Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: We need new codes to define the perimeters of free speech

Those who say the battle is between freedom and suppression, understand neither. It is so much more complicated than that
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The Independent Online

What must be kept private and what should be brought into the public domain? In this age of social media and super-technological snooping and a neo-religious belief in transparency, what are the limits of intrusion and of confidentiality? Old boundaries are deleted with the touch of a finger, old maps blown away and most Britons are wandering on a blasted heath without a compass, blabbing incoherently about freedom of speech and rights, as yet unable to agree on binding principles or a communal contract.

Celebs, fearful of being stripped naked and flogged for personal misdemeanours (sometimes only rumours), turn to judges for protection which then further infuriates their pursuers. Politicians are ever more jumpy, even paranoid. Understandably. In this secretive state, information used to lie tidily and quietly in the attics of power. Those who were privy to sensitive material ensured it would be undisclosed until it had no potency. Now it is all stored in capricious computers, easily broken into and dispatched round the world. They still try it on, though. An official banning order, placed on a story by, it is thought, the Ministry of Defence, has just been overturned. It concerns an SAS officer who is charged with sexual crimes against children.

Every day, existing rules are tested and shown to be anachronistic, obsolete even.In 2008, Max Mosley won his case against the News of the World forublishing details of his sexual preferences; nobody's business surely. Then this week he tried and failed to get the European Court of Human Rights to rule that the media had to warn individuals before exposing their private lives. Again the verdict seems fair. However, do newshounds have unbound rights to sniff around and reveal everything about famous people, just because they are famous? Yes, many would say because on the web, you can find out "protected" truths and also salacious, made-up stuff about all and sundry. I am only a columnist, but these days have to watch what I look like and say in public because everyone has a phone camera. Did anyone catch me having a mini-row with my man near the blueberries? Will it appear on YouTube? God I hope not.

Sanctimonious media folk protest against super-injunctions, those who seek them and the judges who grant them, all in the name of sweet freedom. I wonder how many of them would like to see their own closeted and furtive deeds put out for millions to consume or to have their phones hacked. Yet the journalists and their bosses are right too. It is disgraceful that those who have money and influence are able to buy privacy and stop investigations.

Jemima Khan, a keen supporter of Julian Assange and free speech, this week found herself caught up in one of those nasty, internet blizzards of lies, that she was having an affair with motormouth Jeremy Clarkson, something even a recently landed alien would find hard to believe. Now she calls for curbs, prompting some to charge her with hypocrisy. I think she has just found out how damned confusing this hotly disputed issue is. Hateful internet bullies think they are doing God's work. They want to reveal everything but their own names. Young people are picking up these habits. Soon there will be no safe place for anyone. I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everything. It was a prison without locks. A pharmacist even warned my mum that I had bought some Vaseline (for my cracked lips) and so must be having sex. Our global village is becoming just as gossipy and interfering and cruel.

Freedom of speech matters and we should not play games with it. We should stop muddling up celebrity shenanigans with serious attempts by our leaders to control information. Tales about footballers, racing bosses, media stars and affairs are of no consequence to the nation. It is important, though, for us to know about the finances of the Royal Family (exempted by the Freedom of Information Act) or the BBC, or bankers and tax-dodging businesses. For politicians, every word, act or choice can turn into a flaming controversy. With ruthless bloggers going for them, they have no privacy at all. The personal is the political and vice versa.

The PCC has just reprimanded the Telegraph for sending undercover reporters to secretly record conversations with Vince Cable, whose indiscreet words meant he lost his influence in Government and came across, well, as a man of many faces. Was the PCC right? I am not sure it was. Then came sorry David Laws, a clever man destined for high office. No more. He's been found guilty of expenses fraud. His supporters say he cheated in order to keep his homosexual life private. Yeah, sure. Now we hear allegations that Chris Huhne got someone else to take on his driving penalty points for speeding. Vicky Pryce, his economist wife, whom he left for another woman, says he did. She is now attacked for being vengeful. Wives of politicians are not allowed freedom of expression. Its gets more convoluted. Cherie Blair, who never understood that her weird antics were of public interest, also opined that a politician's wife had to stand by her man and, presumably keep his secrets. Fiona Miller put up with hubby Alistair Campbell, knowing he was fabricating "truths" to serve his master, Blair. Those who say the battle is between freedom and suppression, understand neither. It is so much more complicated than that.



People accept political manipulation and focus unduly on injunctions and sex scandals; most Britons believe in acting responsibly and yet are perilously indifferent to invasive internet blether. That same technology though is an extraordinary liberator and equaliser. Ours is both an exciting and dangerous world. In her incisive book about lying in private and public life, ethicist Sissela Bok asked way back in 1978 what would happen if truth telling "could not be presumed". Trust would vanish and with it, the fragile human ecosystem. We can't let that happen. New codes are needed. Law makers and upholders, the old and new media, and the people, need to came to a new settlement on freedom of expression and to define its perimeters. Remember anarchy is not liberty.





y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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