Hook affair shows free speech is a two-way street
Commercial sponsors and advertisers do not want their brands to be associated with Newstalk presenter’s views
Last week Gauri Lankesh was shot dead by three masked men outside her home in Bangalore. She was a newspaper editor and a critic of right-wing extremism and of India’s Hindu nationalist government – and just one of at least 33 media workers killed so far this year for doing their jobs.
This week the independent newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster Yulia Latynina fled Russia after a series of attacks culminating in the setting alight of her car. A Turkish court remanded four members of the board and staff of Cumhuriyet newspaper to prison, where they join about 150 other journalists. In Hungary and Poland, both members of the European Union, state-owned media have been taken under government control and turned into outlets for official propaganda.
Free speech and the freedom of the media are deadly serious matters. Which is why they should not be trivialised by invoking them to protect comfortable and privileged purveyors of opinion (of whom I am one) from legitimate criticism. The worst way to defend free speech is to use it as a shield against the free speech of other people – including people who want to express their disgust at what you’ve used your highly privileged position to say.
The right to offend people has to be protected. I never set out to offend people, but I still do it all the time. To live in an open society is to be subjected to a range of opinions, some of which will make you upset and angry. Fianna Fáil, for example, was deeply offended by a column I wrote last week about its relationship to developers and builders. A woman who wrote to me recently was apoplectic about my use of the phrase “and nor”, which she regarded as an intolerable insult to her sense of linguistic propriety. You can offend without writing anything at all: readers take offence when I don’t write about something they think I ought to be writing about. Offence is subjective, shifting and unavoidable – and I don’t know any genuine liberal who thinks that, in itself, it ever justifies regulation or punishment.
So the boundaries of public discourse have to be very wide. George Hook is entitled to a lot of latitude, and a democracy must always be uneasy when journalists or broadcasters are sanctioned for what they have said or written. (Contrary to much of what has been said elsewhere, I never called for him to be silenced or suspended.)
But the equally obvious point is that free speech is a two-way process. It includes the right of people to take robust issue with what you have to say. I’ve written a column in The Irish Times for nearly 30 years, and I accept that in return for this immense privilege I will be loathed, ridiculed and misrepresented by some people. It comes with the territory.
But much of the current embrace of free speech in defence of reactionary expression is peculiarly exclusive: I have the right to insult, stigmatise and lie about you, but if you answer back you are (at best) a “snowflake” and (at worst) a member of a lynch mob. My use of free speech makes me a brave iconoclast. Yours makes you a whiny witch-hunter. (George Hook’s credentials as a martyr for free speech sit somewhat uneasily with his calls for the American whistleblower Chelsea Manning to be executed.)
Likewise, free speech must not be confused with career prospects. As, for example, most of Newstalk’s women presenters could testify, high-profile media jobs are innately precarious. There is a human right to free speech, but there is no human right to have a column in a newspaper or to host your own show on national radio. These are jobs, not entitlements, privileges, not rights. You hold them (within the limits of labour law) at the pleasure of your employer.
It wasn’t liberals who fired Kevin Myers from his job as a columnist with the Sunday Times: he was sacked because what he wrote threatened the global interests of the Murdoch empire. George Hook has not been suspended because feminists went after him: his problem is that commercial sponsors and advertisers don’t want their brands to be associated with his views.
These are the laws of the market. And the irony is not just that the right regards those laws as sacred – except when they work against one of their own standard-bearers. It is that they appeal to those very laws when women presenters are sacked or sidelined: it was their own fault, because listeners, advertisers or both didn’t like them. It’s not censorship when a station systematically removes its excellent women presenters from its prime-time schedule. But it is censorship when one of their own is criticised.
No right is unconditional. As the old adage has it, you have a right to swing your fist, but it ends where my nose begins. There is, as is clear from the Code of Programme Standards of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, under which Newstalk and George Hook are supposed to operate, a crucial difference between offence and harm. There is no right not to be offended, and there is therefore a right to be offensive. But there is a right not to be gratuitously harmed. As the BAI’s code of practice puts it, “harmful material is material that has an ‘effect’ – content that causes mental, psychological or physical harm. Individuals should not be harmed by programme material.”
Doing gratuitous harm is where the right to free speech stops. The relevant problem with the myths that Jewish people are obsessed with money, that black people are inferior, that Travellers are criminals or that rape victims are careless sluts is not that they hurt people’s feelings. (Although of course they do.) It is that they cause real and quantifiable harm, not least to the very right to free speech that professional controversialists purport to uphold. People who are stigmatised, belittled and shamed lose their right to speak. This is why, as George Hook implicitly recognised in his apology, his comments about rape should not have been broadcast.
Finally, free speech is not the same thing in every context. Sounding off with your mates in the rugby-club bar is one thing. Broadcasting or writing for a newspaper is quite another. Journalists and broadcasters have professional responsibilities. One of them is to separate facts from opinions. The Broadcasting Act of 2009 explicitly requires that “Every broadcaster shall ensure that all news broadcast by the broadcaster is reported and presented in an objective and impartial manner and without any expression of the broadcaster’s own views”.
That is hard to do in an environment where news is presented in “opinion-led” formats. In fairness to George Hook, he has been working at a station where the line between news and opinion is increasingly blurry. The words that have led to his suspension were uttered when he was both communicating a news story (a British rape case) and, as he is employed to do, expressing his views about the story in a provocative and partial way.
It is virtually impossible to do this regularly without losing your balance. If anything is to be learned from his troubles, it is surely that if you mix news and opinion too indiscriminately it becomes a toxic cocktail that contaminates the lifeblood of free speech: the public’s right to have the information first and provocative thoughts on what to make of it a respectfully distant second.
There is a human right to free speech, but there is no human right to host your own show on national radio
Chelsea Manning: George Hook’s credentials as a martyr for free speech sit somewhat uneasily with his calls for the American whistleblower to be executed