08 January 2008

"Give me liberty or give me death" - Part I

These ringing words end the speech made by Patrick Henry on March 23, 1775. He was addressing the House of Burgesses, the legislative House of the Colony of Virginia and calling for military action against British troops. As the Wikipedia article points out, the words of the speech remain problematic as they were not noted down at the time.

After the War of Independence (or the third English Revolution) Patrick Henry was involved in the debates about the Constitution, at first as an Antifederalist but later as a staunch Federalist, being, apparently, one of the moving forces behind the Bill of Rights, which became the first ten Amendments to the Constitution and which we badly need in this country.

All the while Patrick Henry was a slave owner even though he recognized the contradictions in his stand. Possibly he even recognized the contradictions in his stand on liberty and calls for a strong federal government, though one could argue that as long as the government is controlled by well-defined states’ and individual rights, problems are less likely to arise. How wrong that argument would be can be seen in America’s own Civil War or War Between the States.

This is not, our readers will be glad to know, a posting about American history or even the American presidential elections. The latter will have to be discussed some time but, as St Augustine said in a different context, not yet.

Rather, I should like to muse a little on questions of liberty, freedom of speech, censorship and editorial control. Some readers may want to stop here and go no further. They are welcome to absent themselves.

The subject of freedom of speech is on many people’s mind at the moment and the general agreement seems to be that we are losing our rights. I may point out that when and if we do lose our rights to say what we think we should say we shall not be able to admit to it. In the Soviet Union people were imprisoned for saying that there was no freedom of speech in the country. Anyone who thinks it is the same in Britain or the EU had better produce some definite examples.

The problem with Patrick Henry’s rousing call is one of definitions. On the whole, we know what death is even if we may differ on our assumptions about what happens afterwards. But liberty? How, precisely does one define it?

For Patrick Henry it seemed easy though even he may have had the odd doubt or two after the War of Independence. Liberty meant not being ruled by another power, in this case Britain, and being a republic.

Since for a large number of colonists the notion of Britain being another power was slightly odd and they continued to fight stubbornly against what they saw as treacherous insurrection, even that, the simplest part of it all remains under question. Their liberty was denied them as it was the slaves about whom Patrick Henry did have a twinge of conscience though he seems to have announced himself rather proudly to be a hypocrite and let it go at that.

Nor is being a republic, even with an elected head of state, means necessarily that liberty is guaranteed. The twentieth century, which saw a great deal of liberty extinguished, demonstrated that all too often it is monarchies that guarantee freedom for their subjects as long as there is an adequate constitutional structure.

A long time ago when I was studying at school my history teacher did a very good job of explaining the difference between “Liberty” and “liberties”. (That shows how long ago it was as we still had history teachers who were allowed to teach the subject and explain various concepts in it. Mind you, even then we did not learn about the French Revolution or the Napoleonic Wars. Rum.)

Liberty with a capital letter and in singular was a grand concept that involved definitions and, all too often, impositions by those who put the definitions into practice. Roughly speaking that is the idea behind the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Liberties, on the other hand, were the acknowledged rights and freedoms of the people that the rulers or the state had no right to impinge on.

As it happens that halcyon state of affairs never existed in England or Scotland, let alone Ireland but the general idea was there somewhere in most people’s minds, as the great French political thinker Montesquieu recognized.

The general idea, I suspect, is no longer there in many people’s minds, not in those who want the state to solve whatever problem there might be from small to large; not in those who think it is always somebody else’s fault that things have not gone right in this country, from Peter Oborne downwards. With liberty comes responsibility but few people want either.

As against the difficult ideas of freedom with attendant duties as well as rights, we have only one notion left: freedom of speech. Not only this is an inadequate and useless idea, it is sometimes contrary to the ideas of real liberty.

Allow me to remind our readers of something that happened in 2005. It involved the Beckhams and their nanny, who, having signed a confidentiality agreement when she took on the job of looking after the little Beckhams, decided on leaving the job that such piffling notions did not apply to her and sold various stories about her ex-employers to the News of the World.

There were various injunctions, counter-injunctions and eventually the young lady agreed not to publish any more than had already appeared in that newspaper but walked away with a tidy sum of money (more than 30 pieces of silver). One wonders what happened to her when the money ran out as it is unlikely that anyone would have employed her as a nanny ever again.

What shocked me about the whole story was that when the Beckhams’ lawyers sought an injunction before the stories were published, citing the confidentiality agreement, Mr Justice Langley ruled that publication could go ahead, on the grounds that the Beckhams were in the public eye and, therefore, had to expect that former employees would write stories about them.

In other words, the ex-nanny’s supposed right to “freedom of speech” trumped not only the Beckhams’ right to their private existence (and let us not forget that young children were involved) but also the contract voluntarily signed by both parties. The truth is that liberty cannot exist without clear understanding of property rights and contractual agreements, honoured by all sides, including the state. Mr Justice Langley, representing the state, refused to honour the agreement.

