Freedom of speech, freedom from harassment

Recently, I heard news about issues in Venezuela over the liberties of the press. The strife in relations between the industry and the State represents President Maduro’s fierce campaign to promote his government and that of Hugo Chavez before him. TV channels and publications that openly criticise the Government are frequently put under pressure to cease broadcasting such slander – pressure that has comprised being accused of conspiring against the country. That this repugnant trend goes so far as the official ordering of a 30-minute “truth-bulletin” twice a day on these stations is testament to the absurd totalitarian underpinnings of such a media policy.

The country’s case was on my mind at the same time as I turned my thoughts to the current debate over press regulation in the UK. After a lengthy and unproductive public discussion over how best to implement the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, mainly concluding in yet further disagreement between newspapers and politicians, the key ideas and claims behind the debate have, quite typically, been muddled and lost.

It is, while the details remain so unclear, at least a little uninteresting to simply argue for either the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) or the royal-charter-supported scheme currently being set in motion. I do, however, wish to make clear my wholehearted support for the absolute freedom of the press, as a concept derived from the importance of freedom of speech. The idea that what the press can report about those in positions of power, and consequently the extent to which they can hold those officials responsible for their actions, should not be restricted, is near-universally accepted in liberal democracies. For this reason I do not feel my opinions are radical. The situation faced by Venezuelan dissenters must be avoided at all costs; voices of dissatisfaction, and not least the truth itself, must be heard.

Another notion that almost all right-thinking people would accept is that no private or public institution, not even in the name of the values given above, should be permitted to harass and persecute individual citizens to the extent that those citizens’ rights and liberties are infringed. This is exactly what occurred with the News of the World phone hacking scandal. Such irresponsible and perverse behaviour of course occurs as moral hazard when journalists are driven to investigate lavish stories at any cost in order to satisfy their impatient readerships.

Obviously it is the trade-off between these two conflicting principles that the discussion hinges upon. Yet the former applies to what can be published whereas the latter is very much a matter of the methods of investigation. Thus, claims decrying the politicians’ suggestions as the end of press freedom are clearly unfounded if directed at constraints on the press’ ability to intrude unchecked into the personal spheres of citizens, which no institution should be free to do in the first place. Equally, regulatory measures that alter what is written or said at the moment when papers go to press and channels broadcast their stories must not be put into practice.

Personally, I find that I side with the old liberal school when it comes to freedom of expression. All opinions should be allowed to be voiced, even those that are wrong, for valid opinions will reinforce our true beliefs while invalid ones remind us of why we originally moved away from them. From the recent reaction to the Daily Mail’s piece of lunacy about Ralph Miliband, it is clear that the freedom to print what they so wish is an important function of newspapers, even when the farcical product is roundly rejected by our community. In that instance, it is important to observe that the subsequent conduct of Mail reporters was what was quite so deplorable, placing the problem firmly under the jurisdiction of the second of my above principles.

A final thought that must be added (which will hopefully be expanded upon in a subsequent post) is one of the poignancy of the U.K. Government’s current stance on surveillance. The parallels between that subject and the press debate are remarkable. Newspapers must check their records and official lines for duplicity over an organisation’s right to intrude into citizens’ personal lives, but so must the State.

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