The British press stinks, or at least a lot of it does. Sleazy tabloids run wild with reporters hacking cell phones, getting stories under false pretenses and hounding relatives of soccer stars and other pop idols within an inch of their lives. Ghoulish over reporting of personal tragedies like missing children wreak havoc and ruin lives. Laws get broken, people get hurt. After revelations that reporters and editors at one of Britain’s biggest tabloids had gone even further than that, a typically British response was to convene a panel of the Great and Good to decide what to do.
The Leveson Report, released Thursday, is the result of a lengthy inquiry into the British press and urges “the establishment of a new system of press regulation that would be backed by parliamentary statute.” For a look at its key recommendations as summarized by the Guardian, go here.
The British left is screaming for parliamentary regulation of the press. Prime Minister Cameron says this would “cross the Rubicon”: let the politicians start regulating the press and the Ministry of Truth is not far away. He is basically right; while the Leveson report doesn’t call for censorship of content, it introduces the idea that an outside regulator (theoretically independent of government) should regulate the conduct of reporters. Such bodies accrete power over time; once the camel gets its nose in the tent, the takeover process begins.
Britain is particularly susceptible to the disease of controlling unpleasant speech. Mixed with its long and proud tradition as an upholder of liberty, Britain has always had a weakness for letting the Great and the Good dictate to the rest of society. It has an Established Church, and for centuries people who didn’t belong to it were banned from holding office or attending universities. Britain was traditionally much more puritanical than, say, France when it came to censoring books, plays and later films.
That tradition has shifted, but it has never gone away. In the old days the Brits censored anything to do with sex; these days anything goes where sex is concerned, but “hurtful” speech is something else. All over Britain, the speech nannies are stirring, eager to ensure that only worthy thoughts can be spoken in public places. Give them an independent body that is able to regulate and punish the press, and they will seek to expand its powers and extend its jurisdiction to “harmful” content as well as harmful methods.
The trend against free speech can also be seen on our side of the Atlantic, especially on college campuses, and these moves must be fought. The right of people to say nasty, unkind and untrue things, their right to insult your religion, your dearest moral values, the ethnic and racial groups from which you spring, your eating habits and social customs, your ideals—that is the essence of freedom. Sad but true.
The “good” people, the “helping” people, the “nurturing” people and the idealists are usually the ones eager to punish people who say hurtful things. The left recognizes this when Andrew Sullivan’s dreaded “Christianists” try to stop the teaching of evolution on the grounds that it is false and destructive. But when the left’s most cherished ideas are rudely and nastily challenged, the hammer comes down.
“Nice” people who want to limit your freedom of speech so that only “nice” ideas will be expressed are some of the most horribly misguided and dangerous people around. They must be relentlessly mocked and resisted so that human freedom can survive.
In a complicated, pluralistic society like ours, when life depends on the coordination of large institutions and complex social systems, and there are many groups and individuals whose feelings are easily hurt by the thoughtless or hostile comments by others, the temptation is huge to use the law and the powers of the administrative state to keep disturbing speech out of the system.
But that temptation must be fought.
Social disapproval of bad ideas is perfectly appropriate. People who want to say bold, transgressive things have to accept the idea that other people are going to be annoyed at them—and will often say bold and transgressive things right back at them. And bold and transgressive ideas that disrupt the harmony of the work force will likely lead to the abrupt dismissal of those whose bad manners interfere with the productivity of their employer.
But using the power of the law to shut down speech you think shouldn’t be heard, or in the case of far too many colleges, limiting permissible speech out of some pathetically misguided ideas about community is an existential threat to freedom and is the sure path to soul-destroying dictatorship.
The speech nannies are everywhere these days. The left nannies are more potent and dangerous right now than the right nannies (at least in places like New York and on university campuses across the land), but they all need to be fought.
Britain can and should criminalize bad conduct (like hacking cell phones, trespassing, violation of the right to privacy, using false statements to gain access to personal information and so on), and people whose rights have been violated by a corporation of any kind, including news corporations, have a right to sue that can be strengthened, but setting up an authority with the power to fine and punish the press goes too far. It is probably also impossible to do effectively, given how hard it is to define the press in these days of blogs, microblogs, viral videos and who knows what else.
A free press isn’t elegant, it isn’t moral, it is often filled with vitriol and lies. A free press holds a mirror up to society, and rather often we don’t like what it reveals. But when all is said and done, government efforts to regulate or civilize the wild and woolly press, however justified by the sleazy conduct of unscrupulous hacks, are worse than the disease they purport to cure.