Belfast Telegraph

How many beliefs must we sacrifice on altar of freedom?

By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

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.

You are a way of consecrating licentiousness, libertarianism, abuse, injustice, torment and much else.

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, Robert 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.

Faced now with revelations of phone-hacking by Rupert Murdoch's tabloid journos, 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 wrongdoing. The fear is that their real aim is to neuter the media.

Ask me if I think I should 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 last week, it was touching to find many still have faith and are not discouraged by the depressing truth that our industry is now even more mistrusted than it was before.

Paul Dacre, the 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 Great Britain.

Striving for freedom goes on until 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 boycotted a Parliamentary inquiry into their activities.

They use the spurious defences of 'freedom' and 'choice'. Those horrible chaps churning out political gossip and slurs on their websites 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 don't 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 recently, 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 I 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 today than ever before.

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