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Regulation, responsibility, and the case against censorship

When deciding whether to broadcast offensive material, the BBC must weigh up giving a platform to extremism against the journalistic duty to inform, says the director of the BBC Global News Division. As a recent undercover documentary about the British Far-Right showed, the BBC is not afraid to report on hate speech. But coverage should be proportionate to reality, and the media's task should be to explain tension, not to exacerbate it.

Sometimes, the dividing line between proper media regulation and censorship can seem crystal clear. Let's look at events in Britain.

Cartoon controversy

Free speech is a fundamental human right and a central tenet of democracy. Or is it? Reactions to the Danish cartoon controversy reveal strong divergences about what the right to free speech entails. [ more ]
The country is no longer fighting a foreign war but the government feels under threat from forces it does not fully understand. It fears that some people are not fully integrated into society. Suddenly, in a single, terrible, unexpected event, many lives are lost. The government faces a danger that it has never seen before. How can it ensure that the country remains at peace and that the rule of law will be upheld? To prevent journalists from giving a platform to dangerous radicals, it proposes some of the toughest legislation against free speech that the country has ever seen. Two measures in particular border on censorship.

No: I'm not describing Great Britain now or even in the last century. This was 1819, when the country had just emerged from the Napoleonic Wars and Parliament was grappling with the aftermath of riots – including one called the Peterloo Massacre, when the army killed a dozen protestors. By the year's end, Parliament had debated and passed six measures to suppress radical newspapers and reduce the possibility of an armed uprising. There were punishments for publications that were judged to be seditious and a bill to control the publishing of opinion not news. Protestors saw this as an infringement of their civil liberties and a curtailing of free speech. But at the time, many people in the country thought it was the right step. They feared a revolution.

Today, of course, we know they were wrong. There was no revolution and the powers taken by the state did damage to press freedom. But without the benefit of hindsight, the relationship between the media and the state is not always black and white. In everyday life, there are shades of grey, too. And that's a harder colour to define because there has to be a balance between our freedoms and protecting the society that allows them. It's hard, too, because to retain the right to freedom of expression, broadcasters must be aware of their responsibilities.

To paraphrase Article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of expression – subject to the laws that are necessary in a democratic society, for example, to protect national security and the rights of others. The difficulty, for governments and journalists alike, lies in defining what might do the damage, when you're not looking through history's telescope.

But there are clear principles that should guide us. Free speech does not mean that we should allow undiluted vitriol to seep onto the airwaves. Free speech does not mean that we can allow interviewees to stir up racial hatred. Free speech does not mean free and easy speech. Free speech has a price, despite its name. Its price is the continual observance and questioning of our actions, by our editors, audience, and regulators.

One of the hardest editorial dilemmas is deciding how best to report on hijackers, kidnappers or hostage takers. Frequently, we have to decide whether it is right to broadcast recordings made by the perpetrators. Since the kidnap and murder of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl three years ago, nearly every kidnapping has been accompanied by websites that offer an array of pictures of the victims pleading for their lives, surrounded by their captors. When Ken Bigley, a 62-year-old British engineer, was kidnapped from a house in Baghdad last year, his captors released a series of videos, culminating in footage of his execution. A few weeks later, the process was repeated with a new victim, the British aid worker Margaret Hassan. She too was killed. The videos, which were drip-fed to maximize publicity, posed a stark challenge to broadcasters.

The video of Mrs Hassan showed she was extremely distressed and we saw no benefit in showing that, not least out of respect for the feelings of her family. But the BBC's decision to show stills, not moving pictures, angered some viewers. Some of them complained of censorship. Others complained when we did show parts of a kidnapper's video. They said we were giving "the oxygen of publicity" to terrorists.

But it's not just a case of weighing up the feelings of a family and the publicity sought by kidnappers, important factors though they are. We also have to weigh up the actions of governments, and the fact that we could be accused of making life easier for political leaders, in the aftermath of the Iraq war. These are not easy decisions; and they're getting harder as kidnappers and other groups make increasingly sophisticated use of the Internet and digital video.

We think that viewers and listeners want to see and hear what is happening in the world but in a way that seeks to inform rather than offend. Indeed, the main issue facing us today is how to weigh freedom of expression against the offence some views may cause. Today, of course, the dividing line between freedom of expression and offence is even more sharply in focus because of the government's anti-terrorist bill. Critics of the policy are found not just among politicians and the press; public opinion is divided too.

