Dame Onora O’Neill, Cambridge philosopher and now Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, visits Goldsmiths on Tuesday to debate press freedom.
Her lecture ‘Regulating for Communication’ comes days before the expected delivery of the Leveson report on the “Culture Practice and Ethics of the Press.”
As a member of the House of Lords, Baroness O’Neill has put down a motion in Parliament on the implications of the issues investigated by Leveson and was one of seven philosophers called last July, to give evidence to the Inquiry.
Shehas lectured extensively on the question of whether the freedom of press is a coherent concept, often calling for an accountable media backed by statutory regulation.
In her Reith lectures, delivered in 2002, she said: “If press freedom is best justified by the adequacy with which it safeguards and promotes diverse, intelligible, honest and assessable communication that supports democracy and citizenship, measures taken to ensure that the media actually serve these purposes are entirely justifiable.”
O’Neill’s views have been met with fierce opposition from members of the press, concerned about the potential restrictions statutory regulation could impose on press freedom.
Bob Satchwell, the executive director of the Society of Editors, argued against proposals for press regulation in two articles published on their website last Friday.
He said: “The current system of self regulation of course needs to be strengthened, but this does not mean throwing away the basic democratic principle of a free and independent press.”
“The unintended consequence of giving up the principle of state intervention would leave an easy route open for politicians in the future to step up their control whenever the papers upset them because of opposition to government policies or revelations about MPs’ expenses.”
In a list of arguments on their website, The Free Speech Network, a group of newspaper publishers opposing statutory regulation, state: “There is probably no ideal model of press regulation, but only self regulation can guarantee the freedom and independence of the press – which is, in the Lord Chief Justice’s words, a ‘constitutional necessity’.”
“Journalism is the exercise of a fundamental human right – freedom of expression. This is its essence – unlike any other profession regulated by law.”
In an article written for the Guardian in 2006, O’Neill discussed issues of freedom of speech relating to the decision of Danish newspaper Jyllands-Postento to print cartoons of the prophet Muhammed.
She said: “It is standardly said that free speech must include a right to say things that are offensive or provocative, but not rights to defame, insult, let alone intimidate.
“These supposed distinctions are inevitably unclear because interpretations of speech acts vary with audiences. Danes might read the cartoons as no more than mildly provocative and offensive; many Muslims have read them as insulting and defamatory.
“If we think of speech as mere self-expression, we are likely to think that what has happened is in no way the responsibility of Jyllands-Posten or of Flemming Rose. But if we think of free speech as exercised in communicating with audiences, and remember that audiences vary greatly in the way they will read what is said and written, we may find reason to be more circumspect.”
O’Neill’s concern over Jyllands-Posten’s decision to publish potentially offensive material informs her wider anxieties about the power of the media to intimidate minorities.
In her witness statement submitted to the Leveson Inquiry, she said: “An argument for free speech for the powerless will not make a case for free speech for powerful organisations. If (unlike other powerful organisations) the media are to enjoy extensive freedom of speech, other arguments are needed.”
Her new appointment as the chair for the Equality and Human Rights Commission will see her lead an organisation whose statutory right is to monitor and protect human rights, with emphasis on principles of transparency, equality and freedom.
O’Neill is expected to put forward her latest position on press freedom during Tuesday’s lecture, where audiences will hear responses from Angela Phillips, head of print Journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a founding member of the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform, an advocacy group campaigning for a democratic media, and Dan Sabbagh, Head of Media and Technology at the Guardian.
Angela Phillips told EastLondonLines: “Press reform is necessary but we have to be careful how we do it. We need a new regime, which protects and encourages public interest journalism. Only when that is in place can we consider how best to deal with the bullying that too often passes itself off as journalism.”
In an article written last July during the Leveson Inquiry, Dan Sabbagh said: “It is undoubtedly true that the press should not simply roll over and accept statutory regulation, or anything on the way to it, without seeking counterbalancing alternatives. But a compromise position that also slashes the cost of libel and privacy actions and that provides constitutional guarantees for the press and freedom of speech could be worth exploring.”
Media Reform is planning a lobby of Parliament on November 29 in partnership with Avaaz, the National Union of Journalists and hacking victim Hugh Grant.
The lecture on ‘Regulating for Communication’ is at 6.30-8pm on Tuesday November 13 at Goldsmiths College, New Academic Building, Lower Ground 02.
See the event listing here