spiked proposals: Freedom of expression
Defend free expression without qualification; scrap English libel law; distinguish between words and deeds.
Political leaders should:
- Defend free expression without qualification.
In Britain, it seems, we believe in free speech but….
Those exercising free expression are told to enjoy their freedom but:
- a)with responsibility
- b)as long as it includes the protection of individual privacy and of certain types of people such as children, victims upset by tragedy or those offended by racist or sexist comments.
Media codes of conduct stipulate this qualified definition of free expression; cross-party support has been given to the Human Rights Act 1998. Article 10 of the Human Rights Act states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of expression’, but in the next breath lists a string of circumstances in which the right may be qualified.
Also under the Human Rights Act, the right to freedom of expression must now be ‘balanced’ with the right to respect for private life (article 9).
On an everyday level, public discussion is increasingly circumscribed by a desire to avoid causing offence. During the UK general election, politicians willingly signed a compact pledging not to play the ‘race card’; and for the second election running, a party-political broadcast by the anti-abortion campaigners ProLife Alliance was banned by the BBC on the grounds of taste and decency. A general election, of all times, should be a place where the hard arguments are had out.
We should view the right to talk, think and discuss what people want as a distinct and essential right, which ceases to exist when loaded with qualifications. And we should defend the importance of a free-flowing exchange of ideas – especially when some find those ideas offensive. Without the right to be offensive, there is no such thing as true free speech.
Too many people react to criticism by calling a libel lawyer. Why? Some argue that the English libel law is the only way to stop offensive criticism or lies, or to restore reputation. But it is well recognised that, in practice, libel law is used by the rich and powerful to stop discussion and debate.
For those seeking public redress from free expression that they wish to rebuff, media companies should open up more of their broadcasts, pages or websites for reply, so that people can answer their critics. If people had more opportunity to present their case via the media, the libel law courts would at least be a last, not a first, resort.
Beyond the mainstream media, imaginative uses of the internet, email and other forms of independent public expression can increase the circulation of ideas around the world. As an increasing number of voices call for greater restrictions on what people can say and see online, free expression on the internet should be vigorously defended.
New laws governing harassment or ‘hate crime’ blur the distinction between words and actions, by emphasising the emotional impact of certain words or phrases. Debates about the need to protect individuals’ privacy stress the extent to which certain words and images can cause emotional harm.
The right to free speech has always been defended despite the recognition that ‘words hurt’. Yet now, hurting somebody’s feelings can be seen as an equivalent misdemeanour to punching them in the face. We should stick to the distinction between words and deeds, and insist that, if words only hurt somebody’s feelings, they should not be punishable by law.
Tessa Mayes is an investigative journalist, and author of Disclosure: Media Freedom and the Privacy Debate After Diana, published by the LIRE media group, 1998. She is currently conducting a new study on the media and privacy.
spiked-issue: Free speech
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