The Paperhouse guide to free speech

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.

See also: Next Left, “Do Rod Liddle’s human rights trump yours?”

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Do Rod Liddle’s human rights trump yours?

11 thoughts on “The Paperhouse guide to free speech

  1. What an excellent post, couldn’t agree more. This is the crux of Bennett’s defence of Liddle’s views then: “Possibly…. it has merely been expressed in a style that is calculated, in the tradition of Julie Burchill and the late Auberon Waugh, to enrage readers who do not find him amusing.”
    If Liddle wrote those columns in a way that was ‘calculated to enrage’ then he got what he wanted, didn’t he? Sorry if it’s not convenient when he’s then canvassed as potential editor of a liberal broadsheet.
    “I can only wonder at the conviction among his online critics that the Liddle worldview is so much less acceptable than those of other editors, actual or potential.”
    So are we supposed to be comparing Liddle against candidates who’ve yet to be mooted? A specific name is required or it’s just so much waffle and fudge sauce. As for freedom of speech, reminds me of being back at school, when if someone made a witless remark and you challenged them on it, they said “I’m entitled to my opinion!” Yes, we’ve established that, you’ve expressed it. Now let’s move on to the *content.*
    But, the key remark is, she’s not qualified to judge his fitness to be editor because he’s a mate. Nor is she qualified to judge the justice of the criticism here, clearly.

  2. I love this post.

    I was looking for a way to articulate the silliness of the argument that freedom of speech means you can’t take issue with what people more important than you write, but you beat me to it and did it better than I would have.

    I salute you!

  3. The thing I don’t understand is, why is Catherine Bennett surprised that Rod Liddle’s journalism, which is clearly written with the intention of provoking outrage from various groups of people, does in fact provoke outrage from those groups? And since Catherine herself certainly writes publicly when something annoys her, why is she surprised that other people also write publicly when something (like Rod Liddle’s journalism) annoys them?

    This is one thing I always liked about Julie Burchill and Steven Wells – they never pretended that they weren’t doing it on purpose. This pretence of total innocence, feigning that one was only expressing the truth as one saw it, and was terribly surprised and even wounded that others might find it offensive, seems to me to be a particularly modern attitude and not one I find attractive.

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