Freedom of expression without limits

by Stephen Tall on February 28, 2005

Few subjects rouse as much noise, generate as much heat, or conclude in such disagreement as free speech. Why baffles me. After all, a slim majority of us pride ourselves on being civilised, progressive, small-l-liberals. Our parents and grandparents fought a world war in defence of our freedoms, however hard Charles Clarke tries to scrub out these hard-won liberties. Yet still the Daily Mail lament that ‘Things have just gone too far this time’ shrilly rings out in protest at the latest telly-silliness apparently depraving This-Once-Great-Country.

Two cheers then for Jana Bennett, BBC Director of Television, who tonight delivers a speech in Oxford entitled, ‘Letting artistic merit speak for itself’. It’s a subject close to her heart following the Jerry Springer furore, which already seems like a surreally irrelevant storm-in-a-teapot. The reprehensible Christian Voice – the paramilitary wing of the evangelical church – published Ms Bennett’s home phone number on its website, an act for which they may just be in future need of God’s mercy.

The speech was prominently trailed in today’s Guardian, and an extract is available online here. (Quick plug here for my place of work, St Anne’s College, where Ms Bennett is delivering her speech … the full text will be available tomorrow morning at www.st-annes.ox.ac.uk)

The core principle Ms Bennett expounds is a sound one:

“We should respect the right of people to protest, and respect the right of people to feel offended.”

So why only two cheers, why not the hat-trick? Well, it was the follow-up sentence that got me thinking, then got me worrying:

“But we must also uphold the rights of our audiences to see works of high artistic quality.”

Now fair’s fair: Jana Bennett works for the BBC, indeed is one of their most distinguished former producers, and is now a top executive. In the run-up to the BBC’s Royal Charter review, it would be surprising if she vaunted anything other than “works of high artistic quality”. But that line is a bit of a cop-out. Because real commitment to freedom of expression accepts – nay, revels – in the inevitability of both the wheat and the chaff finding its way onto stage, screen or printed page.

Freedom of expression is not finite: it does not exist only to serve ‘good art’, however we each might individually define that. It is easy to defend the challenging television work of Chris Morris or Dennis Potter: their visceral intelligence burns the screen, tattoos itself on our retinas. It is much harder to stand up for the tosh, bilge and filth served up by Men & Motors or Television X: their wretched existence impoverishes us all.

But I don’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t get to make those calls. And nor should anyone else. Because the moment we accept there is a line, we accept the right of someone else to draw it. Freedom of expression is not an opt-in, opt-out, grey area: it is an axiomatic fundamental of a fully-functioning, mature democracy. A society which accepts the erosion of freedom of expression accepts the erosion of individual responsibility. And that’s when the problems really start.