The ship flying the flag for free speech is often unsteady, sometimes leaky as it sails capricious, tempestuous seas. Sometimes even the captains jump off and struggle to keep faith with its mission. Like the supremely erudite Stephen Fry who has always, to my knowledge, been an uncompromising champion of free expression.
Yet this autumn came the moment when Mr Fry couldn’t abide by his own credo and ferociously assailed the Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir for her freely expressed views on the young pop star Stephen Gately. His gay lifestyle, she suggested was sordid and his death could not have been from natural causes. Now Fry commands a virtual army on the web. He can make or break someone with under a hundred and forty characters. He went for Moir on Twitter, later expanding to full sail wrath on his blog. Other big name liberals and gays have joined in.
I can understand their rage. The column was ugly, insensitive and homophobic. The only real argument is where the line is drawn. Perhaps liberal fundamentalists like Fry now will now be more honest and accept that there are limits. Even for them.
Milton, one of the fathers of freedom brazenly excluded some from this fundamental right:’ When I speak of toleration and free expression, I don’t mean Catholics. Them we extirpate’ Professor Stanley Fish, the American culture critic is incisive in his analysis of this complex subject. Everyone, he says, in the free speech zone understands what is permitted. Opinions are not weightless, they enter society and have to deal with its needs too.
There is always going to be ongoing tension between freedom and restraint. Most of us know we cannot publicly deny the Holocaust or cry ‘Fire!’ in a packed theatre. Delicate decisions on what is acceptable or not are made all the time. A picture of Brooke Shields, aged ten, nude, made up and oiled was withdrawn in October 2009 from view by the Tate Modern, a good call, I think.
BNP’s bulldoggish Nick Griffin, a white supremacist, hater of Jews, Muslims and mixed race families was invited on to the nation’s most prestigious TV programme. He, who would deny millions the vote, is an emblem of democracy and BNP violent thugs who assault black and Asian Britons become beneficiaries of free speech doctrine. I say the BNP should be interrogated on news programmes but an appearance on Question Time is a privilege which the BBC now bestows on fascists. It sickens those of us who expect better of the corporation.
Then the visit by the ghastly Dutch MP Geert Wilder who overturned the order banning him from entering Britain imposed by ex Home Secretary Jackie Smith. He curses the Koran, damns and insults European Muslims, is a fearless xenophobe. Invited by a UKIP MP, they both celebrated their victory for freethinking. So why then didn’t Wilder accept any of the invitations from Muslim intellectuals to debate his ideas in public? Because he, like many others of his ilk only wants to incite Muslims into behaving like ‘savages’. How disappointing it must have been for him not to have a fatwa to take back home. I agree that he should be allowed into Britain but to see him feted as a hero in parliament was an affront. Does this mean free passage for other proscribed hate makers- rabid imams, anti-Semites, homophobic black rappers? If not, it only confirms outrageous double standards.
David Milliband exerts outrageous political censorship when by rejecting the judgement of two senior judges who demand disclosure of information that could prove our intelligence services colluded with the US and others to torture captured Muslims in the ‘war on terror’. No twitter storm was whipped up over this gross cover up.
There was though over the scientific study on toxic dumping in west Africa by the company Trafigura whose lawyers tried to get an injunction to keep the information secret, including debates on the scandal in parliament. The gaggers were duly defeated but commercial confidentiality remains an effective weapon used by big business to keep us in the dark. Lastly, the scientist Simon Singh (a good friend) is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association which objects to his attacks on the profession. Many of us are silenced by the might of libel law. Money, as Orwell wrote, ‘controls opinion.’ Singh wants more ‘freedom to criticise fairly and strongly’ on the blogs and scientific writing. I agree but too many bloggers are mad or malicious. So what to do about them? Not easy.
Libertarian ideologues like journalist Brendan O’Neill have no such moral conundrums: ‘offensiveness is part of life; the politics of inoffensiveness is a threat to free speech and open debate’ Yes, until people’s deep feelings are roused as were Fry’s by Moir. Words do violence to humans, more sometimes than sticks and stones. They can disable you to the point of insanity.
Don’t get me wrong. More and more freedom is what we must strive for, but without any sensitivity leads to anarchy and dehumanisation. But freedom is precious and needs to be protected from dictators and censors, and sometimes from itself.