Sunday, November 04, 2012
The global war on free speech
It’s not just China and Russia: editors in Greece and Hungary are being harassed, while Britain’s straitened press is in danger of being cowed by powerful interests and excessive regulation
By John Kampfner (Kampfner is a former editor of 'The New Statesman’, a British Leftist organ. A recent article there was headed: "The world cannot afford a defeat for Barack Obama". Rather says it all. Still, he is pretty right below
Look back at the big events of the past decade and ask yourself: did we find out too much or too little of what the powerful did in our name? Did we know too much or too little about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Did we enquire too much or too little about the cheating of the bankers?
When I posed this question during my testimony to the Leveson Inquiry back in January, I swear I saw the judge’s eyes roll. I fear Lord Justice Leveson had been persuaded long before that journalism was a problem for society, not part of the solution to its ills. He could have been forgiven for coming to this instant conclusion, having listened to the heart-rending testimony of Milly Dowler’s parents, or Kate and Gerry McCann, or of other victims of hounding and despicable behaviour.
Even though I have worked in the profession, or trade, for more than two decades, I hold no candle for the press as an institution. My concern is broader. Freedom of expression – the bedrock of democracy – is under threat in Britain, as it is around the globe.
Wherever you look, someone with power, somewhere in the world, is trying to prevent the truth from getting out. In dictatorships they often resort to violence. But usually those with power hide behind laws that, while technically legitimate, are designed to chill free speech.
We think such measures are the preserve of places like China and Russia. And they are. In China the media are severely censored. Dissidents are routinely jailed. Western media are blocked online when they become inconvenient, as the New York Times was recently after revealing details of premier Wen Jiabao’s family wealth.
In Russia, investigative journalists are killed when they find out too much. The internet is now severely restricted. Members of the punk band Pussy Riot languish in penal colonies for protesting in church.
But dangers also lurk in so-called democracies. In Greece, a magazine editor yesterday went on trial for having the temerity to publish details of the tax avoidance schemes of the super-rich, as ordinary people suffer greatly from austerity. If normal ethical standards were applied, Costas Vaxevanis would have been celebrated for his intrepid reporting. But shooting the messenger has become the norm for politicians and business leaders, as a means of diverting attention from their crimes and misdemeanours – and frightening whistleblowers and journalists. In France, presidents and ministers have for years hidden behind privacy clauses to keep their dodgy financial affairs secret. Hungary’s recent press law, requiring media outlets to be licensed, has led to a spate of overly critical editors being sacked and radio stations taken off air.
What is so dispiriting is that we in Britain appear now to be leaning in this direction. We increasingly regard free speech as a danger.
There are a number of reasons: some of it is the result of bad law; some of it is economic. Politicians, lawyers and the public are struggling to come to terms with rapid technological changes. The internet was supposed to be the vehicle that broke down old rules and hierarchies. We suddenly acquired a voice through emails, blogs and social networking. We could bear witness to events through sound recording and cameras on our mobile phones.
The power relationship shifted. Gone were the days when a mere citizen would have to send a letter to their MP, who would occasionally deign to reply. Mostly they didn’t, seeing engagement or accountability as an intrusion on their valuable time.
That has changed, thank goodness, and cannot be reversed. The moment George Osborne’s assistant queried, possibly innocently, his standard-class train ticket, that episode was in the public domain.
Yet at the same time we struggle with Twitter and Facebook and the freedoms they afford. Online, the extremely poor joke and the offensive remark have now become matters not for peer groups to sort out, but for the authorities. So the hapless young man who tweets in frustration about blowing up an airport is arrested; a stupid boy who insults the Olympic diver Tom Daley is visited by the police; and the equally pathetic young man who makes an ill-judged “joke” about the disappeared Welsh schoolgirl April Jones is taken in, too.
I am as angered by these remarks as anyone, but is it the state’s job to arbitrate matters of taste and decency? When Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, was invited on to the BBC’s Question Time a couple of years ago, to howls of outrage, I saw it as important to defend his right to appear – and to make a fool of himself, which he duly did. To misquote Voltaire, the only free speech worth defending is that of the person whose views you find most obnoxious.
