Goodbye, free speech

February 4, 2014

by Edward Morrissey at The Week

To: Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood et al

From: Edward Morrissey of Minnesota, USA

Subject: Application for Chair to Regulate the Press in the United Kingdom


It was with great enthusiasm that I read about the newly launched Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), and your efforts to find a chair to lead its mission to regulate reporting in the United Kingdom. I’m a regular consumer of British news, which I often find to be provocative and uncommonly transparent on point of view, and have followed your phone-hacking scandal in recent years. Fortunately, criminal charges have been pressed. Those who broke the law should be held to account.

However, as one American politician once put it, you should not allow a good crisis to go to waste. The understandable outrage over this phone-hacking provides an opening for government to more strictly control what gets printed and said in the newspaper. Thankfully, it appears that Parliament will partner with IPSO to ensure its reach and influence over published material.

I find the British press unusually competitive in comparison to the American media environment, especially in the newspaper industry, where the impulse for regulation by IPSO appears strongest. In most American cities, we have no real competition; there is usually one large daily and occasionally two or three (such as in New York City), but most of the competition died years ago in mergers and bankruptcies. Since the halcyon days of broadsheet and tabloid competition, American newspapers have largely offered a pretense of objectivity, without any upstarts to offer different perspectives and challenges to editorial viewpoints.

The British marketplace, on the other hand, is vibrant and competitive — and much more honest with its readership. Newspapers like the TelegraphGuardian, and Independent offer explicit points of view along with (typically) excellent reporting. They criticize each other and hold competing editors and reporters accountable. On top of this competitive market, the UK offers a famously strict libel/slander regime that has inspired legal tourism for the purpose of winning lawsuits that couldn’t be fought here in the U.S. and other nations, at least until your high court seemingly put an end to it last year.

One might think that Britons would have more faith in their power as consumers, the natural competition of the marketplace, and the ease of punishing publishers through civil actions to refuse to have a regulator provide yet another disincentive to the free flow of information.

I mention this not as a criticism, but as background to convince IPSO of my suitability for the position. As an American who operates under the First Amendment and its bedrock principle of free expression, my application gives IPSO understandable grounds to treat my candidacy with considerable skepticism. That relies, though, on an increasingly outmoded view of American support for unregulated free speech.

All one needs to do to confirm that our reputation exceeds reality is look at how free speech is handled on college and university campuses. Earlier this month, the free-speech watchdogFoundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released its report on campus speech restrictions, finding that 59 percent impose “policies that seriously infringe upon students’ speech rights,” which is a slight improvement over the previous year. These institutions, many of them state-funded, impose “speech codes” to prevent “offense,” and in some cases restrict the First Amendment’s application to small “free speech zones” that others on campus can avoid. This, by the way, surveys official action against free speech by administrators, and not the assaults and blockades that often greet speakers with heterodox viewpoints from universities’ student populations.

The lengthy use of such campus speech codes has, as FIRE president Greg Lukianoff argues in his new book Unlearning Liberty, begun to transform American society from a culture that values open debate to one intolerant of any contact with differing opinions. Thus we have the attempts to shut out those who challenge political correctness, such as a reality TV star who expressed mainstream Christian theology on homosexuality, an actress who endorsed a Republican in California (admittedly a bit of a novelty these days), and according to the governor of New York, anyone who opposes abortion.

While I could regale the committee with plenty of examples along these lines — for instance, the demand to fire meteorologists who refuse to endorse anthropogenic climate change from all media outlets — one more for this week will suffice. ABC invited conservative radio host Dana Loesch to make a guest appearance on The View, which rather notoriously features just one conservative at a time among their regular contributors. The one conservative regular, Elizabeth Hasselbeck, left the show in the summer of 2013 and has yet to be replaced.

Needless to say, this put Loesch in the distinct minority on the panel, but that wasn’t good enough for a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Rather than cheer on the lopsided odds facing Loesch in defending her gun-rights positions, MDA founder Shannon Wattsblasted ABC and The View for giving Loesch any time at all. Watts claimed to speak for 80 million moms, while perhaps forgetting that Loesch might just as well claim to speak for 62 million gun owners. Watts lamented that rather than look for a “responsible gun owner” to co-host, The Viewgave “a pro-gun activist” a spot in which she was outnumbered 4-1. Watts also noted that The Viewhad a right to select its own co-hosts, but that the producers and ABC should have realized how offensive it would be to have Loesch offer her opinions on gun laws.

With this in mind, IPSO should have no concerns over any vestigial American impulse for free speech over the valuing of top-down control decisions on what kind of stories and opinions the public should and should not see. Americans such as myself have become accustomed to regulated debates and certifying those who can participate in them.

One last point: I am, of course, happy to relocate if the panel decides to offer me the position. The way things are going here, it’s looking as though it won’t make much difference.