The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Daniel Rolle Headshot

The Economics of Free Speech

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

I'd like to begin with a point of clarification. When I previously wrote in defence of dangerous thought, I should have laid out a caveat that distinguished between the sort of thought that outlines and calls for positive change, and the sort that is downright offensive. I was precisely not referring to the sort of dangerous thought that we have seen two manifestations of in the past week.

The first is Paul McMullan's claim during his first appearance at the Leveson inquiry that the public interest can be reduced to, and is indeed founded in, an economic transaction; the second is Jeremy Clarkson's call for public sector workers to be rounded up and shot in front of their families.

The latter is so objectionable that it almost defies analysis. Yet it is symptomatic of the logic implicit in McMullan's statement at Leveson, which doesn't seem to have been delved into in any great detail as of yet:

"Circulation defines what is in the public interest....of interest to the public is what they put their hand in their pocket and buy."

Here, McMullan has outlined a fascinating, yet profoundly concerning, argument that the press should effectively be regulated and contained by the logic of supply and demand, and absolutely unfettered by any moral code, or any independent third party seeking to outline some overarching reference of conduct. If McMullan had his way, we'd effectively have a system where the conditions of free speech, or indeed the 'sayable' itself, would become directly and absolutely founded in economics. So it'd be fine to incite hatred, espouse a sexist, racist or homophobic worldview, or routinely deny the holocaust, so long as you sold a million copies each day.

Philosophically, McMullan is right up there with Nietzsche (and we know who misread his works for their own causes...). But the more fundamental problem is that this thinking has led to the state we are currently in; one where characters like Clarkson think it's OK to go on the BBC and say whatever the hell he likes. And although he might think it's fine to make this kind of 'joke' behind closed doors with his similarly louche and immoral mates, it's absolutely not fine to publically express a desire to execute NHS workers, particularly on live TV.

If the events at Leveson this week have told us anything, it's that wider press accountability and some measured form of media regulation must be brought into effect as soon as possible.

I have finally got around to reading Alastair Campbell's written submission to the Leveson inquiry. In the 55-page masterpiece, Campbell sets out the beginnings of a case for a (long overdue) overhaul of the Press Complaints Commission. The need for an independently funded body, run by a select set of media leaders, to counter the culture of 'media exceptionalism', to provide much needed legal and standards training for journalists, to hold reporters, publications and broadcasters accountable for fabricated stories, or those which stretch the definition of public interest beyond all recognition, is absolute.

The media can no longer control the terms of debate about the media. As Campbell suggests, we need to return to the notion of the journalist as the establisher of truth, rather than the current role of interpreter of stories, which may or may not be true. Quality and a quest for the truth should underline all journalistic activity; and the way we're headed, we risk sacrificing both in the interests of quantity and immediacy.

Britain's newspapers and broadcasters are renowned throughout the world. And deservedly so. Combined with a political heritage founded in tolerance and freedom of expression, the UK is a fertile breeding ground for debate, comment and analysis; in short, for a world-leading media industry. Let's not undermine that by encouraging a culture in which questioning the role of the media is met with claims that free speech is under threat, and that those instigating the checks desire a descent into totalitarianism.

Because from where I'm sitting, a culture where someone can call (even in jest) for public executions, and pretty much get away with it with just a slap on the wrist, is a far more dangerous one.

And I definitely don't mean that in a good way.