Friday, October 07, 2011

A licence to kill freedom of expression

Licensing journalists was a bad idea in John Milton’s day - so why are politicians and editors keen to revive it now?

‘For who knows not that Truth is strong next to the Almighty; she needs no policies, nor stratagems, nor licencings to make her victorious, those are the shifts and the defences that error uses against her power.’

Who knows not? John Milton, in his 1644 polemic against the Licensing Order of 1643, Areopagitica: A speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England, evidently thought he was asking a rhetorical question: surely it’s plain that the truth will out without the help of licences or government policies, which would instead cause ‘the incredible losse, and detriment that this plot of licencing puts us to, more then if som enemy at sea should stop up all our hav’ns and ports, and creeks, it hinders and retards the importation of our richest Marchandize’.

However, it seems that to shadow culture minister Ivan Lewis the hindering and retardation of journalism is a reasonable price to pay for tackling ‘irresponsible’ journalists. After the scandal of phone hacking at the News of the World, Lewis clearly believes that Truth is in need of his help in order to emerge victorious. At the Labour Party Conference last week, Lewis suggested that journalists who are guilty of ‘gross malpractice’ should be ‘struck off’ and prevented from working in the industry, the implication being that a register of those who are fit to practice or not would be drawn up by any future Labour government.

Despite stressing the ‘independence’ of such an initiative from government, Lewis failed to explain who exactly would decide what was ‘malpractice’ and what wasn’t. Without state support, how could such a register be enforced? Cue thousands of horrified tweets from journalists from all colours of the political spectrum, including staunch Labour supporters. Within hours, Labour leader Ed Miliband was forced to step in and declare that a journalists’ register was not the party’s official policy.

Rather than being a potential Mugabe-in-the-waiting, what’s telling about Lewis’ idea was that, despite its announcement at the Labour Party’s biggest event of the year, it seemed to have been barely thought through. Not only does this policy hokey-cokey reveal much about the chaotic state of Labour right now, but it also shows how ignorant senior politicians are of the importance of freedom of speech.

Strikingly, however, even after Lewis had gone to ground red-faced, at least one prominent individual within the newspaper trade came out of the woodwork and advocated such a system of licenses. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show last week, the new editor of the Independent, Chris Blackhurst, rallied to Lewis’ defence and said he’d made ‘some good points’: ‘I know there’s an issue with the fact that there is a register of journalists, but frankly maybe we should’, he said, ‘there ought to be an ability to have that person removed. Let’s not just look at doctors, all sorts of professions… The Jockey Club. They actually bar jockeys from riding horses. Why can’t we bar journalists from writing articles?’

While emphasising that he didn’t want the state to play a role in issuing such licenses, when pushed on who would issue the license, Blackhurst said he ‘hadn’t thought it through that far’. He didn’t seem to know how to deal with papers that simply chose to opt out, although he suggested that the Press Complaints Commission or another body should have the power to ‘go onto news floors, seize documents, seize computers’. How such an approach could be carried out without the backing of the state went unexplained.

Remarkably, Blackhurst claimed he was taking this shudderingly anti-democratic approach in the name of the public: ‘If you put yourself in the position of the public, what they see is journalists behaving badly and nothing happening to them.’ However, he seemed oblivious to the actual contempt he was showing to the public by floating the idea that they should be prevented from reading articles that a journalist has written, sharing their insights, just because this journalist happens to have been blacklisted.

Blackhurst is not alone in favouring such a licensing system for the UK press. Another commentator for the Guardian claimed that, while Ivan Lewis was wrong to single out journalists, he should instead have focused his draconian gaze on where the ‘real’ power lies: ‘owners, editors and newsroom offices’.

And, earlier in the year, Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown stunned BBC Dateline presenter Gavin Esler by praising Italian journalist Annalisa Piras as having ‘quite a good idea’ when she proposed: ‘You don’t want in a democracy people who behave unprofessionally to give information. So why don’t we establish a kind of register and if you actually commit a crime like bribing the police, you are struck off?’ Such is a bizarre sense of ‘democracy’, where people are deprived of one of the most fundamental aspects of it, freedom of expression, in its name.

