Obnoxious people have the right to freedom of speech too, don’t they?

How on earth to balance freedom of speech as outlined in the European Convention of Human Rights with the moderation of obnoxious and damaging views?

Channel 4 News has just neatly illustrated this conflict which lies at the heart of two very high profile UK stories this week:

Jon Snow was interviewing, among others, John Kampfner, chief executive of the Index on Censorship about the BBC’s decision to allow the BNP to appear on Question Time.

Snow then slipped in the Jan Moir / Stephen Gately question at the end; something along the lines of how do we marry freedom of speech with the regulation of unpleasant views?

Kampfner said that it all depended if you were breaking the law, something for the courts to decide. “If she [Moir] is to be prosecuted for any for incitement, or homophobia, or whatever, that is for the law to determine,” he said.

“I wouldn’t want it published. I would defend the right for it to be published,” he said, explaining that it was for the PCC to reprimand the Mail if necessary and for an editor to obey the codes to which its publication has signed up.

I agree. While I think Moir’s article (which I did read in full, whatever she might like to believe about its critics) was unpleasant and included wild conjecture, I’d rather live in a country where we experience some vile views, than one in which we undermine the right to freedom of speech. We can criticise the Mail’s handling of the story, without gagging her.

While I fully back complainants in their bid to hit the Mail where it hurts via advertisers (quite a lot) and the PCC (not so much), I don’t think that means we should stop the publication of horrible and distasteful views. Instead, tackle the issues that lead to these distasteful views.

Make it difficult for Moir to find an influential publication to publish her work. Make it that people don’t vote for the BNP because they see them for what they are. Then you will see democratic exposure of bigoted positions. But you can’t fight bigots with equally extreme enforced suppression.

These issues are tricky, and should be addressed as such. Like Martin Cloake, I ‘genuinely welcome guidance’.

Making sense of absolutes: a postscript

Martin goes back to the issue of NightJack’s unmasking and compares it with the case of the Guardian’s legal run-in with Trafigura:

Of NightJack he had said: “You can’t base a principle on whether or not you agree with something – a principle has to apply across the board. You can’t agree with one person’s ‘right’ to run an anonymous blog criticising something you are critical of while simultaneously disagreeing with another person’s ‘right’ to hide behind anonymity in order to push views you don’t agree with.”

Today he wrote: “After the NightJack ruling, the online community was up in arms about this loss of anonymity, yet last week that same community was celebrating using the fluid structure of online and social media to unmask a company that tried to stay anonymous.”

He’s right – universals are difficult. Both involved injunctions; one abandoned, one overturned. But I’ll try to make some sense of it from where I stand:

Trafigura was suppressing a document that was arguably in the public interest (for 30,000 Ivorians, for example); NightJack was arguably writing in the public interest (as I write, a interviewee on Channel 4 Dispatches uses one of NightJack’s posts to illustrate the example of difficulties encountered in policing protests).

Both legal battles were ones of upholding public interest – as the law defines it. While I am suspicious of absolutes, it’s the system we operate in: the courts dictate whether something is in the public interest.

And in the case of NightJack I think Eady got it wrong: he thought the public interest was better served by his unmasking; I don’t. As David Banisar wrote on the Index on Censorship, anonymous sources have long been considered essential to free expression.

So we’re back to freedom of speech: in my opinion, Trafigura was infringing the Guardian’s right to freedom of speech; The Times infringed NightJack’s freedom of speech.

And this, I think, ties into the democratic exposure of bigots. Use your voice to force change. Campaign for what you believe is in the ‘public interest’, and we will democratically achieve change.

Unhappy with the current system of libel laws, for example? Then do something. Simon Singh thinks we can strengthen the public interest defence and reverse the burden of proof, if enough pressure is applied…

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2 comments

  1. sarahditum

    I often think that there's a confusion between the right to free speech (which I think should exist and be defended), and an obligation for broadcasters and publishers to provide a platform (which doesn't necessarily exist, and which campaigners are justified in undermining by addressing the editorial staff or advertisers). Jan Moir can say what she likes about Gately and civil partnerships, but the Mail was under no obligation to publish it – and for a newspaper to publish a factually inaccurate report of a recent death is, I think, the sort of thing that edges beyond “defensible free speech” and into “errors deserving sanction”.

  2. gregwatts

    Of course, the Mail could have spiked the Moir piece, but I think it would have been wrong to do so. She is paid to express opinions. Some of them will almost certainly offend some people. As for the facts surrounding Stephen Gateley's death, none of us know for sure what they are. Moir is speculating. That's what columnists do. They stir things up.There are many columnists whose opinions I disagree with and whose handling of facts is shaky. But I would still rather that they have a platform in newspapers. I don't want to only read writers who reflect my own views.

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