Freedom to get it wrong

Tricky thing, freedom. People "believe" in it, as if it is a religion. They go to war for it. They make love in its name. But they rarely agree on what it is or how to obtain it. Freedom, in theory, is a pure concept. In practice, it is a nightmare cocktail of semantics, hypocrisy and compromise.

Two unrelated events this week confront us with this chasm between what rational sensible mature human beings claim to desire (total freedom) and the awful reality that so often forces us to bargain with the devil.

It is taken for granted that we in Britain do not enjoy as great a freedom of speech as people in the US. Our freedom to publish and to broadcast is qualified by a range of restrictive laws. We also have quasi-judicial regulators, such as the Independent Television Commission, which has just fined the pop music channel MTV pounds 60,000 for offending taste and decency. The fine, the second highest imposed by the ITC, is a disgraceful denial of freedom. One part of the fine was levied on a programme entitled Safe and Sexy, which showed the dangers of HIV infection. There were no complaints from viewers.

In anouncing its decision, the ITC revealed that it has been warning MTV about its content for 18 months. So, in private, a television channel has been subjected to a campaign of harassment by a group of suspect moral arbiters.

That the ITC has done this under the guise of protecting children from so-called "smutty banter" is not a convincing defence. There is no objective test of taste and decency. Inevitably, the ITC decision is based on the subjective assessment of its own panel, whose Victorian prejudices were illustrated so vividly in its recent condemnation of Channel 4's The Word. Its objections to that show were not only reactionary and anti-libertarian, but an intimidating threat to the freedom of broadcasters. Freedom, if it has real meaning at all, is also the freedom to offend, the freedom to get it wrong.

But America's self-righteous "free press" cannot afford to laugh at Britain's lack of freedom after the extraordinary case of the Unabomber. The Washington Post and New York Times agreed to publish the terrorist's 35,000-word manifesto (in the Post) after a great deal of pressure from the US government. It was pressure they should have resisted. Freedom has been compromised by a lone warrior preying on society. Voltaire would not have defended the Unabomber's "right" to be published. Just as certainly, he would have abhorred the ITC.

The writer is a former editor of the `Daily Mirror'.