I forget why – something probably riled me on Twitter – but I was thinking about that quote widely, if erroneously, attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
It makes for a very poor argument. We can do much better. Hardly one to whom hubris was unknown, Voltaire would nevertheless, on the back of his truer if more ironic comment – that “a witting saying proves nothing” – have known how flippant that dictum is; why it has become the most lubricated quote on liberal matters completely eludes me.
Firstly, how many people say things that they really believe? To me it doesn’t matter; arguments don’t change. But there is a problem in “Voltaire’s” suggestion, perhaps reminiscent of Milton’s statement in Areopagitica that the vocalising of injustices may undo them, that an individual’s emotional engagement matters. It’s very easy to understate another person’s intellectual integrity, however high-minded you might be of your own. It allows, for example, the religious to prioritise their “genuinely-held beliefs” (as that semi-literate report from Universities UK put it) over secularists, whose views apparently lack divine sanction.
Matters of deeply-held beliefs shouldn’t matter, but when this part of the quote is challenged it leads on to part two:
Will you really fight to the death to say something of which you disapprove? A few minutes on Twitter, with all the virtual safeguards afforded to the cowardly guttersnipe intelligentsia, and their bitterness, provides a rough glance into what people think when they are without their social mannerisms and inhibitions. They (or we, I guess) hide behind keyboards because we want people to know that they are wrong, and they must, at once, alter their views. I for one, I suspect like most others, do not tweet out of a desperate urge to laud pillocks and their faceless avatars.
It is necessary, in other words, to be a political masochist in order to defend freedom of expression. And I am not sure whether it is a positive or negative corollary that this means most people will not, by instinct, want everyone to say what they want. So the statement entirely fails to convince; freedom of expression is all about legal safeguards, not the curious system of liberal fealty that Voltaire supposedly cherished.
No, no. This over-worn cliche – however succinct – is weak; detach it from Voltaire and throw it away. In our fight for pithy principles I’d much rather turn to my favourite heroine; the greatest rebellion against the classical view of human liberty – see Dryden’s stale remark that “slaves are made citizens by turning round” – was dreamt in a single line by Rosa Luxemburg: “Freedom,” she said, “is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.”
Now stop filling Voltaire’s mouth with garbage.
The First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
For non-UK readers: following an outbreak of “unethical” press behaviour last year, involving widespread hacking and police bribery, Lord Justice Leveson was called upon to chair a committee into press standards and issue recommendations for cutting out nasty journalism. The current Press Complaints Committee has failed to uphold “civil” standards and protect people from the wrath of news empires, we’re told: and for that we need statute to protect us.
But what politicians have refused to make clear is that “press standards” have absolutely nothing to do with crime. Bribery and hacking are already illegal; the disgrace was that pre-Leveson they hadn’t been enforced. That’s changed. 60 arrests have already been made in the past few months. The problem is not with the press; it’s with enforcement of criminal law.
So – bring on the shambles!
In his wry legal voice, there seemed something politely sensible in Leveson’s suggestion that “an explicit duty for government ministers to uphold and protect the freedom of the press should be enshrined in law as part of any legislation setting up a new watchdog”. Sound good? It does, until the paradox: parliamentary legislation that would regulate the press cannot by its very definition guarantee its freedom. It is impossible. It does not matter whether this watchdog is “independent”; however the committee is composed it will be obliged to enforce parliamentary law. It would mean compulsory arbitration, the prototype for state licensing of publishing which England hasn’t had since 1695 and which every dictator has wanted since 1439.
Leveson, Jefferson – they roll off the tongue so well together. But no matter how slimily he posits himself Leveson is not Jefferson. There are some pleasantly superficial parallels with the First Amendment, are there not? Don’t give in: the American Constitution is not the government; it is the (nearly) unalterable document that defines the government and its institutions. The United States, in other words, defines the press only insofar as it tells the government what to keep away from; Leveson wants to bring it under the law’s influence to “protect” it. And the liberal defence is terrifying.
There are worrying omens afoot: the most liberal proposition for press regulation before the House of Commons is that of a medieval royal charter at the behest of a decaying Privy Council. Cameron, our chief oracle and unlikely hero, has managed to string together a deal with Labour and the Liberal Democrats that prevents anything in the press being accountable to Parliament. We are told, probably with more than a tooth of truth, that Cameron was persuaded out of his support for regulation by Murdoch’s grovelling fear of losing his right to unethical behaviour.
But who cares? I’m unashamed to be on the side of Murdoch. He is a symptom of crony capitalism, not a free press. It was either Cromwell or Washington who told us never to take away a liberty in the fear that it might be abused; and it was Orwell who told us that just because the right-wing press says something doesn’t make it wrong. Liberals shouldn’t let their dislike of illiberal publishing magnates cloud the political class attempting to push through the most illiberal law since capital punishment.
Cameron’s royal charter is a bloody mess; but it’s at least a relatively harmless mess. Labour and the Liberal Democrats should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, trying to push through press regulation for the sake of a brief moment of partisan triumph with populism masquerading as the defence of civil liberty.
If I can recommend something more by Nick Cohen.