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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 December 2007, 22:03 GMT
Viewpoints: Freedom of speech
This week we are publishing a series of articles to mark the 75th anniversary of the BBC World Service.

Series marking the BBC World Service's 75th anniversary will include
Global poll on attitudes to the media
Personal tales of people caught up in the news
Viewpoints from leading thinkers
Focus on media restrictions in Cuba and Egypt
The main theme will be the freedom of speech, and freedom of the media and information.

Here, three thinkers offer some occasionally surprising views on the role of journalists, the arguments for unconditional media freedom, and the pros and cons of giving preachers free rein.

The views expressed below should not be taken as the BBC's.

Jeffrey Sachs
Jeffrey Sachs
Director of Columbia University's Earth Institute

Onora O'Neill (Pic: Ken Passley)

Onora O'Neill

Wole Soyinka (Pic: Ken Passley)

Wole Soyinka
Poet and Playwright


We will live or die in the 21st Century according to whether we can co-operate globally. Our problems - ranging from climate change to species extinction to failed states - are global and require global co-operation to solve them.

Jeffrey Sachs
'An open global society or a group of fearful societies poised for war?'

The touchstone of my Reith Lectures this year were the words of President John F Kennedy in 1963 as he sought peace with the Soviet Union in order to pull the world back from the nuclear abyss.

President Kennedy said: "Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts.

"It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process - a way of solving problems."

Risk of fear

The media can play a unique role in that global problem solving. When I gave the Reith Lectures, I knew that the lectures could, at least potentially, reach hundreds of millions of people.

There was simply no better venue for a global discussion than the BBC World Service.

And indeed from African villages, to passport counters and airport check-ins, to corridors of power, I met people in all parts of the world that were tuned into the Reith lectures and were debating them within their families and communities.

The core underpinning of global co-operation is that we have a sufficient degree of trust so that representatives of different societies can reason together in peace.

The central risk is that morbid fear overtakes us, with fear degenerating to hate and conflict.

Will we be an open global society or a group of fearful and closed societies poised for war?

Fear today is pervasive, especially after terrorist incidents. We know that such incidents can lead to a general conflagration.

A terrorist shot in Sarajevo provided the pretext for German aggression which started World War I. 9/11 was used by the Bush Administration to launch the Iraq War.

In both cases, trigger-happy leaders exploited the incidents for their own political purposes.

In both cases, the national media played along. The failures of the American media to slow or stop the descent into the Iraq War are the greatest media failures of our current era.

Our major media transmitted with little questioning the lies of officialdom and they editorialised in favour of the war.

The war coverage itself was overtly propagandistic, with reporters sending home patriotic messages that dehumanized the Iraqi population on the receiving end of the US bombs. Everyone killed by a US bomb automatically became an insurgent or a terrorist.

It is interesting that the lies leading up to the war were more aggressively exposed and discussed by the new media of the internet than by the established media, who were constantly looking over their own shoulder with concerns about listener approval, government regulators, and corporate advertisers.

The problem with the internet, of course, is that it transmitted considerable flakiness alongside pithy truth telling. Blog sites, for good and ill, are unfiltered and unaccountable.

In short, almost all governments lie and lie relentlessly. Yet governments can be made to lie less frequently by being exposed and held to account by the professional media

Our survival in the 21st Century will depend first and foremost on one core human skill: empathy. Co-operation depends on trust.

Trust depends on believing in the common humanity of "the Other".

Appreciating our common humanity depends on empathy, the ability and moral bravery to see things through the eyes of the other, even of one's adversaries.

The Bush Administration's belief that Americans would be greeted as liberators in Iraq was the opposite of empathy. It was unbridled and ignorant hubris.

What then can the media do? Three things will be most important.

First, the media can present people of other cultures and political leanings, so that we can hear what they think.

Such cross-cultural exchanges should be respectful and truth seeking, not insulting and point scoring. They need not veer away from tough questions and hard challenges, but they should not be games of "gotcha," to humiliate or expose "the Other" in wars of propaganda.

Second, the media can intensively scrutinise our own governments, which operate on the logic of power-expansion and self-preservation.

Paths to co-operation

In short, almost all governments lie and lie relentlessly. Yet governments can be made to lie less frequently by being exposed and held to account by the professional media.

It is a media function that fails in authoritarian societies where journalists are locked up or murdered.

It is one that can fail in our own societies, in the United States or the United Kingdom, through self-editing, or the allure of power and access, or the fear of government reprisals through regulatory retaliation.

Third, the media can translate science to the general public, and the public's concerns back to the scientists.