Everywhere around the world, it seems, the right to take offence has been elevated into a human right. Usually, but not always, this “right” is exercised through religious belief. Most cases are seen through the prism of “insults” to Islam. But this “right” now seems to be exercised by whoever wants it.
What does all this have to do with our press? The best word I can find is “raucous”. A raucous, argumentative society is a healthy society. Of course we need laws to protect people – from child pornography to incitement to violence. We need state secrets. But the Official Secrets Act has often been used for the wrongful purpose of protecting the reputations of ministers and officials. We need anti-terrorism measures, but not the outrageous Communications Data Bill currently being discussed in Parliament, that would give not just the security services but dozens of lesser public bodies the right to demand emails and social media traffic from any citizen in the land. These plans are dangerous; they are also manna from heaven for the Russians and Chinese, who love to point to the West’s double standards when their records are held up to scrutiny.
We need libel laws, but not those that for years have indulged sheikhs, oligarchs and other super-rich figures, preventing anyone from writing about them. These laws are being changed, but I fear the end result will fall far short of the improvements the libel reform campaign I helped to lead has sought.
Throw in the economics: many newspapers have closed or been pared to the bone, particularly in the regions. Whose interests are served when local councils know that planning decisions and other dodgy dealings will go unreported? The same goes on a national scale, not just about politicians, but sports stars and their agents and businesses on the take. Investigative journalism takes time, requires patience and indulgence from editors, and costs money. That is the area that is being cut back most of all – to everyone’s detriment.
So how come a general view has been allowed to take hold that our press is out of control? The terrible acts of a few, hacking the phones of the vulnerable with no possible public interest, have handed the moral ground and political power to those who want journalists to be more “respectful”.
I have attended a number of press conferences over the years involving prime ministers and US presidents. When the two leaders marched into the room, the Americans would stand to attention; the Brits would sit sullenly. I know which I prefer.
Nobody sensible will defend the old-style boys’-club regulation of newspapers. Of course, something more vigorous must emerge from the Leveson Inquiry. But I have worked in many countries – not just under authoritarian regimes – where journalists are seduced by the offer of a seat at the top table, or are persuaded not to ask that extra question. “Go easy, we don’t want trouble” could all too easily become the mantra here. Would, I ask myself, this newspaper have had the courage to break the story about MPs’ expenses in the post-Leveson world? I would like to think so, but I’m not sure.
We all want to strike the right balance. But perfection is elusive. Forced to choose, I would rather have a public space that goes too far than one that – like so many countries around the world – is pliant in the face of power.
Litter-picking enthusiast prosecuted by nasty British bureaucracy
A litter-picking enthusiast who is so devoted to keeping the streets clean that he spends an hour every day tidying up rubbish himself was stunned to find himself fined £75 for putting refuse in a bin.
Council officials accused David Baker, 39, of fly-tipping because they said he had used a public street bin to deposit a pizza box and junk mail – considered illegal as this is classed as “domestic waste”.
The former geologist has gathered tonnes of rubbish dropped by strangers over the last six years, winning awards for his efforts, after becoming fed up with litter piling up near his town centre flat.
He described his fine as “bureaucracy gone mad” and said the council seemed so “desperate for money” it would fine anybody.
Mr Baker said: “I think that it is completely outrageous that I should be fined for actually cleaning rubbish off the streets.
“How can people who actually want to put rubbish in the bin be fined? To claim that what I put in the bin amounts to fly-tipping is crazy.
“I moved to a town centre flat six years ago and got fed up with all the rubbish in the street. “I look after all the plants and dead head them daily and I go around picking up rubbish. “I fill a carrier bag or two a day and I go out most days of the year - unless I'm on holiday.
“I am out at least an hour every day and do it all for free. I just think the council are desperate for money and have a mentality of fining people for anything at the moment.”
