‘The answer to speech you don’t like is more speech’
Journalism academic Brian Winston talks to Jason Walsh about the parlous state of free speech in the UK, how ‘crap’ the News of the World was, and why it should still be in existence.
Publishing a book called A Right to Offend is a brave move right now, given offence has seemingly become the most grievous of harms that can be dished-out.
Just a few weeks ago, an outraged spat over newspaper columnist Julie Burchill’s depiction of transsexuals resulted in her Observer article being thrown down the memory hole, complete with a grovelling apology from the newspaper’s editor for ever publishing it. Lynne Featherstone, the Lib-Con government’s equalities minister, meanwhile called not only for Burchill to be sacked, but the newspaper’s editor to lose his job, too. And then, of course, there is Lord Leveson, whose free-wheeling inquiry into the press has, for the first time in three centuries, raised the spectre of state oversight of the media. In short, now is not a good time for supporters of a free press – but there are a few to be found, if one looks hard enough.
The author of A Right to Offend, University of Lincoln professor of journalism Brian Winston, is an academic and journalist who is most certainly on the side of freedom of expression. The book is no slim polemic, either, but a meticulously researched 400-page demolition of arguments for the closing down of speech, not only in the press, but also online and, thankfully, in wider society, too. Winston does a sterling job of placing Hackgate and Leveson in a sound historical and philosophical context that includes John Milton, Salman Rushdie, the internet and everything in between.
A central theme, which emerges early on, is the ‘treason of the clerks’, a wonderful turn of phrase borrowed from philosopher Julien Benda, that neatly encapsulates the tendency of the intelligentsia to abandon its independence and become apologists for power, in this case in the form of censorship. Writing this from inside a university must itself be a form of treason, given the scholarly world seems increasingly unimpressed with Enlightenment principles such as reason and freedom.
Speaking to Winston, it immediately becomes clear he is not a man given to illusions. For example, despite his opposition to Lord Justice Leveson’s proposed press regulations (rather cheekily, he sent the judge a copy of his book), Winston was not a fan of the News of the World. ‘It was complete crap from day one in 1843, but very significant’, he says. ‘The popular press of the day melded crime [reporting] and political stuff, and [the NotW] worked out you could do the crime but ignore the politics.’
Despite this, Winston is adamant that press freedom matters, even when it is no guarantee of a good press – however one might want to define such a thing. ‘As an American editor said: “We never promised you a fair press, an accurate press. All we promised you was a free press.” Obviously you need caveats, but you work from JS Mill’s harm principle.’ Snooty distaste for the tabloids and their alleged effect on society does not, however, constitute harm.
‘To dismiss tabloids is to misunderstand the press and its function. I have no problem with newspapers that entertain or amuse their readers. For those of us brought up in the trade, we can remember people admiring the Daily Mirror, and who today admire the Daily Mail. There are tremendous skills involved in reducing a story to 50 words. But that doesn’t mean they can go poking their cameras up people’s knickers’, he says.
Winston is adamant that regulation is a retrograde political step, and explains that the abolition of state newspaper licensing was a result of a keenly felt opposition to tyranny. ‘The restored throne didn’t have the clout it had before and it couldn’t get parliament’s agreement, because parliament was split and neither side wanted the others in control’, he explains. ‘As Locke says, special laws for the constraint of the press are needless. He’s not saying there should be no laws, he’s saying there should be no special laws.’
How different are Locke’s sentiments from those of today, when figures across the political spectrum disagree only on the extent to which the press should be controlled. ‘Leveson fell for it hook, line and sinker. He thinks [UK broadcasting regulator] Ofcom can do no wrong but if you look at the history of regulated news [in the form of broadcasting], you can see that when it comes to real stuff, real news… regulators are not, in their DNA, up for real journalism’, he says.
Winston says there is a role for the state in, for instance, the distribution of broadcast spectrum, but the state should have no role in determining what material is fit to be produced or consumed. He also says that keeping these two unrelated missions from becoming intertwined has been, historically, impossible.
‘There is a tendency to regulate necessitated by all kinds of social factors’, Winston says. ‘This has nothing to do with content, but it always seeps across. As night follows day, authority can’t keep its hands out of the till. Take film: nitrate film is dangerous [being highly flammable], so it’s regulated, but very quickly it then becomes “You can’t show films on Sundays” and “You can’t show this kind of film at all”.’
But what of those who argue that people’s feelings need to be protected? Winston says this increasingly common view that offence is reason enough to shut down expression is simply wrong. ‘A lot of people might think the world is flat but, sorry, it isn’t. This goes back to the vexed issue of harm. One of the foundational things in Anglophone libel law is that to accuse someone of a crime falsely is itself a crime. Libel is a problem when “harm” is internal, when it’s about feelings and offence’, he says. ‘When I was a youngster you couldn’t take [court] action on the basis that you were offended. Affront is not actionable. Once you do that you’re on a slippery slope to censorship, however high-minded your intentions are. It seems to me that limiting speech doesn’t work. The answer to speech you don’t like is more speech.’
Why now, though? Why the permanent state of outrage, echoing across the internet and through the pages of broadsheet newspapers directly into courtrooms and the chambers of Westminster? Political and cultural change is Winston’s answer. ‘I think there was a time in which [the right to free] speech was less challenged. We’ve been on a rising tide of sensitivity for two centuries. Politically correct sensibilities make a whole set of assumptions about effect. It’s in the realm of speculation, much like the unfounded speculation that obscene images cause depravity’, he says. This has turned traditional political categories on their head, says Winston, with the left cheering on censorship in the name of liberalism and sensitivity.
But isn’t it for the better that people are generally more sensitive to others today, rather than causing gratuitous offence? Do we really want to go back to the days of casual racism and unrepentant sexism? Winston says that is not the point, nor is it what anyone is actually suggesting. A robust exchange of views does not have to be a slanging match, and disagreement does not make one’s opponents dangerous bigots.
‘The rising tide of sensitivity is good’, Winston tells me, ‘but it’s not without down sides. There is an ever-expanding notion of harm. Let’s start instead from the Enlightenment position of Jefferson: “It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods, or no god.” If I falsely accuse you of murder I shall have to expect a comeback, but if you call me an ugly old bugger, well, tough on me. To say I have a right not to be upset is ridiculous.’
Interestingly, Winston is also sceptical about the role played by the internet today. ‘Clicktivism is unbelievably ridiculous’, he says, with an economy of language worthy of the best journalist. Indeed, it is peculiar to observe that many full-throated advocates of free speech online are also among those most vociferous in calling for a legal restraint on speech in other media, or simply for people they don’t much like.
Also, common arguments for so-called social media mistake participation in media with participation in society itself. Unsurprisingly, then, attacking the ‘old’ media has become something of a hobby for embittered activists frustrated that their minority views haven’t taken the world by storm.
Winston charges such activists with having a simplistic worldview. Certainly the focus on the press as the source of all of the left’s woes, or, indeed, of all the world’s ills, is a surprisingly popular view among network theorists and other online boosters – surprising, precisely because there is no empirical evidence to support such claims.
‘What you really need is to look at [the work of] John Gaventa. The problem of effecting social change can be metaphorically represented as a Rubik’s cube and only one of those tiles is the media. You can twist it around as much as you like, but nothing is going to happen.’
Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. Visit his website here. He is writing here in a personal capacity.
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