We need to give scientists and technologists a key role in the challenges that lie ahead, because today's challenges and our best options - regarding climate, biodiversity, water scarcity, desertification, extreme poverty, emerging diseases, and demography - require a solid understanding of science and technology.

It was a wonderfully wise decision for the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to award half of this year's Nobel Prize to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, since the IPCC, as it's called, represents the most ambitious and successful global process to bring complex scientific understanding to the broad public.

In short, we need professional journalism more than ever, to tell - with detail, expertise, accuracy, accountability and sensitivity - the stories that can help the world to avoid the abyss.

We need journalism of the highest standards and ethics to help us to understand other societies, the science and technology that define global risks and opportunities, and the paths to global co-operation rather than wider war.

We need professional journalism to sort out the gold and the dross that are found on the internet today.

John Kennedy put our hopes this way: "For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

That is the most urgent story that needs to be told in the 21st Century.


In one of Tom Stoppard's plays, one character says to another: "I'm with you on the free press. It's the newspapers I can't stand." Many of us have this thought.

Onora O'Neill
'Any search for truth needs structures' (Image: Ken Passley)

Are sensationalising, even misleading newspapers and broadcasting an inevitable cost of press freedom?

If so, why do newspapers in some countries, including Britain, have particularly poor reputations and why do broadcasters in some countries, not including Britain, have particularly poor reputations?

What do the best arguments for press freedom show? Do they show that the press should enjoy unconditional freedom?

I think there are four arguments for press freedom in common use.

One is juridical: it appeals to constitutional or other authorities that simply proclaim rights to a free press - for example the First Amendment to the US Constitution which reads simply "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press," or Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Fine words, but arguments from authority don't provide deep justifications. Other arguments do grow deeper.

Press freedom has variously been defended as necessary for discovering truth, as analogous to individual rights of self-expression, or as required for democracy.

None of these lines of thought, I believe, justifies unconditional press freedom.


Appeals to truth-seeking won't justify unconditional press freedom because, as the philosopher Bernard Williams wrote in Truth and Truthfulness: "In institutions dedicated to finding out the truth, such as universities, research institutes, and courts of law, speech is not at all unregulated."

Any search for truth needs structures and disciplines. It's undermined by casual disregard of accuracy or evidence. Unconditional freedom just is not optimal for truth-seeking.

Appeals to the right of self-expression also won't justify unconditional press freedom.

The great 19th Century philosopher John Stuart Mill argued in his book on liberty that freedom of expression for individuals should be limited only by the requirement not to harm others.

He generalised this thought about individual freedom to cover the press. He writes: "The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as existing generations; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.

"For if the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: and if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

This is not a good argument for unconditional freedom of expression for powerful institutions. Press freedom is not analogous to individual rights of self expression.

Individuals are powerless and they do limited harm if they are casual about accuracy. Yet we do have laws even for them against libel, slander and inciting hatred.

Powerful organisations: governments, businesses, the media which are casual about accuracy can do great harm.

We don't allow companies to lie about their products, or public authorities to invent their accounts.

Yet if the powerful conglomerates that dominate the global media today had unconditional freedom of expression, they would be entitled to be casual about accuracy, thereby harming others and undermining democracy.

So the claim that press freedom is just like individual freedom of expression, although very fashionable, is unconvincing.

That leaves the needs of democracy as the most convincing reason for press freedom.

These needs don't justify unconditional press freedom, because democracy needs a press that informs citizens accurately.

Of course, if requirements for accurate reporting were too tightly drawn, the press would be intimidated.

Nobody can be sure of getting everything right-even with zealous "fact checking".

So a press that serves rather than damages democracy needs to aim for accuracy in its reporting: its claims should be truthful, even if they cannot be guaranteed to be true.

And this standard can be achieved. The media achieve it well in reporting football results and stock prices.

In complex reporting, it can be achieved by providing evidence and qualifications, by telling readers and listeners when the information is uncertain, by editing that corrects errors promptly, and that explicitly distinguishes reporting from commentary, gossip and features.

The right structures

Only the media that report responsibly in this way allow readers and listeners to judge for themselves and so support democracy.

How can this standard be achieved? Some demands on the press would do too much - notoriously censorship, state or other control of the media of their content is risky and counterproductive.

Other demands are too minimal. Merely allowing individuals to complain if misrepresented, as for example the British Press Complaints Commission Code does, achieves little.

Good reporting is a public good, not a consumer product, so complaints procedures for individuals can't secure or even protect it.

Better standards could be achieved without risking censorship by specific regulation to secure accurate reporting, or at least truthful reporting.