Councillor Tracy Wood said: “Our enforcement officers issued a fixed penalty fine to Mr Baker in Stourbridge, after they found his domestic waste and letters in the litter bin on a number of occasions. “However, we will be reviewing the fine and speaking to Mr Baker directly to discuss it.”
It is Mitt Romney’s 'gaffes’ that should win him the election
Most commentators thought that President Obama won the final US presidential television debate last week. Attention particularly focused on the President’s put-down of his rival, Mitt Romney, when they debated defence. Mr Romney complained that the US Navy had fewer ships than at any time since 1917. Cue a scornful Obama intervention: America probably has “fewer horses and bayonets” too, he mocked – the world is changing and so is the technology of defence. “This is not a game of Battleship,” added Mr Obama, with curling lip.
Since I am a member of that widely disliked class, the “commentariat”, my immediate, instinctive reaction was that the president had scored a palpable hit. He had done what we columnists try to do in comparable situations: he had been funny, and made his opponent look stupid. We – and he – pride ourselves on being clever and so regard stupidity as the ultimate vice.
On second thoughts, though, I wonder if American voters feel quite the same way. Mr Obama may well have been making a reasonable point about modern warfare, but if I were serving in the US Navy, or related to someone working in any industry or service involving defence, security or risk to life, I would not have enjoyed that comparison with horses and bayonets. This was a piece of condescension, and it came not from a columnist but from the Commander-in-Chief.
One reason, over the past four years, that Mr Obama has lost his heroic status is that people now see beyond the simple, wonderful fact that a black man can be elected president. Martin Luther King famously had a dream about the time when his own children would be judged not “by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”. In the case of President Obama, this time has come.
And it turns out that his character is not that of a man who has emerged from nowhere to challenge the powerful few on behalf of the wretched of the earth. It is that of a media-savvy professor of an Ivy League university – comfortable with irony, more than comfortable with the sound of his own voice, confident that he knows a great deal more than most of us. One of the striking features of the lives of such professors is their terms of employment. They have what is called “tenure”: no one can get them out.
Mr Obama went into the contest that ends on Tuesday believing that he, too, had tenure. The White House was his. The election, like those bogus selection processes for top public sector jobs when the winner has been pre-decided, was little more than a tiresome formality.
In the first debate, when Mr Romney attacked him and proposed himself as a man with interesting answers, Mr Obama looked shocked at the challenger’s effrontery. Ever since then, he has had to wake up and fight back. He has certainly performed much better. But he still speaks as if he thinks his main qualification for the job is that he has it already. In this time of immense economic difficulty, incumbency should have few rights. You have to listen very carefully to get any idea at all of what the president proposes to do with the four more years to which he feels so strongly entitled.
In Britain and, even more, in continental Europe, the people who bring their fellow citizens the news do not really see this. To them, Mr Obama’s combination of historically persecuted ethnicity and posh seminar tone is just perfect. It satisfies their mildly Left-wing consciences and fits in with their cultural assumptions. The chief of these is that the excesses of the West, especially of America, are the biggest problem in the world. Mr Obama comes as near to saying this as anyone trying to win American votes ever could. His “apology tour” to the Middle East early in his presidency remains, for the European elites, the best thing he has ever done. He is the anti-Americans’ American.
Mitt Romney is not. Although he is a moderate Republican, it is fascinating how profoundly he clashes culturally with Obama, and, a fortiori, with the European media and political classes.
Early on in this campaign, Mr Romney seemed rather boringly technocratic, as if politics were a branch of management consultancy. You still hear traces of this: in that final debate, Mr Romney, son of Detroit, kept talking up “managed bankruptcy” in the automobile industry. No doubt this makes sense in business language, but his words must have struck fear into large parts of his audience.
Yet whenever Mr Romney has made what the media call his “gaffes”, I have noticed that almost all of them contain kernels of truth. Whether he is talking about the 47 per cent (his figure) of Americans who are suppliants of the state or about the threat from Russia, he is raising real problems, very much the sort of questions that Mr Obama would rather not discuss.