While there are currently few people openly advocating licenses for journalists, even some of those journalists who oppose formal licensing are actually enforcing an informal kind of licensing, with their suggestion that it’s fine for tabloids to be closed down and that only respectable broadsheet journalism should be protected from the police.

Although he may not be explicitly in favour of licences for journalists, Guardian writer Jonathan Friedland, for example, has declared that the ‘public interest’ was served by the closure of the News of the World: ‘The textbooks of the future will struggle to find a better example of a story in the public interest than that one’, he says referring to the Guardian’s investigation into phone hacking. ‘It had an enormous public impact, from the closure of the NotW and abandoning of the BSkyB bid to the departure of the Met’s commissioner and one of his most senior officers.’

The celebration of the closure of a newspaper as being of ‘enormous public impact’ is licensing in all but name, where we get a subtle - but very powerful - idea that there is a ‘good journalism’ and a ‘bad journalism’, with the reprehensible gutter press broadly unworthy of a licence to print.

And who should deem what is worthy or unworthy of being published? What makes them infallible? As Milton pointed out, ‘The State shall be my governours, but not my criticks; they may be mistak’n in the choice of a licencer, as easily as this licencer may be mistak’n in an author.’ Much the same could be said about a pseudo-state body, such as the Press Complaints Commission, which deems to decide what is in the public interest rather than leaving that judgement to the public itself.

The ‘arrogance’ on behalf of a potential licenser to make such decisions on our behalf was more than evident to Milton, as it should be to us. Which is why any time the idea of licensing journalists is raised, we would do well to adopt his approach of ‘endur[ing] not an instructer that comes to me under the wardship of an overseeing fist’.


The unfree speech movement

U.C. Berkeley’s response to a student satire on affirmative action shows the campus isn’t ready to talk about race

In 2008, in response to the furor over his association with the outspoken minister Rev. Jeremiah Wright, then-Sen. Barack Obama delivered a famous speech calling for a national conversation about race. In that speech, he argued a long-standing “racial stalemate” had prevented both blacks and whites from discussing their concerns about race “in polite company.” For many blacks, he said, the bitter legacy of discrimination meant that “questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways.” As for whites, “[m]ost middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race … So when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in getting a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed … resentment builds over time.”

Obama’s crucial point was that the anger and fear of both blacks and whites was legitimate. On the one hand, whites needed to recognize that racial discrimination, past and present, did “not just exist in the minds of black people,” but was a real issue that had to be addressed. But blacks, too, needed to break out of their programmed responses to white grievances. “[T]o wish away the resentments of white Americans, to dismiss them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing that they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.”

Obama’s message has apparently not gotten through to the University of California at Berkeley. As the hysterical reaction to a recent “Diversity Bake Sale” shows, the place that gave birth to the Free Speech Movement (and my alma mater) is not capable of talking freely about race.

Last week, the U.C. Berkeley College Republicans – not a group I ever thought I would find myself defending — staged what they called an “Increase Diversity Bake Sale,” to protest a bill, S.B. 185, that would allow public California universities to consider race, ethnicity and gender in admissions. The bill, which Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated he may sign, is an attempt to get around Proposition 209, which California voters passed in 1996 and which prohibited preferential treatment of minorities by the state.

In the bake sale, cupcakes were offered at different prices to different racial and ethnic groups. For whites, the price was $2; for Asians, $1.50; for Latinos, $1; for Native Americans, 75 cents. Women got an additional 25 cents off.

The cupcake sale was an obvious, and dead-on, political satire. The purpose of S.B. 185 is to give “underrepresented minorities” – blacks and Latinos – preference in admissions. To comply with U.S. Supreme Court rulings outlawing racial preferences in college admissions, the bill disingenuously asserts that it will not give such preferences, but that is an obvious ruse: Its author, state Sen. Ed Hernandez, has stated that its purpose is to increase black and Latino enrollment at California public universities. If it did not give those groups an advantage in admissions, it would be pointless. The Academic Senate of the University of California recognized this in a letter to the U.C. administration recommending that the university remain neutral on the bill. The bill’s intention is to give blacks and Latinos a discounted admission to California colleges. The bake sale, which offered discounted cupcakes to blacks and Latinos, is an exact equivalent. If the bake sale is offensive, then racial preferences themselves are offensive.

