Freedom of speech is a solid old principle. Shame, then, that it gets rolled out so often by dullards trying to shield other dullards from criticism. Catherine Bennett is – I’m guessing – aware that no one is trying to ban Rod Liddle. The campaign to stop him from becoming editor of the Independent has a pretty clear aim: to let the potential proprietors know how utterly Liddle’s appointment would alienate the readership. I’d suggest that Lebedev should be grateful for the anti-Liddle Facebook group giving him a preliminary market research report for free, only the mismatch between Liddle and the Indy is obvious like a flasher’s knob (and even more so now we know about his message board comments).
So, there’s no organised effort to get Rod Liddle imprisoned, tortured, fined or even made to sit on the naughty step for what he’s published. Just a strong and widespread feeling that he’d be a disaster in the job. And despite what Bennett suggests, freedom of speech means, exactly, freedom of speech. Not “freedom to edit national newspapers”. And definitely not “freedom from being criticised by anyone who doesn’t have a newspaper column”. Because when Bennett worries that “Public figures will become ever blander in their views” if they continue to be exposed to opposition, what she’s arguing is that public figures should be protected from opposition.
There’s a depressing implication here: Bennett is positing free speech as an end in itself, not as the necessary preliminary to debate. If Bennett was the Lord Chamberlain of the internet, presumably we could all say exactly what we liked about anyone or anything, so long as we weren’t rude enough to offer anything as ghastly as a direct response. It’s the same measly logic used by Nick Cohen: freedom of speech, if it means anything, means journalists never having to be told they’re wrong. It’s astonishing that people with such an infantile idea of civil liberties can offer themselves seriously as defenders of democracy, but there you are.
Because if you’re making lofty civic claims for journalism, I don’t think – and hug yourselves now, because I’m about to be shocking – that being bland is the biggest thing you have to worry about. I’d be busier stressing the importance of getting stuff right, which is hard to do when you’ve ruled all criticism illegitimate. And if Bennett thinks that Lebedev is going to bring devastating redundancies to the Indy, maybe she should take a moment to imagine the sort of restructuring it’s going to need once Liddle has managed to repulse every loyal reader.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010