Chapter 3 - Freedom of Speech and Expression

Posted in The Forgotten People

The Four Freedoms
Freedom of Speech and Expression (continued)

Last week when I spoke to you of the first of President Roosevelt's four freedoms - freedom of speech, I had intended to deal this week with the second freedom - freedom of worship. But the programme must, I think, be altered, for last week's broadcast, in which the theme was the importance to democratic civilisation of free criticism, was interpreted in some quarters as a special plea for some special kind of freedom for the Press. Now, I believe in a free Press, and in no way undervalue its importance; but I do not believe in a privileged Press.

There is something to be said for the view that in a democracy the eternal and real conflict is between freedom for all and privilege for some. Let me take your time tonight in explaining what I mean by that.

The Press of Australia, very naturally, devotes a good deal of space to discussing public men. They will, I am sure, have no objection to the process being, for once, courteously reversed.

I have never been able to accept the idea that newspapers have some detached existence apart from that of the human beings who conduct them. Newspapers are as a rule owned either by one man or a few men, sometimes with long family traditions; or by a public company with perhaps many investors. They are business enterprises, conducted with marked efficiency, gathering and selling news and advertisements, and seasoning the whole with topical comment and criticism. All this is quite proper, even though it has some modern features which are to be regretted.

The editor or controller of the newspaper has a perfect right to criticize, to praise, or to blame, according to the personal opinion of his proprietor, or the joint opinion of his directors or shareholders. He has a right of free thought and free speech with which we will interfere at our own peril. But his right of free thought and free speech is one which he shares with Mr Brown the butcher, and Mr Robinson the bricklayer. He can have no privilege beyond Brown and Robinson; he is equally subject to the laws of defamation. Every good newspaper will admit that you do not purchase any special privilege to defame when you acquire enough money to purchase or found a newspaper; nor do you, in my opinion, purchase a privilege to criticize beyond that enjoyed by other citizens. You merely secure a wider audience and, properly considered, shoulder greater responsibilities. For, if Brown libels me, little harm may be done; it all depends on Brown's weight and influence. But if the Daily Thunderer, with half a million readers, libels me, irreparable harm is done to me, because people impute to the Thunderer a sort of unearthly wisdom and uncommon knowledge which induces some of them to say, "It must be true. I read it in the paper." Or, more fatuously still, "I don't know, of course, old man, but where there's smoke, there's fire."

If the Press, then, is to see its function in modern society aright, it well dwell on its responsibilities - as indeed I know its best men do - as well as upon its rights, valuable and essential though those rights undoubtedly are.

What are responsibilities?

Last week I spoke with repugnance of the ever-present political temptation, particularly when the lash of the critic is still smarting, to suppress or issue orders to the newspapers. There is at least an equal temptation on the part of the newspapers to claim the right to suppress the politician, to ignore him if his views are unsatisfactory: to leave him out, not because he says nothing worth saying, but because his views, however admirably expressed, do not suit the paper's policy, or because he himself is out of favour with the newspaper's editor or reporter.

In a word, it is the duty of any newspaper which claims the right of free criticism to publish enough of both sides to make its own views and criticisms intelligible and fair. It is a commonplace of the law of libel that comment must be not only fair, but made on facts. This point is vital to the survival of the Press as a free institution. That this is not always recognized will be clear when I tell you, for example, that for months after my resignation as Prime Minister, one newspaper, evidently carrying its hostility beyond defeat, never mentioned my name except in connection with some entirely false report of my alleged political activities. There was no question of unfortunate error; nor had I become, so far as I know, suddenly and completely mentally defective. The campaign was deliberate and sustained.

Now, that is a mere personal example to illustrate something quite important. The damage done to me is of minor significance. What is really significant is that such a newspaper, following such a practice, is threatened far more by its own inherent misconception of its function than by the activities of its enemies. I say that as one who has never suppressed criticism, even when it was unfair and falsely founded, and who believes that the function of the critic, truly seen, is vital to the establishing of the truth.

There is another tendency among some newspapers to depart from the old and good journalistic tradition. That tradition was to report fairly and without comment; and, separately, to criticize strongly and, if necessary, bitterly. The public mind was informed by the reporter and persuaded by the leader-writer. But there is today a perceptible tendency to mingle report with comment so that you do not know whether you are reading what Brown said or what young Smith, the reporter, thinks of what Brown said.

Reporting of this kind is not reporting at all. It is misleading; it can confer no privilege and excite not respect. That last observation is important. A critic, to carry weight, must be respected. For a man to be respected he must respect others. A free Press must not set itself up to be the masters of the people, for in a democratic community the people should prefer the master they have themselves chosen to those who are merely self-appointed. In other words, a free Press must not seek to maintain its freedom at the expense of popular freedom and popular self-government.

In dealing with men and affairs, the newspaper which claims free speech and opinion as of the very stuff of our liberty - as indeed they are - will no more be restrained merely by the laws of defamation than honest men are merely by the policeman; it will be restrained by that sense of responsibility which should always attach to great power. For the Press has great power, and inevitably so. In a democratic world, great power destroys itself only when it seeks to become tyranny.

And so, let us have free Press, and let us have free readers whose letter will be published, even though hostile. Let us have honest and fearless criticism of politician by Press and of Press by politician, and let each be heard. Above all, let us get back to the "facts, the whole of the facts, and nothing but the facts" as the true basis of intelligent freedom.

"And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." If our diet is to become one of half-truths and prejudice and unfounded comment, either in Parliament or the Press, we shall become slaves.

In time of war these questions, far from disappearing, become particularly acute. The power of censorship offers great temptation to political administrators. The eagerness of millions of people for the latest news, and perhaps excitement, and the natural tendency to look for scapegoats after every defeat offer temptations to the Press. It is unfortunate that both Parliament and Press cannot regard themselves as engaged in a vital joint enterprise in which each must be fearless but restrained; in which each is looked to for good judgement; in which each should look to discharge its own function without seeking to control or discredit the other. In this way authority and freedom would show that they could march side by side to a battle where both must win if either is to survive.

26 June, 1942