Free Speech


Free Speech – Ten Principles for a Connected World
By Timothy Garton Ash
Atlantic Books – £20.00

In ‘Post-Gutenberg,’ the very outset of Free Speech – Ten Principles for a Connected Free World, author Timothy Garton Aash writes: ”We are all neighbours now. There are more phones than there are human beings and close to half of humankind has access to the internet. In our cities, we rub shoulders with strangers from every country, culture and faith. The world is not a global village but a global city, a virtual cosmopolis. Most of us can also be publishers now. We can post our thoughts and photos online, where in theory any one of billions of other people might encounter them. Never in human history was there such a chance for freedom of expression as this. And never have the evils of unlimited free expression – death threats, paedophile images, sewage-tides of abuse – flowed so easily across frontiers.”

True. True True.
And just where has ”such a chance for freedom of expression” got us?
Furthermore, where is it continuing to get us?

There may well be an abundance of free speech, where ”evils of unlimited free expression – death threats, paedophile images, sewage-tides of abuse” traverse their way across the planet in nigh every medium imaginable, but never before have both The United States and (utterly unsurprisingly) England been so horribly and relentlessly divided.

Divided, not only socially and economically, but politically too.

Suffice to say, the ”free speech” of certain segments of the media appear to do nothing other than exacerbate already volatile and highly inflammatory situations – the cretinous likes of The Sun, The Daily Express and perhaps most vilest of all, The Daily Mail especially. This was most recently evidenced during the torrid run-up to Brexit; the result of which has so far been ghastly, futile, toxic and highly dangerous. And its continuation will probably see the further decline of England as we know it. This is why, at the outset of the book’s fourth chapter, ‘Journalism,’ where Garton Ash writes: ”We require uncensored, diverse, trustworthy, media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life,” one cannot help but ponder unto an oblivion of self-induced, poignant wonder.

Of course ”we require uncensored, diverse, trustworthy, media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.’ But life, and most definitely the media (in Britain in least), doesn’t work like that. Such is idealistic, wishing thinking.
That said, it’s interesting how Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury (and Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge) describes this book as: ”A major piece of cultural analysis, sane, witty and urgently important. Timothy Garton Ash exemplifies the ”robust civility” he recommends as an antidote to the pervasive unhappiness, nervousness and incoherence around freedom of speech, rightly seeing the basic challenge as how we create a cultural and moral climate in which proper public argument is possible and human dignity affirmed.”

Hmm, if there’s anyone who might know about free speech, it could well be the former Archbishop; although I’d have to clarify that many things have indeed been affirmed of late.

Human dignity isn’t one of them.

Likewise, if there’s anyone who knows about the total abuse of free speech, it’s surely those who are responsible for having enabled society to spout forth and rile one another up like never before – in the first place. Facebook’s Mark Zuckenberg for instance.

Now I’m not for a single second, laying the blame for the current torrent of widespread abuse of free speech at his door; but, as is written herein: ”Never was there a time when the evils of unlimited speech flowed so easily across frontiers: violent intimidation, gross violations of privacy, tidal waves of abuse. A pastor burns a Qu’ran in Florida and UN officials die in Afghanistan.”

Timothy Garton Ash is the prize-winning author of nine previous books of political writing, including The Magic Lantern, The File and most recently, Facts Are Subversive, so he’s clearly an experienced writer of analytical panache and wit. In and of itself, this may go some way in explaining why Free Speech – Ten Principles for a Connected World is simply strewn throughout with thought provoking, well researched analysis.

Indeed, all ten chapters of this very readable of books, go some way in bequeathing the inquisitive, caring, reader, with an array of deeply entrenched political writing(s) of the first order.

The sort(s) of which is bound to trigger reams of internal, moral debate.

David Marx


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