Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Censors on the prowl

“I’m not trying to curb free speech”, says Andy Burnham, Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, announcing his proposals for internet viewing restrictions, “I just want to protect the public from ‘unacceptable’ material”.

All would-be censors pay lip-service to free speech. The trouble is, they don’t seem to know what it is. In their book, you can say whatever you want – as long as they don’t disagree with it. You can read or view whatever you want – as long as it doesn’t offend their notions of what is ‘harmful’, ‘indecent’, or ‘offensive’.

Mr Burnham considers that clips of beheadings [for instance] are too shocking to be shown, and that children – it’s always children – must be ‘protected’ from violent or sexual content.

So presumably under the new Burnham dispensation the daily television news bulletins are going to be radically sanitised. No more scenes of fighting, bombing, civilian casualties, people dying of starvation, anywhere in the world? No more fictional murders? No more representations of the crucifixion on religious programmes?

An age-based rating system is to be applied, and presumably parents and others whose children watch material considered ‘unsuitable’ by Mr Burnham and his bunch of censoring nannies will be comitting yet another newly created offence.

To justify this latest invasion of parental rights and privacy, an NSPCC poll is cited which found that three out of four children had been ‘disturbed’ by images they had seen on the internet. “Most parents have no clue what their children are up to online”, said a self-important NSPCC nanny figure, implying that she did, and that they were up to no good.

Of course many parents don’t have much inkling of what’s going on in their childrens’ minds a lot of the time. Nor should they, if the children are to develop their own sense of identity and independence. Do we really want to live in a world where it is considered improper for children ever to be disturbed by what they see or hear, so that they are consequently ill-equipped to deal with the shocks and traumas which they will inevitably sometimes encounter as they go through life?

I suppose Mr Burnham will be all for banning Grimm’s Fairy Tales next. They and their kind provided many an agreeable frisson of horror in my childhood days.

These busybody censors keep popping up like jack-in-the boxes. Why can’t they mind their own business, and get off our backs? A quarter of a century ago, I wrote an essay on ‘Pornography and Free Speech’, pointing out that freedom of expression is the essential bedrock of democratic liberty which underpins all other freedoms, and making the case against censorship exercised on grounds of taste. I said, in part:

“I start from the premise that all censorship is evil, because it diminishes human freedom and interferes with the spontaneity of communication. In an ideal world there would be no censorship, but the world we live in is far from ideal; and for the foreseeable future there will be some censorship. What there is should be as limited as possible, and should be kept under constant and vigilant scrutiny. The burden of proving that censorship is the lesser evil in any given instance should always lie upon those (be they the representatives of the State or private bodies or persons) who seek to impose it. And such proof should include solid evidence of demonstrable harm, greater than the harm wrought by the proposed censorship, to an individual, to a group, or to society as a whole, if the article or information in question remained uncensored.

“Such harm can usually be proved in cases of legitimate restriction of information on grounds of State security or libel upon an individual (even though the law on these matters is widely acknowledged to be defective and awaits legislative improvement). In matters of public taste and morals, however, tangible evidence of harm or damage is much more elusive. These questions are essentially subjective - and it is for this reason above all that I believe the less the law intrudes into the realm of public and private morality, the better.

“All censorship is a hindrance to the free flow of facts, of opinions and of ideas; and therefore, regardless of the motive with which it is imposed, censorship constitutes a distortion of spontaneous communication between human beings. I would not wish to argue that communication should never be restricted by convention or even sometimes by law; but I do maintain that every instance of such restriction ought to be scrutinised vigilantly in a democratic society, and that the onus of justifying it should be upon those authorities or individuals seeking to impose it. The only possible guiding principle for a society that is tolerably free in fact as well as in name has to be that enunciated by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty (1859) that

‘If all mankind minus one were of the opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind’.

“Censorship is the intervention of a third mind between the communicator and those to whom the communication is addressed. The censor says: ‘For a reason which seems good to me, I must stop this information reaching you.’ (‘You’ may be either a specific individual, a class of individuals, or the public at large.)

“What is censored may be a fact, an opinion or a scene. A censored fact may be true or untrue. A censored opinion may be well-founded or ill-founded. A censored scene may be real or imaginary. As Mill points out, society can be harmed just as much by the censoring of falsehoods and errors as by the suppression of truth - not least because the truth or falsehood of information and opinions can only be established by free discussion and full examination of all the available evidence.

“The censor's ‘good reason’ for censoring a fact is usually that a person learning it would be harmed (this argument is frequently advanced as a ‘reason’ for not giving sex education to adolescents); or that a third party would be damaged by it (the basis on which the laws of libel are founded and on which legal measures to protect privacy are advocated by some people); or that the community or the State would be harmed (the raison d'etre of the Official Secrets Acts). The ‘good reason’ for censoring an opinion about society is usually that it would undermine the established order (i.e. it is seditious) or that it is highly offensive to the feelings of certain groups in society (e.g. the Race Relations Acts, blasphemy). The ‘good reason’ for censoring an opinion about an individual or a group is usually that the person or the group would be harmed or offended by its publication. The censor's ’good reason’ for censoring a scene is usually that it will harm the people seeing it or that some of them are outraged by it: this is the common justification for censorship of pornography. In other situations, censorship may simply be used as a repressive weapon by the State or other authority without being directly related to the content of the material which is being censored.

“Are the censor's ‘good reasons’ really good? The answers must depend not only on whether the harm he fears is real, but also on whether it outweighs the counter-harm which censorship does to freedom of speech. Any act of censorship, whatever its pretext, is by its very nature a political action: it is the exercise of power by one group over another. In a democratic society the presumption must always be in favour of free speech. If any other presumption prevails, the society is no longer free and open, but will - albeit gradually - become closed and authoritarian.

“Surely, in the end, it is safer to run the risks involved in a free and open society where views, attitudes and opinions are expressed which one does not necessarily approve of, than to live under a regime where free enquiry and expression are stifled and suppressed. Censorship is a habit of mind which, once it gains a foothold, spreads like a cancer. Whatever its starting point, the end of the censor's road is likely to be the same: repression of ‘dangerous’ ideas, not only about sex but about morals, politics, art and life.

“I detest censorship and would-be censors because they attack my freedom - and yours - to read, see, hear and do what I - and you – choose…The attempt to preserve people [including children] from harm by keeping them in ignorance of whatever may ‘morally pollute’ them strikes me as not only misconceived and futile, but as positively evil in its consequences. Living is, by its very nature, a dangerous process; and it is only by being conscious of the depths, as well as of the heights, of human imagination that we can make meaningful choices and accept full moral responsibility for ourselves. Bad things happen in the world, whether we are allowed to know it or not: and we shall never overcome evil by being kept in ignorance of its existence.”

So my message to Andy Burnham and his ilk is: “Keep your censoring activities within your own household, and confine them to your own children. Let other parents, and their children, take responsibility for their own reading, viewing and listening choices.”

NO to the Nanny State!

1 comment:

pela68 said...

All sadly too true!
Good post AC!