Time for some pragmatic support for freedom?

Richard Waite is currently reading Law at the University and has previously completeted a degree in Philosophy and Political Economy at the University of Exeter. As one of our veteran members, he has made an ongoing contribution to the society and continues to do so. In his most recent contribution, Richard takes us through some of the issues surrounding liberty in speech and publications.

Expression that we find offensive must be permitted for our society to be called free. Such a statement should be self-evident. This freedom isn’t necessarily an absolute, an inflammatory speech made in front of an angry mob may be a very different thing to the same speech made in more considered circumstances.  Context as much as content matters when it comes to conveying ideas, however we should be supremely sceptical about any attempt to try to prohibit the content itself.

A lot of the debate is currently around hate speech and the extent to which it should be prohibited. I’d argue that prohibition is not only ideologically wrong but also unnecessary and worse, entirely counter productive. However that’s not what this posts really about. There are two just as serious ways in which our ability to express ourselves is limited that have been highlighted recently.

First in this short list of shame are our libel laws. Individuals, professions and companies should all have recourse to the law to protect themselves from defamation.  Whether its libel or slander the freedom to make speech doesn’t excuse oneself from the results of what is said.  This protection can also have undesirable consequences. The so-called chilling effect whereby fear of being taken to court stifles speech before it is made, the cost both personal and financial of defending oneself can be enough to silence all but the most determined commentator.

To some extent this is as unfortunate as it is unavoidable; justice oughtn’t be sidelined because it costs time and money. Instead we should do all we can to minimise or ameliorate the impact upon speech that isn’t defamatory. At the moment the opposite appears to be the case; the chilling effect is more akin to permafrost.

Guardian Journalist Ben Goldacre recounts in one chapter of his rather excellent book “Bad Science” how he was brought before the courts for questioning the efficacy of vitamins as a treatment for aids (the chapter is available online for those that are interested). Defending this case cost in excess of £500,000 before it was dropped. Journalist Simon Singh MBE is currently being sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for questioning the treatment its members provide. I’ve no expertise or insight into the truth of these claims and this isn’t a critique of alternative medicine. Rather I suggest that neither of these men should have had the accusations against them entertained as a matter of principle.

Both of these men have respected backgrounds in science and whilst this doesn’t make them infallible we should appreciate their contributions and their right to speak freely on the subjects about which they are experts just as we would respect the rights of their detractors to do likewise. Are we to tolerate a position where those advocating science and reason are to be pursued through the courts rather than through the journals that exist to debate answer such issues? The burden of proof should be upon the accuser not the accused and only where advice being given is demonstrably wrong should a legal issue arise.

Equally shameful are the outmoded regulations requiring impartiality in broadcasting. Impartiality is more of a conceptual than practical possibility. There may be degrees of partiality but all programming is developed within a particular cultural framework and it is inevitable that this will reflect certain preferences and assumptions over others. Even if all news were to consist of nothing more than the presentation of facts there would be a debate over which facts should be presented and how, and that still wouldn’t address partiality found in drama’s or other programming. Even the relevant section of the broadcasting code speaks of ‘due’ impartiality, ‘due’ being used to modify the meaning of impartiality to include notions of appropriateness.

The fact that impartiality is difficult isn’t in itself a reason to abandon it any more than we abandon the NHS on learning that over time mortality will always reach 100% (although it is something that some of the ‘spend ever more’ brigade might ponder).  Instead I say this to show that in embracing a plurality of competing views we wouldn’t be foregoing anything we currently have. Nor would we be loosing journalistic integrity or ethics; many news sources on-line and in print have editorial slants and it is entirely to the benefit of our society. In the same way that I can choose to read the Guardian or the Telegraph so I should be able to choose to watch Fox News or the BBC.

In a world where there were only 4 television stations means to moderate their ability to support a partisan position were not only justified but also quite necessary. That world is now consigned to history. There are 999 channels on my Sky Box including those devoted to all manner of niche and trivial interests, more than enough to support channels targeted at people with specific political preferences.  People in the UK are incredibly savvy and intelligent and it is to our shame that we are not trusted to freely choose what we watch and it infantilises us as individuals.

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4 thoughts on “Time for some pragmatic support for freedom?

  1. Excellently considered post.

    I’m less enthusiastic about a plurality of competing views. While I accept that this is good for society, there is also a demand for due impartiality in news reporting. To some extent I think this is why the BBC continues to pull in viewers at 6 and 10 o’clock. Broadly speaking people trust their output.

    I know that I can tune into CNBC business news and listen to a bunch of people who agree with eachother, and broadly speaking, who I agree with. However, my expectations are different when I listen to the BBC news or the Today Programme. I tune in because I want to know the facts.

    Obviously the facts and the presentation of the facts are always questionable, but there are gradations of impartiality.

  2. There is no reason that the BBC couldn’t remain and be subject to the regulations as they currently are – I just don’t believe that other channels should also be subject to rules on impartiality.

    That said I’m no fan of the BBC, it’s a demode answer to a question thats long disappeared. I feel it currently stifles creativity and crowds out competition. At the very least it should be reduced in size and scope.

  3. I agree that the BBC should be subject to impartiality guidance. It is the public service broadcaster and there are, rightly, high expectations.

    In terms of other channels I lean towards your point of view. Most of them show scant regard for quality and impartiality anyway.

    With regard to your comments on the BBC, I congratulate its ability to compete. As for ‘crowding out’, I think this is overplayed by free-marketeers due to their prejudice against public institutions. In fact the ‘unique way the BBC is funded’ allows for long-term investment in programming, whereas advertising revenue can be volatile (as ITV are finding).

    The effects of this are important. For example, at a time when local television and radio is less commercially viable, the BBC is able to preserve local news coverage in addition to maintaining a sizable viewing audience. In my view, this is wholly in the public interest.

  4. Well let me assure you my comments on the BBC ‘crowding out’ competition was not based upon instinctive prejudice.

    Obviously I agree that a guaranteed income is less volatile than actually having to earn that income. If the BBC produces the high quality entertainment we’d like then it does so in competition with firms who have to struggle to raise advertising revenue. By being successful the BBC therefore makes it harder for other companies – to put it simply the audience share taken by the BBC will mean lower revenues for other firms. You mention ITV – and although the BBC ‘lost’ in this instance – take as an example the xfactor/strictly come ballroom dancing schedule clash.

    Alternatively the BBC could shrink its remit to producing material which would be under provided or not provided at all by the free market. I suppose there is perhaps something noble about compelling people to pay for what we suppose is good for them but what they don’t choose to consume themselves.

    Maybe local news and radio would be more successful in the free market were the BBC not taking up so much of the audience share.

    Finally you can develop all the impartiality guidance you like for the BBC but it will never actually be impartial. You may feel other stations ‘pay scant regard to quality and impartiality’ but they are still bound by rules preventing them producing political programming of certain types.

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