Instead of recognizing the importance of the matter, we had the media screeching about attempts to “gag” the nanny and the News of the World, not to mention anyone else who decided to repeat the story. Because the Beckhams, particularly Victoria, are not terribly popular, there was a lot of head-nodding, instead of outraged exclamations.

It proved to me something that I had suspected for some time: the nebulous and impossible concept of “free speech” has become a substitute for freedom. The tail was now wagging the dog.

Recently, the question of freedom of speech came up in connection with the still unfinished business of the blogger Lionheart, hitherto unknown to me or many others. My colleague has already dealt with the case, as it stands at present, receiving for his pains a large number of ignorant and a few insulting responses. He ought to follow my example and abandon that forum. It’s not that I don’t believe in freedom of speech; it’s just that I see no point in arguing with people who cannot be bothered to read my postings let alone the Soviet Constitution before they pronounce on various matters.

So, setting aside the idea that freedom of speech is only one aspect of what ought to be a wider definition of freedom or liberty, which would definitely not allow newspapers publish any old rubbish they feel like doing, let us have a look at the concept.

Clearly, there can be no absolute freedom of speech. To be completely trite about it, nobody is allowed to shout “fire” in a crowded cinema. There are laws about incitement to violence, public disorder and affray (in fact there are very many laws about public disorder in the English legal system), libel and slander. These were all there before the more recent race and religious hatred legislation.

No country that has the sort of libel laws that this one does can be called free or can boast of freedom of speech. It is probably necessary to have some laws against slander and libel but the way things are, as I shall try to deal with further on, legitimate discussion of non-private activity can be silenced by the man with lots of moolah.

That is considerably less justified than those French privacy laws we so often sneer at, since freedom should involve some possibility of protecting one’s privacy unless it is in the public interest to know certain matters. It is entirely right that we should know where politicians who legally prevent the people of this country from being able to make choices about their children’s education send their own offspring. I am less certain that we either need to or, in my case, want to know if any of them are having affairs.

Even less am I certain that freedom of speech or freedom of publication is clearly understood by many people. The notion that the only acceptable form of freedom of speech is publishing everything that everybody who can be bothered to do so thinks or says shows an ignorance of writing, editing and publishing that is breathtaking in its intensity.

One of the disadvantages of the internet, heavily outweighed by the many, many advantages is that people who have little knowledge or understanding of a subject still feel the need and have the possibility to express a point of view. You may call it freedom of speech or you may call it stupidity.

Let us have a quick look at our own blog, which has been accused of self-censorship. Do we ever decide not to write about certain subjects because we do not think they are appropriate to our general themes? Sure we do.

Do we ever decide to tread carefully because we have no clear evidence about what may be happening instead of ranting away, regardless of facts and truth? Indeed, we do.

Do we try not to insult people directly but express our views in a more round-about fashion? Sometimes. Do we ever decide not to go with postings for various reasons, some outlined above? Not infrequently.

Does that amount to self-censorship? We prefer to call it editorial work that produces a blog on what we hope is a professional standard. On the other hand, nobody, not even our readers, tell us what we should or should not write about. We have the freedom to act that way. Newspapers do not. If they lose readers and, subsequently advertisers, they go to the wall and no amount of squealing about freedom of speech will save them.

Nevertheless, editors decide what they will publish and if they do not like somebody’s writings either in an article or a letter, they do not publish it. If that writing is sort of all right but needs editing, that is what happens and no, that does not mean that the author’s freedom to express him or herself has been denied. Editing is an essential part of the writing process as are self-editing and self-control.

These notions together with the concept of private property, be it a newspaper or a blog, ought to be self-evident. That they are not shows how far we have moved from any kind of understanding of liberty or freedom of speech.

The only people who believed in everything being valuable as and when it is pronounced or written were the Dadaists, led by Tristan Tzara. It was a short-lived literary trend.

Nor is stream of consciousness writing, when genuine, unedited burbling. I am not a great admirer of James Joyce but I know enough to realize that passages such as Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy is a carefully structured piece of writing unlike some of the blathering one is supposed accept in the name of freedom of speech.

Incidentally those who advocate freedom of expression and who know very little of Dadaism or James Joyce, particularly teachers in primary schools, have achieved a level of illiteracy that has not been seen in this country since the Middle Ages. (I have said it before and shall say it again: it is outrageous how many people of all ages in this country do not know and cannot be bothered to learn how to use the richest language in the world.)

This rant is becoming so very long that I find it necessary to split it into two (and you will be lucky if I stop there). In the second part I shall deal with a couple of cases where the freedom to say important matters is being taken away. This time I shall not be dealing with countries where there really is no freedom at all but with incidents in the West. So I shall end this piece with the words:

To be continued ….