"The single greatest freedom in Britain today", asserts John Kampfner, "is the freedom to make and spend your money." For a moment I'm wondering if I haven't stumbled into ‘The Economy: what next?' debate, scheduled for end of play on Day Two of the Oxford Literary festival, rather than a discussion on the state of free speech. But since blatant Mamonian poetics are about as taboo as claiming Josef Fritzl was just a grossly misunderstood man these days, I realise that Kampfner's provoking our inner offence monitors merely illustrates his point - from our oppressive libel laws, to a "shades of grey" style censorship scuppering artistic freedom, our freedom of expression, he warns us, is being suffocated by a kind of "vacuous conformism", with self-censorship the most insidious, masochistic form of all.
In the week that the Orwell Prize for journalism announces its long list of nominees, the Oxford Literary festival has woven a robust and sizeable micro-programme of events on matters of censorship and freedom of the press into the schedule. In this opener, John Kampfner, Chief Executive of Index on Censorship is joined by the Observer's Catherine Bennett, and Geoffrey Robertson QC (who has written for Standpoint), to debate the extent of what appears to be an ever-tightening chokehold on our public freedom of expression.
Each speaker is invited to give a ten minute introduction in which to establish their position. Kampfner's is as above. Then Catherine Bennett regales a list of some of the public figures that have been chastised to silence or apology in the past year, which includes Jan Moir, Julie Bindel (another Standpoint contributor), all Israeli academics, and the BNP. She alludes to the case of John Savage, the American shock jock who was forbidden entry to Britain by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith on the premise of "fostering extremism or hatred" (telling a "sodomite" caller to his MSNBC radio show in 2003, "you should only get Aids and die, you pig!"). In this case, Bennett is none too impressed by the government's infantilising attempt to protect the "delicate sensibilities" of the British public. And she is clearly concerned about the so-called liberal media's blocking of Rod Liddle, to the Independent's editorship: "You might expect the right wingers to hamper expression", Bennett postulates, "but not so-called ‘progressive' journalists." But later, when Bennett qualifies her commitment to free speech with, a ‘I'm not advocating real violence' caveat, it exposes the fact that the discussion is in desperate need of a definition of what actually constitutes incitement to hatred, a clarification of when a verbal spat becomes, as philosopher J L Austin had it, a performative speech act, and where the lines should, if at all, be drawn in an utopian, uncensorious society.
Quoted several times throughout the course of the debate, Orwell's aphorism, ‘free speech is the right to tell people what they don't want to hear' has a neatly framing irony when Geoffrey Robertson QC effectively discounts the introductory time limit by about 20 minutes (note to festival coordinators: if you are thinking of repeating the Short Introduction series next year, prolix Judge Boom-box is probably best left off the list). That said, Robertson is no small-talker, and he adeptly contextualises the foibles of the British libel system by way of international comparison - the Americans wax lyrical about the claimant friendliness of the UK, he tells us, while the cost of defending libel law in Britain is 140 times that of doing it in Europe - "We don't have free speech. We have expensive speech", he quips. And then perhaps surprisingly for a man who has made a career out of encouraging other people to seek reputational compensation through costs, asserts that libel actions aren't about money but about journalistic disclosure and intimidation. His solution to the injustice of the system is naturally legislative - shift the burden of proof in libel cases onto the defendant, rather than the claimant, and journalists and their purse-shrunken publications will no longer have to worry about whether they can afford to fight for their freedom of expression - after all, it's how the Americans do it (So that's how (in part) the National Enquirer gets away with it - no initial defendants' bill!)
Once the panel begin to interpolate, it's far more genial than you might expect, especially considering that Kampfner practically spits his contempt for the British libel system, while, for all his critiquing, Robertson is faithful to a process which reins expression in (balanced of course with right to reply rules, he qualifies). Perhaps there's some strategic seating at work by placing the moderately vociferous Catherine Bennett between them, who only threatens to slight ire when Robertson turns his ringmaster's scurrility to the poor standards of UK journalism. The real object of his contempt is the PCC - "nonsense though the press depend on it", an organisation of which he cites every editor but Ian Hislop as a member, and which he condemns for being a phoney, castrating authority set up by newspaper proprietors to ward off the creation of a British privacy law.
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