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The right to free comment should always be defended

One of the most frequent causes of communication to the Readers’ Editor is reaction to the views of our columnists.

A quick inspection of our online comment sections will reveal the reaction (and over-reaction) they sometimes elicit.

Occasionally the Readers’ Editor is petitioned to, in some way, censor the views of individual columnists.

It doesn’t happen every day, but when it does the complainants generally hold very strong views.

That these views are honestly held is not in doubt. But I will always seek to defend a columnist’s right to hold strong, opinionated — even crass — views on a wide range of subjects no matter how passionately I might personally disagree with them. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers...’

In a roundabout way, the law recognises this by granting a defence to libel of ‘fair comment made honestly on a matter of public interest’. The law does not require the truth of the comment to be proved. Indeed, it is likely that it is not provable at all.

Comment can be petty or irresponsible, misinformed, ignorant, constructive or destructive — but it cannot, of its very nature, be true or false.

So, freedom of expression has been accorded considerable weight in all democratic societies. However, it is not an absolute right — and doesn’t always trump the right to reputation, for example. So a defamation law exists. But it has been laid down that any restrictions upon freedom of expression have to be both necessary and proportionate.

In the real world, of course, there are layers of grey between the black and white. A fair comment defence can at times be tricky to sustain. It needs to be shown that it represents honestly-held opinion, devoid of malice.

It will usually be undermined if the facts upon which it is based are inaccurate, and that is why it is absolutely essential that the underpinning facts are solid.

There is however, another facet to the newspaper columnist, and that is whether the editor feels they contribute to the paper’s ethos.

Do they challenge prevailing attitudes? Or reflect the concerns of readers? Have they a finger on the pulse of a community? Do they give readers a good chuckle — or maybe make them think?

But as regards their right to comment honestly and without fear or favour — that should always to be robustly defended.


Belfast Telegraph