Regardless of your position on affirmative action, the bake sale was completely within the bounds of acceptable satire. It was not like one of those fraternity pranks where a bunch of yahoo rich white kids dress up in blackface and pretend to be ghetto gangbangers. Yet many U.C. students, the U.C. student government and the U.C. administration reacted to the bake sale as if the Ku Klux Klan had erected a gigantic burning cross in Sproul Plaza.

Enraged counter-protesters decried the bake sale as “racist.” The student organizers of the parody were threatened, and there was talk of defunding their organization. The student senate voted 19-0 to condemn the bake sale.

Most egregiously, U.C. Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau and two top administrators felt impelled to send out an open letter to the campus community, condemning the bake sale as “contrary to the Principles of Community we espouse as a campus.”

The terrible offense the creators of the bake sale were guilty of? Hurting people’s feelings. “This event has moved the campus community into dialogue, because it was hurtful or offensive to many of its members,” the letter – also signed by Gibor Basri, vice-chancellor for diversity and inclusion, and Harry LeGrand, vice-chancellor for student affairs – piously intoned. Remarkably, this letter did not even attempt to argue that there was anything objectively offensive about the bake sale. The mere fact that it offended some students was considered sufficient grounds to condemn it; whether it was actually offensive, or racist, or beyond the pale in any way, was deemed irrelevant by U.C. Berkeley’s top brass. “The issue is not whether one thinks an action is satirical or inoffensive; the issue is whether community members will be intentionally — or unintentionally – hurt or demeaned by that action.”

If he actually followed this absurd position to its logical conclusion, Chancellor Birgeneau would have to spend all his time firing off open letters. He would have to rebuke pro-Israeli groups for hurting Palestinians’ feelings, and vice-versa. He would have to criticize opponents and supporters of abortion rights for making their adversaries feel bad. In fact, if he really wanted to defend the feelings of the campus community, he should send an open letter to California voters, telling them that by passing Proposition 209 they did something very hurtful.

But of course Birgeneau will not send any of those letters. Because his hypocritical letter is really only concerned with protecting the feelings of one group: underrepresented minority students. Its implicit message: It is not permissible to talk about race except in approved ways. Any deviation from the script will be censured.

Is this any way to run a university? And is it any way to advance racial dialogue?

As then-Sen. Obama pointed out, affirmative action remains one of the most divisive issues in American society. White anger over it has been one of the key factors behind the rise of the American right. Even many of its most articulate defenders, like Orlando Patterson and Glenn Loury, acknowledge how flawed, problematic and morally troubling it is. It needs to be talked about. By trying to make it off-limits to free discussion, U.C. Berkeley has abdicated its proud heritage as a bastion of free speech and succumbed to a stifling racial politeness that does no one any good – least of all the minority students whose allegedly delicate feelings it is at such pains to protect. College is supposed to be a preparation for life, and life is full of arguments and confrontations, some of which can hurt one’s feelings. Condescension and paternalism are not solid foundations for racial progress.

The sanctimonious approach to race in the chancellor’s open letter reflects the anodyne, Mom-and-apple-pie celebration of “diversity” that has become a quasi-official American orthodoxy. There is nothing necessarily wrong with the fact that American institutions, from the government to big corporations, now actively promote racial inclusion, harmony and understanding. But when racial “diversity” becomes a sacred cow, one that trumps everything else, true diversity – diversity of opinion – is threatened. Colleges and universities are one of American society’s last lines of defense of that vital diversity, which also goes by the name of freedom. They must hold the line.


British bureacracy good at being offensive but hopeless at helping

Ellen Hiscox has lived in the same house for 60 years. Since her husband died, she’s been cared for by her daughter Catherine.

Back in August, 88-year-old Mrs Hiscox had an operation on her leg, which left her incapacitated. When she was released from hospital, they contacted social services to request some temporary home help.

Although Catherine looks after her mum full-time, she needs some assistance with basic tasks such as getting her up and down the stairs. The nurse at her local GP’s clinic also recommended she should ask for the loan of an orthopaedic back rest and footstool.