I'll finish with one example. Accuracy could be supported by requirements to declare and disclose conflicts of interest on reporters, editors and owners.

Why should those who work in the media be exempt from the disciplines faced by others working in other powerful organisations? Press freedom, I suggest, needs more than a slogan; it needs the right structures.


Time for some secular aggression.

From my primary school reader, comes the following morality tale.

A Bedouin on a journey through the desert camped down for the night, his camel tethered to a peg outside the tent.

Wole Soyinka
'I have limited your space of authority' (Image: Ken Passley)

A while later, the camel pleaded, "Master, the desert air is cold. Can I put my nose inside the tent just to warm it a little?"

The kindly Bedouin decided to gratify the camel's wish. Next the camel, meek as ever, proposed that his neck follow suit. The rest of the story is soon guessed.

After the incursion of legs, chest, hump and rump, the camel grumbled that there was not enough room for both.

Still vivid in my mind is the accompanying illustration - the astonished Bedouin sailing through the air from a powerful kick from the camel's hind legs.

Anyone who seeks a graphic actualisation of this fable should visit Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria, whose solitary dual carriage motorway into the interior is ritually clogged up by revivalist sessions of rival Christian campsites which litter the borders of that sole motorway into the interior.

The backup traffic for miles imprisoning travellers sometimes all day and night.

Efforts to move them to other sites have failed, and the average citizen finds himself or herself the dispossessed Bedouin of our fable.

If only the acquisition of such territory remained purely physical!

Cult of refuseniks

Alas, more lethally for society, such aggressions include the regions of the mind.

Such as when the Bishop of an East African diocese, obsessed with church mandated moralities, preaches, in a region half decimated by HIV aids, that the condom is in fact an instrument of Satan designed to infect its users with the very scourge it is meant to prevent, as God's punishment for promiscuity.

Even in a purely theocratic state, there comes a point - surely - at which the state must restrict clerical interference in clearly scientific matters, most especially where human well being and survival are at issue?

But of course one envisages a social tent in which the camel has not yet kicked out the Bedouin.

But at least that cleric did not pretend to be a medical scientist, or practitioner.

What are we to make of a trained physician who refuses to treat a female patient unless her head is covered?

That cult of religious refuseniks appears to be waxing strong in the United Kingdom, sweeping even into the consultation room.

The British Medical Association further revealed that some of its Islamic holy healers would not touch any alcohol related diseases, such as cirrhosis of the liver.

What on earth has happened to the tradition of Jonathan Swift and other scourges of enthusiasm?

What, one wonders, do such doctors substitute, in an emergency, for alcohol based sterilizing fluids?

Boiling water, perhaps? My layman knowledge indicates that a swab of methyl alcohol effectively disinfects an open wound.

This same moral compunction is responsible, we learn, for the refusal of such doctors to treat alcoholics and wean them from their addiction.


As always, there are options. One: plaques can be issued by the Ministry of Health, affixed to appropriate clinics with the warning: "Unveiled Muslim women, lesbians, homosexuals and alcoholics are not permitted in these premises".

They would share, for like-minded Jewish doctors, a section which reads: "This Clinic does not treat eaters of pork sausages, pork chops and bacon".

Of course the Medical Association could simply remind such members of their Hippocratic oath, withdraw their certificates and retrain them for other professions.

As it happens, a judge from the state of Kansas USA recently provided us a lead in these matters.

Finding before him a group of religious zealots who had taken to disrupting the funerals of victims of the Iraqi war on religious grounds, he invoked the full rigour of the law.

The activists were not even protesting against the immorality of that war - quite the contrary.

Their gospel is that the war is divine punishment for America's permissive attitude towards homosexuality.

Thus, the fallen in that war are recipients of God's wrath, do not deserve even a decent burial, nor their families their private space of mourning.

These conscientious objectors therefore invade funerals with banners screaming "God is Just", "God Hates Fags" etc. etc.

They heckle the priest, make catcalls at passing cortege and generally pile trauma upon trauma on the bereaved.

On Judgement Day the accused received a $12m fine. Pity it was only a civil suit.

The state should have stepped in and framed the charges under the hate laws of the land.

It is time that the worst construction is placed on all forms of discrimination that claim a divine mandate, especially those that transgress against the entitlements of others to a secular dispensation.

These zealots would have us believe that the needless deaths in Iraq are not the work of George Bush and his government but of sexual tendencies.

Faced with such mind pollution, you can only applaud the Kansas state judge, and invoke even scriptural exhortations for the rest of society: I have limited your space of authority. Go and do thou likewise.

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