The dilemma of free speech
January 23, 2001
Larry Flynt, the publisher of the hard porn magazine in the USA Hustler, once published a cartoon to the effect that the Reverend Jerry Falwell, the leader of the `Moral Majority', had his first sexual experience with his mother in an outhouse. It was, of course, as Flynt well knew, untrue and highly defamatory. He was sued by Falwell and defended the case. Though successful in his libel defence he was ordered to pay damages for causing emotional distress. He appealed to the Federal Supreme Court and won an historic free speech decision.
Later, when President Clinton was under attack over the Lewinsky scandal, which one media scholar Jon Katz suggested the mainstream media had pruriently milked in a "dubious" role, "an act of contempt for both the public will and the public interest", Flynt offered US $l million for anyone who could provide evidence of scandal or infidelity on the part of the Republicans who were demanding Clinton's impeachment.
Though hardly a traditional journalistic crusader, one senses that there was something healthily irreverent in Flynt's desire to test the limits of free speech and to shatter the pomposity of some of his opponents. Yet he could, of course, only have won his case in America where the constitution (the first amendment) and the courts are more liberal than in any other jurisdiction. In England, for example, he would have been ruined with libel damages as the satirical political magazine Private Eye nearly was.
The dilemma of free speech is now being acutely posed here by some of the talk show hosts on our television programmes. One might sense a touch of Larry Flynt in the uninhibited way in which they deal with public figures though it is hard not to notice that the objects of their criticism are all of one political party, suggesting that there is no journalistic free speech agenda here but a simple political motivation. But scathing references to politicians and other public figures one can to some extent tolerate. They have thrown their hat in the ring and are fair game. The law of libel and contempt should be able to deal with any personal excesses. What is far more worrying and dangerous is the pandering to racial insecurities by allowing callers to their programmes to put forward the most outlandish propositions, unsupported by evidence, which lead to fear and hatred, and by themselves purveying such rumours. This is what we are concerned about and this is what we suggest all the politicians should be concerned about, rather than feeling that this kind of racial rumour mongering might somehow enure to their advantage as these people are "on their side". The cultivation of racial hatred and fear is not in anyone's or in any party's interest and those who indulge in or permit such practices or even suggest that they should be tolerated are either innocents abroad, unaware of the dreadful example of Rwanda, or are prepared to risk the country's future for narrow political gain. And apart from anything else it doesn't win votes as it only appeals to hard core party supporters and alienates those whom the party must presumably be seeking to win over.
There must be some standards. In a huge, prosperous, federal America there is scope for a libertarian approach, almost no holds barred, though even there some of what now goes on here would lead to prosecution. In a developing democracy, completely unprincipled and irresponsible journalism can help to tear the country apart. Mr Hugh Cholmondeley is a senior and well respected Guyanese media personality. As a former United Nations official he has a wide experience of countries suffering from ethnic tensions. We fully support his call, published today in our page one lead story, that media owners, print and broadcast, should publicly declare where they stand on this issue and on the media code that has been developed to govern the coverage of these elections. Disclaimers of particular programmes are ridiculous, legally useless and an insult to our intelligence. The owners know what is going on, day after day, week after week, and they are morally and legally liable for it. They must tell us where they stand. Do they agree that the talk show hosts who appear on their stations should abide by the media code and guidelines? Do they agree that it is dangerous to broadcast rumours that are unchecked and that pander to racial insecurities and hatred? Will they do anything about it?
Mr Cholmondeley is correct, the blame must be placed firmly on the shoulders of those who own the media. If they do nothing to uphold standards they are the ones who must bear the responsibility.
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