Everything comes at a price. And that includes freedom of expression. We accept that, in return for a service which delivers letters and packages to our homes, there will also be some junk mail littering the doormat. In exchange for the convenience of email, we accept a certain amount of unsolicited clutter in our inboxes. The price of a ‘free press’ is that we accept the print and broadcast media being used to manipulate public opinion. It would be foolish to suppose that there would be no cost associated with social media.
In all cases, the cost must be weighed against the benefit. We don’t nail shut our letterboxes just because we receive a few leaflets we didn’t ask for. We don’t abandon our email accounts just because we get some spam. It would be unfortunate if an overreaction to the cost of free and open communication were to deprive us of useful services or place undue constraints on our ability to communicate.
It might readily be argued that freedom of expression, as well as meaning the right to say what we want, also implies the right to hear what we want. In a properly functioning democracy, such rights are vested in the individual. If the starting point for the right of free speech is that anybody can say anything, then the necessary and inevitable corollary is that anybody can hear anything. This also implies that we should be as wary of those seeking to regulate what we may look at or listen to as we are of efforts to regulate the manner and content of expression.
Of course, there are limits to freedom of expression. As a society, we adopt legislation to prohibit communication which has evident potential for serious harm. Incitement to violence is, perhaps, the most obvious example. Exhortation to racial or sectarian hatred may be more problematic, but we nonetheless accept the need to have laws. It is a matter of balance. A question of where the line should be drawn.
But the presumption must always favour the right over regulation. Otherwise, the right is too readily eroded. It is not the right which must be argued but the case for impinging upon it. And this applies also to the right to hear – or read, or view or otherwise receive mediated messages. A right which is meaningless without the element of choice. To mean anything at all, the right to hear what we want depends on there being numerous and diverse voices for us to select from.
In Scotland, we have a particular problem in this regard. On the overarching issue of the constitutional question the mainstream/corporate media lies almost entirely on one side. And when I say ‘lies’ I mean that both in the sense of favouring the British establishment and the sense of promulgating untruths on behalf of the British state. The British media – print and broadcast – lies to the people of Scotland constantly and incessantly and in every way imaginable. All is deceit and disinformation. With only a precious few exceptions, such as The National and iScot Magazine, the print media is firmly aligned with established power – differing only in the explicitness of their commitment to British Nationalism and the extent to which they are prepared to abandon principle and professionalism for the sake of preserving the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state.
Broadcasting is even more one-sided. The BBC is the voice of the ruling elites of the British state. It cannot be otherwise. It is a loud, ubiquitous and inordinately influential voice. It is very well resourced and, despite numerous scandals, still clings to much of the authority it acquired when respect was actually earned.
Social media provides the only countervailing voice. Without the alternative media there is little or no choice. The right to hear what we want would be rendered meaningless were it not for the options offered online.
I don’t doubt that the power of the social media giants is being abused for political and commercial purposes; just as the power of traditional media is bent to the service of established power and vested interests. But, while being aware of the price we may pay in terms of our privacy and intrusive messages, we must be mindful of what we gain from a medium which is open, accessible and unconstrained. There is something essentially democratic about this medium. It would be regrettable if that were to be lost in a clamour of knee-jerk reaction to failings and deficiencies on the part of those charged with managing this invaluable resource.
Rather than a rush to regulate what people may hear, perhaps we’d do better to educate people about how to listen. Maybe what we need is, not more constrained media, but more critical consumers of media messages.
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