In the days following the London bombings, BBC News Online commissioned an ICM poll of a thousand people. It suggested that 51 per cent were in favour of legislation to ban incitement to religious hatred but 44 per cent were against it as an unjustified limit on free speech.

So should you regulate against "hate speech" if you uphold freedom of expression? Different countries and their courts have reached different conclusions.

Three years ago, the French author Michel Houellebecq was sued by four Muslim groups after saying Islam was "the stupidest religion". The case was seen as an important battle between free speech and religious conservatism. Houellebecq said it was his right as an author to criticize religions and he was cleared.

In Sweden, earlier this year, a pastor who called homosexuality "a cancer" was sent to prison for 30 days – but he was freed on appeal. The court said he was protected by the country's law on free speech.

South Africa, however, has special "Equality Courts" to deal with hate speech and discrimination. In May, an estate agent was ordered to pay damages after sending a mobile phone message to a black house-hunter saying he should "go back to the townships". It was hate speech by text.

And that's another problem: in this era of instant communications, combating extremism can present enormous technological and legal difficulties.

Last year, officials from more than 60 countries met in France to discuss ways of combating racism on the Internet. At the meeting, which was hosted by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, France called for tougher regulations. It believes there is a direct link between racist propaganda on the web and a surge in hate crimes. But the United States said it was against any restrictions on freedom of speech.

At the recent United Nations summit in Tunis to discuss freedom of expression on the Internet, the Israeli foreign minister objected to websites that promote terrorism. Where do you draw the line? And if you don't draw a line at all, what are the consequences?

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham, has examined how journalists have reported conflicts across the world, and whether they have exacerbated tension, by directly inciting violence or breeding distrust. Rwanda is its most compelling case study. There, the media operates in the shadow of its role in the genocide, 11 years ago. The media didn't create Rwanda's day of reckoning. But its "hate speech" all too accurately reflected and exacerbated the tensions that so tragically surfaced.

Other regions in conflict have also seen "hate broadcasters" spring up, with the aim of spreading discord – Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Democratic Republic of Congo among them. Should such outpourings be stopped by legislation? Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights argues that the right to freedom of expression cannot allow the advocacy of nationality, racial, or religious hatred if it constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence. And where the sole purpose of a broadcaster is to spread hate, you can see the point – even if such an aim is a symptom, not a cause, of a wider malaise.

Of course, these examples of hate speech and conflict may seem far removed from our experience in Britain. But in the wake of the London bombs, some critics have been quick to point a finger at tensions in our multicultural society. The head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, argued that in recent years, "we've focused far too much on the 'multi' and not enough on the common culture".

A recent BBC opinion poll, however, appears to suggest a high level of acceptance of multicultural Britain. Of 1000 people questioned, 62 per cent said multiculturalism made Britain "a better place to live". But almost the same number said people "should adopt the values and traditions of British culture".

The BBC World Service recently broadcast a series of Analysis programmes examining multiculturalism across the globe. The series started with the shopkeepers of Wembley in North London, where more than half the population was born outside Britain. It's probably the most mixed area of Britain. There are Caribbean shops, Somali shops, Chinese shops, and Indian shops; here, indigenous white people are in the minority.

We found only a few people who say they support the England soccer team. Most people want it to lose! But we also found that most of Wembley's inhabitants exist in reasonable harmony. "We're so used to each other", one shopkeeper told us, "that we just get on."

But our programme also went to Bradford, where 20 per cent of the population comes from outside Britain. Here, multiculturalism appears to have failed. There were race riots four years ago and a councillor from the British National Party has been elected. A policy of celebrating diversity and accommodating the cultures of the minority ethnic communities is now being rethought. The council told us: "We have reaped some of the bitter fruits of that emphasis on multiculturalism – the emphasis on what separates us rather than what brings us together."

Our series showed, however, that Britain's problems are far from unique. In Australia, where one in four of the population is from overseas, multiculturalism is under strain. "We have to work out what is a genuinely Australian culture," one interviewee told us.

In Nigeria, 250 different ethnic and language groups live together. But our correspondent concluded that there is no glue holding such cultural diversity together.

In Kuala Lumpur, where all the world's major religions can be found, the Malays' social policies discriminate against the Chinese and Tamils, though racial tension appears low. One person told us: "Minus the politics we have a fantastic multicultural society!"

In France, multiculturalism is officially frowned upon in favour of conformity and secularism. Religious symbols are banned from schools. Has this policy worked? The recent riots may suggest otherwise.