It took six letters and as many phone calls to Dacorum Borough Council, Hertfordshire, before she received a reply. Eventually, the council agreed to a home visit to decide whether Mrs Hiscox qualified for help and sent two officials to her house in Hemel Hempstead to process the application.

Catherine wondered why it needed two people. Turns out one was a social worker and the other would be conducting an elf’n’safety risk assessment. While the social worker considered Mrs Hiscox’s clinical needs, her oppo wandered round the house making notes. After a while they left, saying they’d be in touch.

Shortly afterwards, a letter arrived from the council detailing the results of their investigation.

It was decided that Mrs Hiscox was not entitled to any home help, despite her lack of mobility. The request for a back rest and footstool was also refused, even though her own doctor thought she needed them to make her more comfortable while she recovered from the operation.

But that wasn’t all. The letter said they should put up a ‘Mind Your Head’ notice on the stairs, for the benefit of anyone who may be required to use them in an official capacity, ‘e.g.: a loft insulation installer’.

This was apparently because an occupational therapist had ‘scrapped’ (sic) her head while going upstairs on a previous visit. The assessor concluded that anyone over 5ft 6in was at risk of injury. She also recommended that the house should be ‘de-cluttered’ just in case someone tripped over and hurt themselves.

Catherine was livid. ‘How dare they tell us to put up a Mind Your Head sign in our own home? Mum’s lived here for 60 years and I’ve lived here for nearly 50. No one has ever hit their head up to now.’

Admittedly, Catherine and her mum are both shorter than 5ft 6in. But her dad was 5ft 8in and he managed to negotiate the stairs for more than half a century without knocking himself senseless. They’ve got friends over 6ft who have found their way to the bathroom safely.

Now you might be thinking that maybe the Hiscox home is one of those restricted-headroom Anne Hathaway’s Cottage jobs, where you have to bend double to get through the front door.

You’d be wrong. Hiscox Towers is a perfectly normal, three-bed detached house put up during the building boom of the 1920s. There are tens of thousands of similar properties all over Britain.

And the last time anyone looked, the hallways of suburbia weren’t littered with the corpses of people who bashed their heads and suffered irreparable brain damage while climbing the stairs.

Catherine was equally furious at the suggestion her home needed ‘de-cluttering’. She admits it was a bit untidy when the council officials turned up, because she’d just been shopping and was halfway through emptying the bags. She’s also been rushed off her feet looking after her mum round the clock.

Catherine said: ‘I write children’s stories and there’s always lots of books around. But I’m almost OCD about cleanliness. The house is spotless.’

There are a few pieces of extra furniture which used to belong to Catherine’s aunt, who died recently aged 90. But it’s hardly Steptoe’s scrapyard.

What we have here is a classic example of just about everything which is wrong with local government in Britain. We pay our taxes and expect to get a few basic services in return — in this case, a little help for an 88-year-old lady after a routine operation until she’s back on her feet.

What we get is a bureaucratic system run for the benefit of those who work within it, not those who pay for it. First it takes a dozen letters and phone calls to get a reply from social services. After an unacceptable delay, the council rejects out of hand a perfectly reasonable request for assistance.

Instead of getting a footstool and back rest, Mrs Hiscox is forced to endure a dopey bird with a clipboard poking her way round her home, carrying out an unnecessary and intrusive risk assessment.

Then, to add insult to injury, she receives an illiterate letter — Catherine says it was littered with grammatical and spelling errors — telling her to ‘de-clutter’ her home and put up a ridiculous Mind Your Head notice on the stairs. The letter also addressed Mrs Hiscox as ‘Gwendoline’, even though her full name is Florence Eleanor and she has always been known as Ellen, for short. So much for dignity for the elderly.

I’m only surprised the council hasn’t insisted on Catherine and her mum wearing hi-viz jackets, hard hats and steel toe-capped boots in the house at all times, as well as keeping a stock of protective headgear and footwear by the front door for any visitors.

