In any discussion of how to strike a balance
between various freedoms we think it has to be first admitted
that all societies censor to a degree and then move on to
consideration of what factors should be taken into account
and the weighting to be given to them.
Commercially there is no need for such discussion: It is a
matter for advertisers to consider whether their association
with a particular show or station is to their overall benefit
and for a broadcaster to balance the costs of producing the
show with the returns it generates from advertisers or sponsors.
In a democracy, however, it seems to us that there are wider
issues to be taken into account and the commercial model can
easily allow determined small groups to exert pressures out
of all proportion to their actual support.
Some of the factors
that lead to censorship.
(In no particular order):
Embarrassment: This seems the most potent factor in much censorship.
It would certainly account for the disproportionate outcry
over the display of part of Janet Jackson's breast.
Consequences of a revelation: Also fairly potent because those
with much to lose have a strong self-interest in stifling
Public safety: Not all that common a true motive but there
may be genuine reasons to stifle release of information for
a limited period. Often this reason is used to prevent discussion
that could show an embarrassing lack of justification for
an action or policy.
Desire for unquestioned and enhanced power: A very significant
factor in authoritarian and totalitarian societies
Protection of the privacy of individuals.
Preventing dissemination of information seen as harmful by
those in power.
Preventing open discussion of ideas that challenge widely
Most of the above it seems to us are not usually strong enough
arguments to rationally tip the balance against dissemination
of information or ideas and indeed in many cases there is
virulence in the censorship precisely because deeply held
beliefs cannot be justified by those who hold them.
So should there
be formal censorship?
In some cases it seems to us that there
is a case to be made: For example in the case of an investigation
of corruption it may well make sense that information should
be kept out of the public domain until the investigation is
completed since premature release could jeopardize an investigation
that needs to be carried out in the wider public interest.
That jeopardy, of course, ends once the investigation is completed
so the restraint need only be- and in our view - should only
be temporary and there should therefore be rules set out in
advance concerning the limits of the restraints.
The situation becomes more complex when the issues are ones
of taste - or the absence thereof. On the one hand it is difficult
to defend the crass, hurtful and puerile remarks that led
to Imus's demise - or the crass parallel drawn by producer
Bernard McGuirk with what happened to him and the comments
of Pastor Neimoller about the actions of the Nazis.
On the other hand it equally seems a foolish over-reaction
to attempt to prohibit the utterance of tasteless or crass
In general we therefore conclude that formal censorship is
almost always to be avoided and where applied require rigorous
justification in the public interest.
What methods should
we use to curb bigoted or hurtful remarks?
In the end we think these boil down
to a combination of the nature of a society and a little moral
backbone amongst its opinion formers.
In the case of Imus, we suspect that had rather more of his
guests done a Clarence Page - Page raised the issues of racially
bigoted remarks directly with Imus but was not invited back
- the host might have tempered his subsequent remarks rather
more and remained on air.
As it is there was a Hall of Fame of one and of shame of many
- politicians, pundits and the audience who collaborated in
allowing the situation to continue without check.
That situation continues with many hosts so maybe McGuirk
had a point, even if the Neimoller parallel was badly chosen.
His point, of course, was the danger of an increasing stifling
of freedom of speech.
What a shame then that he had to make it in terms of crudity
and crassness as a form of fun rather than in more profound