What does the experience of these different countries tell us? Let me draw two strands together. In our monitoring of the media, we tracked the ebb and flow of "hate speech" while in our programmes, we discovered that social cohesion is under threat to a greater or lesser degree in the countries we examined. In these circumstances, how do we prevent hate speech, if it exists, from eroding the bonds of society?

Legislation, in many ways, might be seen as a sign of failure. That's because the media should aim to be a force for tolerance and cohesion. As the BBC's director general said in his first day in the job, we should try to enrich individuals with knowledge, culture, and information about their world. The BBC should enable the UK's many communities to talk to themselves and each other about how they differ and what they hold in common.

That's why our radio series ended with a debate among some of their representatives – about whether multiculturalism in Britain has failed. The question we sought to answer was whether, as some believe, the country has broken down into many separate communities, lacking common values and beliefs.

Professor Tariq Ramadan told the programme that, in times of crisis, we need to know each other. After 7/7, he said, the great majority of British people realized they didn't know anything about Islam. He may be right. In an opinion poll for BBC News 24's "Faith Day", more than one third of those questioned said they had no understanding of Islam.

The question is, why? Several speakers at the recent NewsXchange conference in Amsterdam blamed the media for failing to understand and illustrate the complexity of the Islamic world. They said we relied on stereotypes. So here's a challenge we should set ourselves as broadcasters.

We should aim to help the audience understand differences of ethnicity, faith, gender, sexuality, age, and ability or disability, by sensitively reflecting diversity. That means we cannot allow the drip-drip effect of hostility towards a community or a group onto our airwaves. That's an unambiguous principle, but in practice, there's a shade of grey.

In a democracy, many different views should be tested. So in the BBC, we strive to reflect a wide range of opinion and explore a range of views. It means that sometimes, in order to understand extremist views, we will have to talk to extremists. It means that sometimes, when we do so, viewers and listeners will accuse us of giving a platform to such views. I think that's a misunderstanding.

We can't simply explain news events such as 7 July, or conflicts abroad, by only talking to "safe" contributors, those who hold uncontroversial positions. But – and it is a crucial but – we should always aim to test rigorously any contributor who expresses contentious views.

Good journalism is, for me, the key. We shouldn't lay down artificial rules about which people we can and can't talk to any more than we should decide in advance which kidnappers' videos we can or can't show. It's down to judgement at the time, working within the parameters that we set ourselves in our producer guidelines. We can't give people a platform to stir up hatred, or spread abuse, because we should be a force for cohesiveness not division. But where division exists we should report it as freely and as fearlessly as we can. In doing so, our coverage should be proportionate to the reality we discover on the ground: not causing trouble, but reporting it; not creating tension, but explaining it.

That's why we made an undercover film, The Secret Agent, about the British National Party, which has resulted in its leader appearing in court. That's why, occasionally, people may express an idea that vast numbers in the audience may find offensive or disagreeable. How that fits in with the government's proposed legislation we'll have to wait and see. But if our recent experience is anything to go by, the signs are not encouraging.

On 1 August, as part of its ongoing reporting into the London bombings, Newsnight interviewed two members of a radical Islamist sect who sought to justify the attacks. Neither of them revealed any evidence of a new plot – rather it was an insight, though a disturbing one, into the minds of British Islamists. We would argue that the interviews were a matter of legitimate public interest. But the police went straight to a judge to get an order under the terrorism act, requiring the BBC to hand over not just the transmitted programme but the rushes, notes, and "any other relevant material". We've decided it would be wrong simply to hand over the material without any argument. So we await further developments.

Clearly the BBC does not support terrorism, but there is a fundamental principle at stake here. We have to be free to gather news and views to serve the society of which we, too, are a part. We are not here to create a climate of intolerance, but to report upon one if it exists. That's a million miles away from some of the broadcasters I've described, the ones that existed solely to spread hate. Our job as an impartial broadcaster is to report and explain. As history shows, that's vital.

After the events of 1819, it took another 30 years to re-establish the free press. But it happened. Today, it means that a fundamental principle of democracy is freedom of speech: the existence of critical voices that can test the mettle of a system. Censorship has no part in our output and should play no part in the future. But in order to forestall it, both journalists and politicians have a clear responsibility.

It is to remember that free speech is not the same as free and easy speech, lest we weaken the ties that bind us. And to recognize that the dividing line between proper media regulation and censorship is a precious one, even when, indeed especially when, it is not always clear.


Published 2006-02-16

Original in English
First published in (will appear in Index on Censorship 1/2006: "Small Wars You May Have Forgotten")

Contributed by Index on Censorship
© Richard Sambrook/Index on Censorship
© Eurozine

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