The Only Way Is Ethics: Strong Opinion Goes Too Far If It Seeks To Silence Those Who Oppose It

July 5, 2015

By Will Gore at The Independent

Index on Censorship, which campaigns for freedom of expression, held a fascinating debate last Wednesday to consider the degree to which free speech is under threat on university campuses. It is a hot topic after the recent controversy surrounding a sexist joke by Professor Tim Hunt led to his resignation from University College London.

Journalist and activist Julie Bindel described how she had been frequently “no-platformed” at universities by student groups who disapproved of her views. US-based Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, talked of a “shrinking circle of free speech” in the world. This, he said, was a counter-intuitive development in the aftermath of Communism’s collapse in 1989. Expectations that democracy and its attendant freedoms would come to dominate the globe have proved wide of the mark.

The example of Professor Hunt is a bad one: his offensive remarks were not part of a worked-through thesis, after all. Even so, the wider notion that free speech at universities is under threat – as a result of legislation aimed at countering hate speech, and as a consequence of growing political correctness – should be a matter of genuine concern. But does the media have a role to play here?

Journalists are naturally good at standing up for free expression. Yet even allowing for the commonly agreed limits (not inciting murder, for instance), as commentary and opinion become increasingly key to the “news’ business, there can be a tendency to give a platform to views that are both noisy and that, ironically, call for contrary viewpoints to be shut down. This is evident in the argument that individuals who comment on a subject about which they have no first-hand experience should basically be discounted.

Stridency accompanied by only a notional regard to the freedom of opposing thought, is baleful. Really, we should want to have our own assessment of the world challenged; to debate ideas; to consider why it is that others don’t agree with us. If media fondness for no-opposition-allowed extremes encourages students – of all people – to close their ears to views they find unpalatable, it should worry us all.

Terror victims need their privacy

Tuesday marks the 10th anniversary of the terror bombings in London which killed 52 people and changed the UK in ways that have been long-lasting.

Everyone has their own memories. What we share are the images: the mangled bus at Russell Square; the dust-filled tube carriages; and, perhaps most notably, the woman whose face was covered by a gauze mask being led to safety.

Pictures taken in the midst of such horrors are powerful. But there are some tricky issues. To what extent must the media consider individuals’ privacy? A person being helped on the streets by the emergency services may not be in a place where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, but they might reasonably argue that they find themselves in circumstances where privacy ought to be respected.

In the case of Davinia Douglass, the woman pictured in the wake of 7/7, the fact that she was unidentifiable aided justification for the use of her image.

A picture we used after the Tunisian massacre showed a woman in a bikini being stretchered from the beach. Identification would have been difficult although perhaps not impossible. She was receiving medical attention and remains critically ill in a British hospital. The image was striking but I remain unconvinced we should  have published it.