usually a prelude to legislation – on Online Harms, which aims to make the UK “the safest place in the world to go online”, defines harms as “behaviour online which may hurt a person physically or emotionally”.

Thus free speech shifts from being something essential to a democratic society (even when offensive) to an issue dependent on a vague definition of emotional harm – which, by its nature, must attract myriad charges from those who claim criticism has damaged them emotionally, and thus must be censored.

Index on Censorship’s robust recognition, in an August 2018 statement, that “we, as users, will have to tolerate the fraudulent, the offensive and the idiotic” if speech is to be free now faces an existential challenge.

In a BBC Breakfast discussion in August last year, the former chief crown prosecutor, Nazir Afzal, suggested that prosecuting someone for hate speech could stop his or her later development into a major criminal. Jodie Ginsberg, Index’s chief executive, countered that, saying: “The idea that we can prevent future crimes by policing expression is a dangerous road to go down.”

Yet it is an indication of how official thinking now develops.

Earlier this month, an essay – Designating Hate – was published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. It was an unusually clear argument for censorship – in this case of organisations “which demonise specific groups on the basis of their race, religion, gender, nationality or sexuality”.

The proposal would task the Home Office with the duty of drawing up a list of those organisations which habitually use speech designed to prompt hatred, and to limit them “from appearing on media outlets or engaging with public institutions”.

They would be given a chance to reform: reviews would determine whether or not the organisation had changed its behaviour and, if so, it could be admitted to the media or engage with public institutions once more.

The good intentions of such legislation and proposed legislation are obvious. The framers of these policies wish to dam the flood of hate and threat which now pulses through social media, and to protect vulnerable people from their effects. But it’s questionable if they do protect – suppression of speech tends merely to re-route it, making it more alluring to those it attracts. And what is less in question is that they will in future promote a new kind of censorship, as algorithms pick up on key words to shut down blogs and messages which quote hate speech in order to oppose it; or which remove the output of far right or far left groups which, though repellent to liberals, have a right to be published.

The deletion of speech judged harmful opens up an endless trajectory, in which one excision begets another. “The fraudulent, the offensive and the idiotic” have always been with us, and though social media and the web amplify their reach, we still must tolerate them if we wish to preserve a robust civil society.[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1568819478334-b34b0086-8688-0″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

The Multipolar Challenge to Free Expression

The current issue of Index on Censorship magazine features a special report on the shifting world power balance and the implications for freedom of expression.

“The multipolar world can be one where universal human rights and freedom of expression are kept firmly on the agenda, and increasingly respected, if these democracies hold themselves and each other to account — and are held to account — at home and internationally,” write Index CEO Kirsty Hughes and London School of Economics professor Saul Estrin.

The issue also looks at press freedom in Italy, Burma, Mexico, Columbia and India as well as violence against journalists and arrests of those who expose uncomfortable truths.  “Worldwide, on average only one in ten cases of murders of journalists ends in a conviction,” says Guy Berger, author of an article on the threats and dangers journalists encounter around the world. Instead of being reassured that the rule of law will be upheld, “the take-away lesson for everyone is: journalists can be killed with impunity”.

From the current issue
Global view: Who has freedom of expression? | The multipolar challenge to free expression | Censorship: The problem child of Burma’s dictatorship | News in monochrome: Journalism in India

Also in this issue:

  • John Lloyd on how party politics have skewed Italian journalism
  • Yavuz Baydar says Turkey’s media moguls must defend free speech
  • Htoo Lwin Myo tells what was it is like to work as a writer in Burma
  • Bharat Bhushan on “paid-for” news and the absence of marginal voices in the Indian media
  • Lawrence Freedman and Benedict Wilkinson on the opportunities — and limits — of online activism
  • A new play from Turkmenistani writer-in-exile Farid Tukhbatullin, whose wit offers a glimpse of life inside one of the world’s most closed and repressive countries.
  • Find out more here | Subscribe now


