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

The Irish Times - - Home News - Fin­tan O’Toole

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.

Im­par­tial man­ner

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

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