more speech not less

Richard Delevan has his journalist’s hat on in today’s Sunday Tribune [now available online with free reg] to take his hero, Vincent Browne, to task for his call for a press council composed of representatives of “the judiciary, trade unions, business organisations, the Equality Authority, women’s groups and NGOs.”[free reg.] – a call that, as Mick noted here, the Broom of Anger also took exception to.As Richard indicates in his Sunday Tribune column, there is the small, but not unimportant, matter of Vincent Browne’s previously expressed opinion [in response to a Kevin Myers article] in the Irish Times in February this year in an article entitled “A covert menace to free speech”[subs req] –

The censorship of falsehood, inevitably will cause the censorship of truth. The best defence to the use of free speech for the propagation of denigratory, offensive and false views is more speech not less, the kind of “more speech” we have had in the past week in response to the column and the subsequent justifications.

In fairness to Vincent Browne, though, he did introduce a caveat in the Irish Times article, namely –

I am not sure of John Stuart Mill’s confidence that truth will emerge from the free contest of opposing arguments but I am sure (well “sure-ish”) that the freedom of expression, except where it causes direct harm, is a better arrangement than the suppression of that freedom. (By “direct harm” I mean where speech is used not to communicate ideas but for the direct infliction of harm, such as harm to reputation or damage to national security or in the course of the commission of a crime.)

and he went on to argue, with a none-too-subtle dig at Myers, against introducing instruments of curtailment.. but not the introduction of a press council.. –

I am conscious that power relations in society will ordain that the powerful will use freedom of expression to enhance their power and marginalise and further suppress the powerless, a recurrent feature of the journalism of Kevin Myers, as illustrated in the general theme of that column of last week on lone parents. But the curtailment of freedom of expression, however denigratory and stigmatizing, carries with it such hazard to the free communication of ideas and the possible, indeed inevitable, curtailment of truth, that any curtailment is worse than freedom, however abused. In any event I am conscious that the powerful would use instruments of curtailment as a further weapon in the consolidation of their advantage and the disadvantage of others.

So a press council should stay well away from this arena.

However, as Richard also points out

There are two problems here for Vincent. The first is that he exposes himself to charges of inconsistency, to put it politely. If Tony O’Reilly is the most powerful man in Irish media, where does Vincent rank? He controls valuable real estate in three of Ireland’s four top media organisations . . . RTE, the Irish Times and Thomas Crosbie Holdings, publisher of the Sunday Business Post . . .

and his own magazine.

And back to the problem of who should sit on that press council –

The other problem is Vincent’s vision of a press council. In what august individuals should be vested the power to shut down newspapers? : “the judiciary, trade unions, business organisations, the Equality Authority, women’s groups and NGOs.”

How such persons would be appointed, and from what grounding would spring their authority, is unexplained. Should we include the GAA? The Knights of Columbanus? Or al-Mujaharoun? Surely they’re as worthy as the National Women’s Council?

On what basis shall we exclude Ireland’s largest NGO, the Catholic Church?

Having established that journalism is too important to be left to the journalists, we are to turn over control to, say, Joe O’Toole, Denis O’Brien, Ivana Bacik and John O’Shea. We already have a quasi-democratic corporatist quango with real power in Ireland. It’s called the Seanad. Perhaps Vincent might seek to join that group of turkeys, persuade them to declare themselves the press council and be done with it.