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12 May 2013

Defamation law needs revision. Newspaper publishers need to agree a self-regulating code, with an arms-length arbitration scheme (or not depending on where you stand), without regulatory underpinning (or with a Royal Charter depending on where you stand).

The debate about these things is already widespread but are there other aspects of public speech we should look at in the same timeframe?

Informed consent is an important principle in modern society.

One thing internet publishers can envy in traditional media is better quality editing but when does editing become misrepresentation? Writers may not like sub-editing but it is necessary for good quality newspapers. Models signing release forms may not like the contexts pictures are used in. Those giving an interview may not like the way it is written up. If these well-worn issues present problems no solution is offered here but there are other breaches of consent and abuse of agency that might be worth looking at. After all, if you give power to a land agent to manage your estate you do not expect him to use it to demolish the main building on it.

So should there be a simply accessed civil remedy for abuse of public speech by agent beyond any remedy that may already be accessible - with great difficulty - in defamation or contract? For a few hundred pounds, dollars or euros, maybe, in the equivalent of a county court. It might make a few agents behave. Surely not all media misdemeanours are perpetrated by media?

There would have to be an exemption for statements on behalf of non-natural persons, for family members acting as agents and for the agents and spokesmen of those holding major public office. One would expect many statements on behalf of ministers to be issued without reference to the minister but not for a statement on behalf of an ordinary member of the House of Lords to be issued without reference. After all, you need to believe at least what some people say is what they mean to say.

If as an historian one found that every statement by an important sporting figure of the past, say Fangio, was issued by someone else with no reference to him (there is no suggestion that any was), one would be pretty annoyed.

Statements by someone else could simply be prefaced by 'the secretary of someone said' or 'the agent of someone said on her behalf.'

This is not to take any of the fun out of media utterances or to accidentally roadkill the PR industry, it is simply to reassert the importance of consent.

Informed consent, implied consent, contractual consent, and the absence of consent are all being abused, not least by the finance and medical industries, perhaps taking their cue from public statements.

Society needs to avoid moving too strongly towards being contractually based, just as it ought to avoid being too procedure based or too regulation based.

It needs to be ethically based, too.


17 May 2013

There are some things a majority of the electorate never seem to want to go back to - exchange controls, more personal taxation, being paternalistically patronised. The near universal horror at most of the official solutions proposed to solve the Cypriot financial crisis reflects this.

This presents a problem for those who do want to go back to the unpopular.

The casualty is sometimes public speech.

In the old days Labour luminaries like Jack Jones (in his later years effectively an anti-ageism campaigner) talked to everyone to persuade them to their view.

Nowadays, too many on the Left simply avoid calling the girl with the pearl earring or the student with a shirt that looks well cut to speak or ask questions at public meetings or academic fora in case they say something that does not advance the cause of the proletariat that they have set themselves up to speak for. This despite the fact that these are overwhelmingly just trying to engage or learn.

The problem is that the 'proletariat' in Britain by the best estimates does not exceed 24% of the population so why close down public speech that might represent a majority view in many cases? This is not to say that the working class does not need better representation.

New Labour was essentially an ageist government.

This DNA dies hard. One minute the old, seemingly without exception, are too well-off and must be taxed, the next the word 'elderly' becomes inseparable with the word 'vulnerable'. This is paternalistic.

The reality may be closer to this: most of the old are living on reduced means relative to earlier years and are only occasionally vulnerable such as when they encounter boisterous teenagers on the stairs or have had a temporarily debilitating experience. It is good to be with them and see them in the community and they do not need to be shipped off to closed institutions or have their decision making options reduced, whether they are in family units or not.

The paternalism extends to the young, too, but in more muted fashion. Instead of referring to children in poverty, 'children on free school meals' are continually patronised by the Left. If you are old enough to remember it, free school milk was great fun (in one third of a pint glass bottles with a foil top which you could pierce with a straw and then carry around a playground with no risk of spilling) but doubtless with the passage of time 'free school milkers' will become the next shorthand for ageist paternalism.

By the end, New Labour had become more exclusionary than any old-fashioned aristocracy. If you wanted to engage but didn't pepper your speech with the word 'social' you may not have got a hearing.


11 March 2014

I have long been intrigued by the concept of 'mute inglorious Milton' in Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

If Milton had remained mute, let alone inglorious, it would have been a blow to public speech and, some say, press freedom.

One of the usual conclusions drawn from the concept, with which I agree, is that we should endeavour to offer education to all so that talent does not fall through the net due to the nature of a person's circumstances.

The other side of the concept has interested me as much.

If Milton, after becoming blind, falling into disfavour and out of office after the Restoration, poor and reliant on helpers like Andrew Marvell to inscribe what he wanted to write, had decided glory did not interest him - that he had already shown he could do it so why show further, that the nature of Restoration society offered him no further reward and that he had the excuse of blindness - decided of his own volition to be mute (to retire and write no more) what Paradise Lost would we have lost?

This goes to the heart of a contemporary problem - the offering of terms to people that otherwise potentially acceptable are not so because the acceptance of contempt would also be implicit in their acceptance.

So we have social media offerings that treat customers' privacy arbitrarily and internships repeatedly renewed on a non-paying basis.

We have seen it before in the late seventies when tax rates left no cause to engage in enterprise.

The risk is mute inglory by volition.

In the list of life skills taught in schools perhaps we should add negotiation - a skill whose central aim is to improve the terms for all parties.