It’s frankly terrifying how quickly the calls for tougher press regulation can be heard after anything even mildly controversial graces the pages of Britain’s love-hate, social hypochondriac. When the Mail chose to kick the dust up about Labour leader Ed Miliband’s heritage following his intrepid, policy defining speech, I don’t think that anyone with even a trace of brain activity was surprised. This kind of virulent targeting of anyone who is vaguely left-wing and dead has come to be expected. I don’t necessarily disagree with everything that was written, not least because the majority of the text was specially selected quotations from Miliband’s Marxist father, but the reality of the situation is that it doesn’t matter what I or anyone thinks about the view expressed. The fact that anyone even brings up their view of a journalist’s work when discussing the limits on published material is the root of a fairly major problem with the state of press freedom in the UK presently.
Whenever curtailment of free speech rears its ugly head, it is crucial to remind ourselves why it is that we even have such a right in the first place. In essence, free speech is the only guarantee of liberty. If one has no right to express views contrary to the accepted norm then a society, however well-intentioned, is unaccountable and by virtue of the inevitable human desire for absolute power, becomes corrupted. Without free expression as a legitimate avenue of recourse for disenfranchised citizens, things get more than a little dictatorial and often violent.
To return to the source of the row, free speech is inextricably linked to an unregulated press. One man shouting on an apple box may have been a valid source of societal control before the industrial revolution, but with the explosion in population and emergence of the new media monopoly on information something a little more nuanced is required. The right to have your say is fundamental; but without an appropriate channel for dissemination it lacks the potency necessary for truly accountable government.
When commentators of any political stripe fall mute, society convulses, bulldozing its uncontested agenda without obstacle. The Daily Mail is an established newspaper with a considerable readership, and is fully entitled to express its views on a matter it believes its readership needs to be aware of. For the sake of long-term stability, it is necessary that the professional offence takers put away their megaphones and placards and accept that occasionally, not everything in the Daily Mail will make them dance with joy. Tolerance is a virtue.
If none of that held any sway then maybe a more rudimentary angle will do better. At least they’re urinating in their own toilet; while the Daily Mail and their fan-club are cackling in their lairs about the damage done to the reputation of their latest target, they’re not blowing anything up. The press provides a release for the views that may otherwise manifest themselves in a somewhat less civilised fashion, and let’s face it; you don’t have to read what they say. In actual fact, the real issue here is is defamation laws. If people want to get up in arms about anything, it should be directed at the law that provides exception to defamation claims if the subject has started decomposing.
As mature adults, it’s about time that people realised that the world isn’t all Pimms and garden parties. People have differing views and they should do; diversity of opinion is the beauty of humanity. When newspaper editors choose to publish articles like the Milliband one, people must accept that these views exist, no matter how contradictory they are to our own. Adherence to the creed of plurality is paramount if universal free speech is to remain intact. To threaten to curb the right to do so with such frightening regularity is at best an annoying background noise, and at worse, authoritarian.