There is no nobler cause than the freedom of the press; but the more absolute that freedom is, the more ignoble may be the motives of those who avail themselves of it. It is a misunderstanding of the concept of liberty to suppose that the only people worthy of it are those who use it for unselfish purposes. The right to write and publish with impunity, like any other freedom, also entails the right to abuse that freedom. Otherwise it is not a right, but a privilege that may be arbitrarily withdrawn. A free press means not only the right to inform, to educate and to entertain, but to offend, to pry and to titillate, or it means nothing at all.
The unedifying nature of much of what a genuinely free press publishes is a problem for high-minded liberal bien pensants, who are inclined to see the protestations of the press in its own defence as rank hypocrisy. One of the most influential and distinguished representatives of this camp is Timothy Garton Ash. (Full disclosure: he is one of my oldest friends.) Besides being a prominent academic at Oxford and Stanford, Garton Ash is a regular contributor to the Guardian and the New York Review of Books, having made his name as a reporter in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War. Elsewhere in this issue, David Herman pays tribute to the disciples of Isaiah Berlin, including Garton Ash; and in a substantial new book, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (Atlantic, £20), Garton Ash sets out what might be called his Ten Commandments, citing Berlin as one of his “spirits of liberty”.
The book is comprehensive, informative and inoffensive. That is the problem. A book that sets out to defend free speech in the 21st century must be frank about where the threats to it are coming from, even if that causes offence. Garton Ash does admit that “for Western societies, Muslim violent intimidation has been in a class of its own.” However, this cardinal fact is lost in hundreds of pages devoted to other aspects of the subject: all interesting and important, no doubt, but beside the point. Though he describes himself as “an atheist and liberal secularist”, he also concedes that in the past he has argued “that Muslim reformers were more likely to sway more Muslims towards accepting the basic terms of coexistence in a liberal society and secular state than were ex-Muslims”.
This bland statement glosses over what a decade ago was a highly controversial matter. In a review essay for the New York Review of Books in 2006, Garton Ash expressed admiration for the “moderation” of Tariq Ramadan, an academic closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, while slighting the ex-Muslim writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali as “a brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist”. He added: “It is no disrespect to Ms. Ali to suggest that if she had been short, squat, and squinting, her story and views might not be so closely attended to.” Not content with equating her courageous witness with her fundamentalist oppressors, Garton Ash belittled her as a woman by suggesting that her looks were more important than her intellect. This was at a time when Hirsi Ali was being hounded out of Europe by Islamist death threats and official cowardice. In his new book, Garton Ash does not acknowledge his own part in one of the most shameful episodes in the recent history of free speech. I am at a loss to explain my friend’s silence. All he had to do was to admit his error. To err is human. Only popes are infallible.
In the chapter on journalism, one might have expected a defence of the free press, especially in Britain — the country that more or less invented the concept and remains to this day the best exemplar of its virtues. Instead, Garton Ash denounces the British tabloids for having “wrapped themselves in the garments of Milton and Mill” in their resistance to statutory regulation. Yet these “contemptible journalists” had just as much right to invoke Areopagitica as Garton Ash. Looking back on the hysteria over phone-hacking, which led to police raiding newspaper offices, hundreds of journalists losing their livelihoods, but hardly any convictions, it seems one of the most sustained attempts by the authorities to intimidate the free press since Milton’s works were burnt on Charles II’s orders in the quadrangle of the Old Bodleian. When in 2013 a cross-party cabal of politicians and self-appointed representatives of celebrities struck a murky midnight deal to muzzle the press, it was not just the tabloids but such venerable periodicals as the Economist, Spectator and New Statesman that refused to fall into line. Michael Gove, a former journalist, broke ranks with his Cabinet colleagues to express his unease: “I’m uncomfortable about politicians themselves deciding how the press should be regulated,” he said. “We are in danger . . . of driving to the margins the organs of free expression that hold power to account.” Garton Ash suggests that the process by which compulsory statutory regulation was averted was corrupt, a coup by the “press barons”. It wasn’t. Lord Justice Leveson’s regime was resisted by editors mainly because it would have resulted in a disastrous shift in the balance of power from the press to politicians.
The last of Garton Ash’s Ten Commandments reads: “We decide for ourselves and face the consequences.” Amen to that. Among the consequences writers, artists and journalists may face even in the West are imprisonment (e.g. Turkey’s attempt to have a satirist incarcerated in Germany for the lèse-majesté of insulting President Erdogan’s masculinity), exile or death (Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo van Gogh respectively). As fanatics make it literally a matter of damnation to publish, it is surely right that such decisions should belong, not to judges, police or politicians, but to the press.