Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World by Timothy Garton Ash, Atlantic Books, £20
Freedom of speech has always been a vexed, even dangerous, business. Socrates questioned the gods and earned himself a swift trip across the Styx. Here we are, 2,400 years later, and western liberal democracies still struggle over how much free speech is healthy, whether there should be any sort of bridle on it and, now, how to deal with the ever-growing electronic media. Is shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre worse than a Daily Mail story blaming working women for the rise in autism, or Fox News insisting that Birmingham has succumbed to radical Islam to the point that non-Muslims don’t dare breach the A4540? Should government suppress “offensive” speech, say, Chris Ofili’s painting of the Virgin Mary as a black woman with a varnished lump of elephant dung on one breast, David Irving’s Holocaust-denying rants, or Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad? Is the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford a hurtful endorsement of imperialism or merely a historical artefact? And who decides?
The theory and the practice of free speech don’t always join up. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Anarchy with a no-holds-barred press may sound entertaining, but if there were no governments, newspapers would have little at which to point the inky finger of outrage. Media and government perform a kind of symbiotic dance, each openly sceptical of the other, each obsessed with the other, each hostile to the other, each adept at using the other when it suits them, perpetually joined at the hip. Jefferson understood this, of course: in the impressively nasty presidential campaign of 1800, his running mate Aaron Burr leaked an unflattering letter criticising their opponent John Adams’s “great and intrinsic” character defects. Jefferson’s party used the popular press to spread a rumour that Adams aimed to marry one of his sons to a daughter of George III in order to create a quasi-monarchial…