Incidentally, Catherine tells me that yesterday they received a visit from another council officer who rejected a further request for help tending their 100ft garden. Probably just as well, otherwise they’d have had to ‘de-clutter’ the herbaceous border, erect a couple of dozen hazard warning signs and cordon off the rose bushes with traffic cones.


The search for meaning in mortality

by Jeff Jacoby

DAVID HOROWITZ aches to believe that life has meaning and that there is a purpose to this world. The prolific writer, a former Marxist radical who became a leading conservative activist, has spent his (so far) 72 years as if how we live matters deeply. Still, he cannot shake the bleak intellectual conviction that in the long run nothing we do will endure or make a difference - that life on earth is ultimately meaningless and history is heading nowhere.

Yet Horowitz's own journey suggests something more hopeful and optimistic.

He was a militant leftist who opposed the Vietnam War and supported the Black Panther Party, but broke with his radical allies over the bloody repression that followed the communist victories in South Vietnam and Cambodia. By the 1990s he had become one of the most vocal opponents of political correctness in academia, and he emerged after 9/11 as an outspoken critic of radical Islam.

In his brief and affecting new book, A Point in Time, Horowitz wrestles with even deeper concerns. He writes admiringly of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher whose "practical wisdom" was that life's torments -- and tormentors -- should be faced with equanimity, since oblivion is the common fate of all. "Be not troubled," advised the emperor, "for all things are according to nature, and in a little while you will be no one and nowhere." It is a passage Horowitz quotes several times. He is at peace with the prospect of dying, he says, "comfortable with the idea that soon I will be no one and nowhere, and comforted in a stoic way by the knowledge that it doesn't add up."

Is he, though? As Horowitz notes, even Marcus Aurelius was "haunted" by the implications of a world without transcendent meaning. If the universe is nothing but "a confused mass of dispersing elements," the great Stoic wrote -- if there is no God, no perfection, no possibility of redemption -- why do we hunger to live? Why do we have such hopes for the future?

In the end Marcus Aurelius decides that "there are certainly gods, and they take care of the world." But that is a step too far for Horowitz. Though Jewish, he is an agnostic, unable to bring himself to belief in God or in an afterlife where justice finally prevails. "I wish I could place my trust in the hands of a Creator," he writes forlornly at one point. "I wish I could look on my life and the lives of my children and all I have loved and see them as preludes to a better world. But, try as I might, I cannot."

As it happens, I read A Point in Time during the High Holidays, the 10 days of repentance that extend from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. One of the great themes of this solemn interval is that life on earth is fleeting, and so we must make the most of it. In the evocative words of "U'Netaneh Tokef," an emotional high point of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy, man is "like a broken shard, like grass dried up, like a faded flower . . . like a dream that slips away."

Contrary to the Stoics, however, Judaism regards human mortality not as a reflection of the world's meaninglessness, but as God's greatest gift to the men and women He creates in His image. A lifetime - that brief window between dust and dust - is the opportunity He grants each of us to become His partners in creation by making the world a better, kinder, more hopeful place. Our job is not to accept the world as it is, nor to make our peace with the idea that eventually we "will be no one and nowhere." Judaism believes in life after death, but it is only in life before death that human achievement is possible.

And there is no achievement greater than self-improvement.

Judaism is the religion of the free human being freely responding to the God of freedom.

"If the world is to be redeemed it will be one individual at a time," Horowitz writes at the end of his book. The religion of his fathers teaches not just that individuals have the power to improve themselves ethically, but that their ability to do so is a divine endowment.

"Judaism is the religion of the free human being freely responding to the God of freedom," observes Sir Jonathan Sacks, the British chief rabbi, in his introduction to a new edition of the Rosh Hashana prayerbook. "The very fact that we can . . . act differently tomorrow than we did yesterday tells us we are free. We are not in the grip of sin. We are not determined by economic forces or psychological drives or genetically encoded impulses that we are powerless to resist. Philosophers have found this idea difficult. So have scientists. But Judaism insists on it."

David Horowitz may not believe in the Creator from whom this freedom comes. But his life -- and A Point in Time -- attest eloquently to the meaning and moral progress that are possible when that freedom is cherished, and used wisely.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine). My Home Pages are here or here or here or Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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