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BBC Debacle a Distraction From Quiet Muzzling of Free Speech

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It is oh so easy to be lulled. As both the BBC's Newsnight and ITV's This Morning come under investigation by Ofcom for their handling of child sex abuse allegations, we watch giants pay (rightly) for serious mistakes. The shambles of media excesses over the past years - phone hacking only the peak of mountainous muck below - encourages us to nod sagely as yet another media outfit exhibits the low standards we have come to expect of them all. And we agree: they should be restrained, corrected, taught. But this zeitgeist is laced with danger. At the BBC the toll of ended careers seems a heavy, but fair price. In the wider world, the cost is far greater.

Not only has there been a Conservative call for statutory regulation of the press (read government dictate), but in the online sphere, case by stealthy case, actual jail terms are resulting from mere words. We have become criminals for...saying stuff. A throwback to centuries less concerned with individual rights; a catastrophe for freedom of expression.

This week's poppy burning is the most recent and perhaps most ludicrous example - a teenager arrested for posting such a photo on Facebook. The jailing of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the man behind the anti-Muslim film that led to mass protests in the Middle East, is another instance. Of course Nakoula was supposedly sentenced for violations of a previous probation, but one cannot help but feel it as a bone thrown to a baying mob. The same goes for the 56-day sentence of the student who tweeted offensive comments about Fabrice Muamba, the judge himself commenting that the custodial sentence was "to reflect the public outrage". Nobody for a moment is suggesting that the abhorrent views put forward by any of these Twitter twits are justifiable, or acceptable, or friend-making. But criminal? What happened to sticks and stones?

The problem perhaps is a lack of definition of modern mediums. Online, the things we 'say' to Facebook friends or Twitter followers are not the off-the-cuff remarks that the ease of a click encourages us to believe. They are instead written, published words and can as such be libelous, or worse. But should they be? Should such social mediums be governed by the same rules as established newspapers? Should individuals be expected to know the complexities of media law? Or is it in fact not media law that so many are falling foul of, but the law in general?

The reigning argument seems to be that it is not the publishing of offensive material that is landing individuals in jail, it is the actual content of what they say, and this content would be just as criminal if said down the pub. The difference is that at the pub, very few people are listening. Whereas privacy policies on Facebook for example put the onus on the metaphorical 'speaker' to make sure not only that nobody is listening, but that nobody is standing behind them with a recording device. Hence, publication is everything. It is this that quickly turns being racist for instance (not illegal), into incitement to racial hatred (very illegal). And not sufficiently understanding the difference before assuming (or unassuming) a role of public pundit, is resulting in what feels like outrageous arrests.

When we feel outrage at the implementation of law, we must necessarily ask, are our laws just? Our criminal laws? Our media laws?

Since so much of what is said in these online cases is abominable to most of us, it is tempting to let the police simply get on with it. At a time when many bemoan the breakdown of society, perhaps it is even a welcome moralizing force. But who decides what is moral? And who imposes it? This is frightening territory. Publication online makes it much harder to ignore repulsive attitudes, and we shouldn't. Social pressure will hopefully begin to re-educate. But criminalizing one's beliefs however they aired, sacrificing freedom for 'morality' - this is not the way.

The concept of liberty and the sanctity of press freedom was forged nowhere more notably than in the UK. Yet we are only 28th on The Press Freedom Index - higher than the US as a comparison but lower than a number of former communist nations. And in the light of 2012, our further descent seems inevitable.

There is no quick answer. On the far side of the spectrum remain the media's gross infringements, and here, rather than being repressed the media seems too often exempt from laws imposed on the rest of society. How, for example, are paparazzi photographers any different than stalkers?

What is clear is that the state of both the media and the laws that govern it are in disarray. A good start might be to educate ourselves on the rulings that stand. In an age of instant communication used most by the youngest, this is an essential safeguard that should be provided by all schools. It might also arm us to challenge those laws that seem unjust.

In the meantime, we must not allow the scandal at the BBC to convince us of the evil of all journalists. Nor the repellant views of certain Twits to lull us into the quiet muzzling of us all.