His decisively interesting “gaffe” was the one in Israel at the end of July. He praised the Israelis for the “cultural elements” in their success, the qualities that had made the actual, economic and political desert bloom. “Culture makes all the difference,” he declared. Of course this brought a bucket of condemnation upon his head because it was taken as an implied criticism of Palestinian culture. But his point goes to the heart of the West’s current problem. Does it still, as it once did, contain within itself the capacity for renewal, adventure and enterprise? Is its prized freedom a principle of activity for each individual or merely the right to moan about everything and tell the government to put it right?
Mr Romney is a Mormon, and Mormons often get a bad press. They feature, some as criminals, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s very first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. But Conan Doyle also says this in that story, about the great journey of immigrant Mormon believers seeking the promised land in Utah “with a constancy almost unparalleled in history”: “The savage man, and the savage beast, hunger, thirst, fatigue, and disease – every impediment which Nature could place in the way – had all been overcome with Anglo-Saxon tenacity.” This sense of a people defeating appalling obstacles, through their own efforts and the hand of providence, is as old as Moses. As Conan Doyle implies, it is central to the story of the English-speaking peoples. Even today, it is what makes America new in each generation. Barack Obama does not believe in it – he does not even like it. Mitt Romney does.
What the media see as a “gaffe” is often, in reality, a challenge to the dominant orthodoxy. In the late Seventies, Margaret Thatcher made the gaffe of questioning the motives of the Soviet Union when everyone else was mad about détente. She made the gaffe of questioning incomes policies when most people said they were the only way of stopping inflation. After a while, she piled up enough gaffes to make sure that she won the general election of 1979. In the United States in 1980, Ronald Reagan made those sorts of gaffes, too.
Then, as now, our entire economic system was in question. It was so serious that it put the West’s global predominance in question as well. The prize went to the candidate who raised the questions, and tried boldly to answer them, not to the one who tried to suppress them. I hope the same proves true in the United States next week.
Australian Leftist government could rethink Palestine stand in UN
AUSTRALIA could still back a Palestine state winning a place at the United Nations, despite "hot debate" inside the government and determined opposition from the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.
The Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, has told Israeli and Palestinian officials in recent weeks Australia will not take a final decision on the potentially explosive issue until the wording of any resolution is clear.
But Labor's longest-serving foreign minister, Gareth Evans, has warned Australia could be on the "wrong side of history" by opposing a Palestinian push to win observer status at the UN General Assembly.
"The issue has been hotly debated within the government over the last year but it is one on which the Prime Minister has very strong views, and her views have so far prevailed," Professor Evans said on Thursday night.
The former foreign minister Kevin Rudd had written to Ms Gillard last year advising that Australia should abstain in the General Assembly, but the issue was left unresolved after Palestinian diplomats decided not to send a resolution for a vote.
Palestinian officials, frustrated by peace negotiations with Israel, are driving for the UN seat as a way of securing international recognition of Palestinian statehood.
But Israel is fiercely opposed to the move, accusing Palestinians of breaking an agreement not to make any unilateral declaration of statehood.
Australian diplomats had feared the Palestinian question could be brought on before last month's vote on the campaign for Security Council seat - with the potential to cruel Australia's chances to win over Arab and Islamic nations.
Australia had already risked a backlash by siding with Israel, the US and 11 other nations last year to oppose Palestine joining a key UN cultural body, after Ms Gillard over-ruled Mr Rudd.
But Australia has also sought in recent months to send subtle signals of support for a two-state solution to the conflict, with officials switching back an earlier formulation and referring to "Palestine" instead of "Palestinian Territories".
The debate over Palestinian membership of the UN is set to resurface, with the Palestine leader, Mahmoud Abbas, expected to return to the General Assembly, possibly later this month.
"When the resolution is put the only uncertainty about the outcome will be the size of the affirmative majority," Professor Evans said. He said estimates of support had 115 votes in favour, 20 against and between 50 to 60 set to abstain.
A spokesman for Senator Carr said Australia would look at the text of the resolution when it was available and make a decision.
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, 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. Email me (John Ray) here.