The right of expression, permits that any and all may hold and share their views without fear of reproach, it enshrines the right of expression for all – from the most informed to the least informed. It is this very right which allows you to say anything to me, and for me to say anything to you, irrespective of whether or not we like what each other says. This principle of ‘free speech’ is summed up quite adroitly in the citation: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it;”
The uncompromising appeal of this simple statement makes it perhaps an easy one with which to agree, but it may also be true that its simplicity belies a failure to account for the fundamental purpose of the freedom of expression itself; equality of expression of opinion. The assurance of expression for all must by definition be indiscriminate, and hence equally applied. This requires therefore that equal weight be given to any and all expressions of opinion, since anything less than that would represent discrimination; which implies that a value judgement is made.
Any society which maintains the principle of free speech, must therefore also accept the obligation to ensure an equality of opinion. In fact, this obligation is not merely a protection of the principle of free speech itself, but it is a necessary defence mechanism for society: a defence against the corrupt manipulation of information or against propaganda… in any society where money can buy power, and where opinion can be passed off as fact there exists the risk that through sheer volume of (mis)information a message or communication can be corrupted. A clear example of this is the claim that was made during the 2016 EU referendum of the £350 Million that Britain could ‘take back’ – a lie which which was emblazoned across the side of a bus for all to see. This propaganda is not and never has been true, however it was held up as (and possibly accepted as) fact by many during the referendum campaign. Such dissemination of lies is facilitated by the lack of any obligation for the communicator to indicate whether or not what is being presented is factual or mere conjecture.
It is my contention that the protection of free speech, and the protection of equality of expression of opinion can only be maintained in an an environment where free speech is subject to validation… not judgement, empiric validation.
I do not intend by this that people’s opinions should be authorised for expression, nor that the content should be controlled. Instead however, there should be a mechanism by which any opinions expressed can be validated, enabling society to provide balance and validation either in parallel or after the event; indicating whether or not a statement is true. Ensuring a common validation of content may serve to counter-balance the effect that can be had from a vast quantity of communication and would hence help to preserve the concept of equal weight of opinion. (This does not work in today’s society, because there exists no independent & trusted body which can pronounce on the validity of people’s statements.)
The adoption of the principle of free speech, whilst protecting an individual’s right to expression, also implies a protection of the right to broadcast your opinion – via newspapers, television for example. It is perhaps valid to say that in a world where twitter and internet blogs exist, the ability to broadcast communications is open to many (if not all). However it is equally evident that the access and use of such media is open to exploitation by those who have enough money and the inclination. Hence, the system as it stands is not indiscriminate… and thus not equal.
Since restricting access to or the content of broadcast communications; which would also represent a violation of equality of expression, I propose that society introduces a mechanism for providing impartial validation (and labelling) of the contents of any expressions. This act would, whilst not preventing communication, reduce the ease with which opinions could be passed off as truths.
In writing this, I appreciate the impracticality of this undertaking if applied to all opinions everywhere, however even so, there are two crucial circumstances in which this method should (and could easily) be applied: the communications used in political campaigns and the broadcasting of ‘news’.
Which brings us to the reason for this topic; a potential second EU referendum in the Britain. What would be the point of asking society for its opinion when there is no way to ensure that a fair message can be communicated without interference? Society can only make decisions based on the information at its disposal – and it seems clear that our present approach has no defence against malevolent propaganda. (Perhaps a leaf should be taken out of Switzerland’s book.)
A mantra which, like the citation used at the beginning of this piece, is also often misquoted says that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. Unless an attempt is made to moderate the manner in which broadcast opinions can be used in political debate, then the system will continue to be open to abuse by those who can influence the messages that are broadcast. If society truly wants to ensure free speech, and equality, then society will need to find a way to allow opinions to be judged equally, irrespective of the volume of the message.
As a final note: I would contend that if any of us think that we have free speech, we should think again; there are many laws which govern what can be said – ranging from misleading advertising claims, to the criminalisation of denying the holocaust.
Speech can be free and yet still open to validation – as long as that validation is impartial. You can say what you like, but if it is bollocks, you won’t be able to pretend it is true!