Free Speech

I was interested to read the different print and internet versions of an article which Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has put in various "Independent" publications today.

The "i" copy is titled "Do we want Free Speech or Tittle-Tattle" with the subtitle "We should stop muddling celebrity shenanigans with abuse of power."

The inference - which it's very hard for a reasonable person to disagree with - is that the press should have the right to to probe when those in powerful positions have misused them or made a mistake, but it's not an edifying spectacle when the media use their freedoms and rights not to investigate such issues but to publish invasive smut about the sex lives of celebrities.

However, the slightly longer article in the full edition, and the internet version, which you can read here, has the rather different title

"We need new codes to define the perimeters of free speech"
and the subtitle

"Those who say the battle is between freedom and suppression, understand neither. It is so much more complicated than that."

It's quite interesting seeing which sentences in the longer version of the article did not make it into the shorter one.

The attempt by celebrities to use "super-injunctions" to stop press intrusion into their private lives is making the law look ridiculous and risks giving the same cover to those who are trying to conceal something which, unlike the question of which footballer is cheating on his wife with some former reality TV contestant, is a matter of legitimate public interest.

Her concluding words are

"New codes are needed. Law makers and upholders, the old and new media, and the people, need to came to a new settlement on freedom of expression and to define its perimeters. Remember anarchy is not liberty."

Hmm. It would be wonderful if society could agree on a more sensible place to draw the boundaries of what is, and what is not, legitimate free speech, and what it is in the public interest for journalists, bloggers or anyone else to investigate and publicise. Sadly it's not going to happen anytime soon.

Free speech, like other aspects of democracy, can be abused and can be infuriating at times. But you meddle with it at your peril - and other ways of managing things can be even worse.

In an earlier period of press excess the then culture secretary - before he himself was brought down by a media storm which started with publication of details of his sex life - warned the press that they were "drinking in the last chance saloon."

I can still hear in my mind the gentle Yorkshire tones with which a member of the present cabinet, who was then a much more junior politician, concluded a speech in which he gave a cautious response to that threat.

"If the press is drinking in the last chance saloon," said Eric Pickles nearly twenty years ago, "A wise government will think long and hard before calling Time."


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