Getting Balance Right between Free Speech and Censorship; MEDIA ANALYSIS

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Byline: Roy Greenslade

I BELIEVE in free speech. Everyone believes in free speech. At least, everyone in advanced western societies is given to saying that they believe in free speech, almost as if it's an act of faith.

But it is also recognised, except by the most fundamentalist of libertarians, that the exercise of free speech carries with it certain responsibilities. That old maxim about not crying "fire!" in a crowded cinema, when there is no fire, is an obvious example of a responsible constraint.

That single example concedes the principle of unfettered freedom of speech and from it flows all sorts of supposedly reasonable restrictions. In Britain, as distinct from the United States, we have always laboured under encroachments on our rights to free speech. The libel laws are a perfect example.

Our politicians also saw fit to pass laws to attempt to prevent racial and religious discrimination by prohibiting speech likely to incite violence and, in more recent times, the "glorification of terrorism".

Many people don't like these laws, and it should be said that many people also do not obey them. In private, they say all sorts of things that -- if said in public -- might well lead to prosecution.

Indeed, many say them quite openly in pubs and clubs and at their workplaces. Some, disgracefully, scream them from the terraces of football grounds.

That "reality" is rarely reflected in the media because newspapers and broadcasters not only try to stay within the law but also work to editorial guidelines and codes that have been drawn up to comply with the law.

One clear example is the Editors' Code of Practice, the set of rules created in 1990 by a committee of newspaper and magazine editors (declaration of interest: I was one of the original drafting group) and administered by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

The whole ethos of self-regulation is about constraint on freedom. It lays down rules about what journalists must NOT do in the pursuit of their work.

For example, in its original form, the code contained a clause stating that "the press should avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to a person's race, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or to any physical or mental illness or handicap".

There have been a couple of minor amendments since, but the key change -- made more than 10 years ago in the wake of Princess Diana's death -- was to alter the "should avoid" to the much stronger "must avoid".

Doubtless, this particular injunction will be discussed in some depth by the PCC when it considers whether there are any grounds for censuring the Daily Mail and its columnist, Jan Moir, over her controversial column on the death of Irish singer Stephen Gately. As of yesterday, the PCC had registered more than 25,000 complaints from people who thought Moir's undoubtedly obnoxious article was guilty of breaking the code. Some thought it discriminatory, some considered it inaccurate, and others felt it intruded into grief.

It is going to test the commission, and its relatively new chairman, Baroness (Peta) Buscombe. …