Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Without boundaries, we run the risk of chaos

Fundamental liberties are to be cherished but too often they are defended spuriously

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Monday 17 October 2011 00:00 BST

Oh Freedom, what baloney and bilge, barf and bunkum is thrown up in your precious name. You are a war cry and a cause. You are a fig leaf, and you are a way of consecrating licentiousness, libertarianism, abuse, injustice, torment and much else. That witty, bruiser Kelvin MacKenzie, ex-editor of The Sun, now becomes your main man, your zealous missionary. In the world of the movies, arts and books, anything goes, they say. And the internet is a feral habitat where even the fittest do not survive unwounded.

Suggest, even tentatively, that there can be no absolute freedom of speech and expression and you are turned on viciously, accused of "censorship", and being the spawn of the devil, or worse, Mugabe. These freedom-fighters don't distinguish between state censorship and legitimate protests by individuals and groups. They don't give a damn that some newspapers lie about celebs and, more damagingly, about migrants, Muslims and Travellers, inciting hatred daily. Faced now with revelations of indecent hacking by Rupert Murdoch's tabloid journos – dirty practices that, possibly, were used more widely too – they are having to think about contesting human rights, freedom verses privacy.

The Leveson Inquiry is making media bosses very nervous too. Some in the establishment want a system where journalists would be licensed and could be struck off for malfeasance. The fear is that their real aim is to neuter the media. Editors and proprietors are right to be wary, but some of their arguments are dubious. And I say that as an insider.

Ask me if I think I should to be able to write what I want and, of course, my answer would be a deafening YES! I'm a hack and we hate libel laws and other bothersome limits placed on our words. In a democracy, we keep power accountable and the people informed of stuff that would otherwise be kept from them. In our hand is the torch of liberty. That's the fable, the high-minded morality tale.

Talking to students of journalism at the University of Lincoln last week, it was touching to find many still have faith and are not discouraged by the stains of shame spreading over our pages or the depressing truth that our industry is now even more mistrusted than it was before. Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, is resistant to Government regulation but surprised his peers by accepting that things can't go on as before. He is suggesting an ombudsman with the power to investigate complaints. But there are much wider and bigger questions that need to be asked.

I cherish my freedoms, having had none when I was growing up in Uganda under British colonialism and after independence. Those fundamental liberties were never available to the natives ruled over by GB. Striving for freedom goes on till the end of time. But words and images can detonate dissonance and hurt, and we need to take due care when we put our thoughts into the public space. Liberty, uncoupled from accountability and responsibility, produces bedlam, and the weakest are destroyed by that.

Take internet porn. Providers should block porn on the internet to protect children. Most don't and have now have boycotted a parliamentary inquiry into their venal activities. They use the spurious defences of "freedom" and "choice". Those horrible chaps churning out political gossip and slurs on their sites always make fine speeches about freedom too. Then there is rank hypocrisy. We have accepted various inhibitions to free expression and speech – legal restraints, editorial judgments, things we do not bring up for fear of causing upset or provoking vengeful reactions. Note how they wash over disclosures about the Zionists involved in the Liam Fox affair. That is an area where angels fear to tread.

Debating art and freedom at an event organised by Index on Censorship, I said it was a complicated subject too often seen simply in black and white. Art and fiction claiming the right not to be in any way responsible for their products is like those who say that any regulation of businesses distorts the integrity of pure market forces. I do not defend fatwas and bannings but cannot support fanatical free expressionism and self-obsession.

Some artists deliberately set out to create a furore, agitprop using art as a cover. Others are oblivious to boundaries, without which, all is chaos. For example, I think the nude photos of her children exhibited by the photographer Sally Mann were exploitative and unacceptable. And that sado-masochistic or over-violent films desensitise our culture. To object is also a right, as long as no threats are involved. And the context matters. Salman Rushdie once wrote the following: "Works of art, even works of entertainment do not come into being in a social and political vacuum... the way they operate in a society cannot be separated from politics, from history." That goes for journalism too, more so and today more than ever before.

PS: Last week I strongly criticised the Tory MP for Haltemprice and Howden, David Davis, for intemperately attacking the Human Rights Act. I quoted what I thought were his words. In fact those were the words and views of David Davies, Tory MP for Monmouth. I mixed them up, should have checked, and apologise without reservation to Mr Davis.


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