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Hurrah for the unlovable free press

Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press
By Michael Schudson
Polity Press (£16.99)

This review is a guest post by John Lloyd

Democracy is served in curious ways: and one of these may have been the outburst last week of Michael Martin, the Speaker in the UK’s House of Commons, to a chamber struggling to frame an appropriate response as details of expense claims by members of parliament began to emerge. Ill humour bursting from his ruddy cheeks and avid to discover the source of the leak, Mr Martin was caustic with fellow MPs for “telling the media what they wanted to hear”. It was the voice of privilege challenged — but also of frustrated fury. Who are newspaper reporters to get so high and mighty about expense fiddles? What right have newspaper editors, in thrall to politically interventionist proprietors, to blame politicians for bringing democracy low?

These are good questions, although the Speaker was unwise to raise them in the middle of a moral storm in which the part of Jove the Thunderer is played by the British media. For this time the press — led by the Daily Telegraph, the receiver of the golden details — is right. Unlovable, hypocritical, slavish — it has done its job.

It has uncovered a scandal: and not just a scandal. The amounts of money are trivial and the infractions are mainly minor; but the public exposure of men and women deploying their creativity to wring every possible advantage out of their allowances is deeply unedifying. In some cases, it is shocking. These are the people who make the laws that tell us what to do on pain of fine or imprisonment. One does not have to be a hyperventilating tabloid columnist to expect better behaviour than that which has been revealed.

Revealed, we should remember, by the unlovable press. Michael Schudson, among the best of the academic writers on the media, has seen in the raucousness and hype of newspapers a pearl beyond price: the instinct to create trouble for the establishment, the panjandrums — them. In this collection of essays, the central one — which shares the book’s title — lays out four elements of necessary unlovability. These are: a love of the unplanned and the disruptive; an even greater love of conflict and dissent; a scepticism about the claims of politics; and a willingness to name names and connect the names with crimes and misdemeanors.

Schudson writes: “That is what serves democracy: the irresistible drive of journalists to focus on events, including those that powerful forces cannot anticipate and often cannot manage”. Thus when Matt Drudge began his subsequently richly rewarded career by showing, from his bedroom laptop, that President Bill Clinton was an adulterer; or when bloggers uncovered a speech made in 2002 by Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader, which pointed to racist views; or, more recently, when Paul Staines, a British blogger operating under the incendiary nom de guerre of Guido Fawkes, uncovered a sleazy plan on the part of prime ministerial aides to tar leading Conservatives with sex scandals – in all of these cases, the people glorying in their ill-gotten power and tearing down the powerful did well by us.

They fulfilled one of the necessary prerequisites of the free press: that it is free. In the words of Walter Meers ,a veteran AP reporter quoted in another of Schudson’s essays: “There are too many excursions into trivia,too much play for the public opinion polls, too many words about who’s ahead and who’s behind. There’s a reason. That is what people want to know.”

But here is the rub. Schudson is writing of American newspapers. In the much more overheated conditions of the British press — where populist tabloids far outsell upmarket broadsheets and where, in any case, the latter are just as liable to sink their teeth into politicians as the former — there is a larger problem. The expenses revelations come after many years in which, in diverse ways, the media have made of politics and politicians a cross between a spectacle, a reality show and a farce.

Recently playing in the cinemas has been State of Play, an Americanised version of a BBC television series that showed leading politicians to be monumentally corrupt, and In the Loop, a farcical rendering of the spin culture of the New Labour governments. A new, web-based radio station, Sun Talk, launched by the country’s most popular tabloid, fills hour after hour with political denigration. The second most popular but arguably more influential tabloid, the Daily Mail, is organising legal challenges to errant MPs.

This is part of a long struggle between the media and the political class for the allegiance of those whom the first call the audience and the second, the electorate. How far that competition is in our interests is another matter; and one for another day.

This review originally appear on the Financial Times website

Britain: Liberty is ill

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