Freedom of expression is our last and only defence
The default position of politicians and prominent public figures under fire is to blame a free press. On the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht the Index on Censorship, which monitors attacks on world media, reiterates that freedom of expression is a freedom that benefits all. Recently, it noted that once you accept the principle that only certain voices can be heard, “it can be applied to your voice just as easily”.
There are plenty of reasons to endorse the Index’s strong strand at present. At the community level, Jewish News has not been immune.
It has on occasion experienced intense pressure from outsiders wishing to stymie its reporting and opinion. There are community leaders who would prefer the Jewish press to be less noisy in allegations against community leaders.
Those required to defend Israel’s democracy will often cite the country’s combative media representing all shades of opinion. But Benjamin Netanyahu blames a “media witch hunt” for the effort to dislodge him from power over allegations of corruption. However, at the heart of the case against the Israeli prime minister are the charges that he discussed “bartering” with Arnon ‘Noni’ Mozes, the owner of one of Israel’s leading newspapers, Yedioth Ahronoth, which is critical of him. In exchange for more favourable coverage, Netanyahu allegedly promised to hamper the circulation of a rival publication, a claim both men deny.
In the US, the attacks on The New York Times and cable channel CNN from Donald Trump’s White House is relentless. Indeed, it was the president’s men who came up with the whole concept of “fake news” (or rather, news reporting and opinion the White House doesn’t like).
Protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other papers have continued to publish without fear or favour. They refuse to be intimidated by the president, Harvey Weinstein or anyone else who might prefer to shut them up.
There is much that is shocking emerging by the day from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. This includes the march of Momentum’s perceived tolerance of anti-Semitism; the former embrace of Hezbollah and Hamas and efforts to restore Ken Livingstone to party membership in spite of his horrendous distortions of the Shoah narrative.
The Labour leader’s response when he is criticised is to shout “smear”. Reports in The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph and others that Corbyn may have become too close to Czech intelligence during the Cold War – he says the meetings were innocent – failed to elicit from him the kind of detailed response such allegations might justify. Instead, he turned his fire on the messenger, the free press. There were attacks on non-domiciled proprietors and a pledge that “change is coming”.
Corbyn’s threat from the left is not very different to that of Trump and Netanyahu from the right. All of these leaders would prefer to suppress freedom of expression rather than allow the media to get on with reporting.
As Trevor Phillips, founding chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, observes, freedom of expression “is the last and only defence of minority in society. When they have taken everything else from you…the last thing they can take away is your voice”.
Media outlets are seen as all powerful organisations, but print media is hanging on by its fingertips in the face of the online challenge. Cable and terrestrial TV also faces direct and potential existential challenge from newcomers.
In seeking to silence the press, public figures show a worrying disregard for freedom of expression and democracy, which must be resisted.