Leveson and liberty
That some in the press behaved disgracefully and recklessly there can be no doubt. That a few behaved illegally with regard to phone hacking or data theft appears most likely. But Lord Justice Leveson appears to be ignorant of the fact that there are already laws covering such abuses of power. Even more bizarre is that the journalists he has in his sights are those who work for the (declining) mainstream press: Blogger and Twitter are not to be covered by his proposed regulation, which leaves the intrepid Guido Fawkes to investigate away (recklessly) with impunity..
His Grace writes a quarterly column for Freedom, the distinguished journal of The Freedom Association. The article below appeared in their most recent edition. In light of Leveson's proposals for statutory regulation of the press (which he insists is not statutory regulation of the press), it seems apposite to reproduce it today, for the moment a free press is placed beneath any 'independent' body - a statutory regulator - we will see, as sure as night follows day, freedom of speech gradually ratcheted away, for a journalist with the threat of prison hanging over him is less likely to be 'robust' in the acquisition of information in pursuit of the truth:
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” wrote John Milton in his Areopagitica – a speech to England’s Parliament in 1644. In a fractious time of political division and religious dissent, he was making a plea for the toleration of diverse views, no matter how offensive those views may be. He grasped that the freedom to speak contrarily is a foundation of our liberty; it is the cornerstone of liberal democracy.
Milton’s worldview was Protestant: his theology was that of the Reformation; his truth pointing towards that of the Enlightenment. Without the freedoms of speech and expression, nothing could be changed: the prevailing orthodoxies – religious, social, moral and political – thereby become infallible doctrines and immutable laws, defined and determined by an elite priestly caste.
The one caveat identified by both Milton and JS Mill as a justifiable limit to free expression was the ‘harm’ factor: nothing should be censored provided that none is injured, and so Parliament legislated over the succeeding centuries not only against bodily harm, but also against the incitement to harm.
But all matters of opinion were to be tolerated for the good of society. Those opinions may be insulting, unfavourable and offensive, but without the toleration of such there can be no freedom of opinion, both on truth and that of utility. In a 1999 court judgment, Lord Justice Sedley reiterated this right, and quoted Socrates and two famous Quakers in doing so. He said: “Free speech includes not only the offensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative, providing it does not tend to provoke violence.” There is no breach of the peace if what is said is merely offensive.
The world has seen too many examples of state control and censorship of unofficial utterances. Society is all the better when the freedom reigns for people to spout their offensive / irritating / contentious / eccentric / heretical / unwelcome / provocative views. The alternative is to be burnt at the stake – literally, in centuries past, or metaphorically in the present. We draw the line at prejudice, irrational discrimination or incitement. Or we used to, before the development of the concept of ‘hate speech’.
Mill expounded the manifest benefits of ‘searching for and discovering the truth’. But what further knowledge may be gleaned if a false opinion may not be challenged, for fear of the hearer being offended and the speaker arrested? How may truth be discerned if error may not be refuted, lest the refutation be deemed ‘hate’? Since most opinions are neither completely true nor completely false, only by a robust exchange in free expression can competing views be aired and partial truths made more whole.
It is profoundly concerning that people are being investigated by the police – even children – for posting jokes in bad taste on their Facebook pages, or sending out impolite Tweets. It is even more concerning that adults are being imprisoned for doing the same, as in the case of Matthew Woods, who posted an offensive joke about April Jones, the little girl who went missing from Machynlleth.
Certainly, missing children are no laughing matter, and Mr Woods has shown himself to be a heartless and unfeeling brute. But imprisoned? Criminalised for failing to empathise with April Jones’ parents? What is this emerging emotional correctness?
It wasn’t so long ago that The Freedom Association was railing against the Royal Mail for illegally withholding millions of letters and parcels while the whole nation mourned the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The grief was ubiquitous – teddy bears and flowers strewn on spontaneous shrines the length and breadth of the country. Emotional correctness demanded conformity: TFA alone introduced a note of jarring dissonance. But the thought of Norris McWhirter being prosecuted and imprisoned today for being offensive or insensitive is absurd. That Diana died was tragic. That the Royal Mail chose to indulge the nation’s collective grief by suspending its services was inconvenient. But that people might be criminalised for finding the whole circus distasteful, and then turning to Facebook and Twitter to spread their vicious satire, is a fundamental offence against freedom.
If a teenage boy can be cautioned by the police for tweeting about Tom Daley failing to win an Olympic gold medal, or a blogger arrested for criticising his local councillors, do we not effectively have a social media patrolled by the police? If the Malicious Communications Act 2003 can be used to censor ‘bad taste’, why may it not be used to suppress minority political views? If Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 outlaws ‘insulting words or behaviour’, why may it not inhibit all rational discourse on Islam or Mohammed; Mormonism or Scientology?
O, hang on...
Channel 4 recently pulled the plug Tom Holland’s documentary Islam: The Untold Story. Mr Holland received threats and abusive tweets, merely for investigating the history of the religion, and so the spineless C4 decided that this story of Islam will remain untold. Thus, ever so subtly, the airwaves of Britain are being incrementally subject to Shari’a: Islam may not be critically discussed; its history may not be investigated; its precepts may not be debated.
Last year the owner of a café was told by police to stop displaying ‘offensive’ Bible verses. In 2008 a teenage boy was arrested for describing the Church of Scientology as a ‘cult’. He was part of a peaceful demonstration, but the police confiscated his placard, deeming it to constitute an expression of ‘hate’.
We must thank God that we have no Mormon politicians, for next year the West End plays host to The Book of Mormon, a satirical musical from the creators of South Park. Doubtless it will cause much offence and someone will feel insulted, and the entire population of Salt Lake City might threaten to descend upon the theatre to protest. But even if they don’t, we can count on the police to intervene, for the Lord Chamberlain has returned, helmeted, dressed in blue, intent on stifling debate, crushing dissent, and inculcating a sinister and illiberal self-censorship.