Free speech is expensive.  It’s time to pay for it

Like many people in Europe this week, I was numbed by the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris and the subsequent murder of Jews, and then horrified at the latest rounds of bloodletting by Boko Haram in Nigeria.  The atrocities committed by both sets of extremists were, in a sense, acts of storytelling. They were attempts to tell the story of the supremacy of their ideology, and they were tales written in fear and blood.  Much has been expressed this week about the value of free speech, of having the courage to pose critiques of potentially lethal enemies: and I have begun to reflect again on just how expensive free speech actually is.

Most obviously, free speech can cost lives.  Journalists have had a particularly dangerous few years, with 1109 killed worldwide since 1992.  Many of them work under extraordinary pressure, and against extraordinary odds.  They are dying due to their desire to make vital revelations, so that fresh horrors by Al-Qaeda, ISIS and so on remain forever unscripted.  Less starkly, free speech costs money.  Even in those societies whose citizens are allowed to say largely whatever they like, the largest media platforms go most consistently to those who have the deepest pockets.  Press barons with a fleet of newspapers can pontificate either via their outlets’ headlines or on social media, secure in the fact that they have by far the biggest audience.  It is all very well having free speech, but it’s not so useful when you are talking without amplification and the other person has a megaphone. (Especially when, it must be said, they are such consistent engines of misinformation as Fox News.)

What, then, can be done?  Perhaps it is time for us to begin treating investigative journalism, one of our surest means of speaking truth to power, as seriously as we would any charitable cause.  The good health of this field, I think, is essential to a thriving civil society.  I was startled to receive an email at the start of this year from Mother Jones, an excellent nonprofit news organisation based in the USA, asking urgently for donations. That an outlet of their calibre, home to several scoops and with almost 500,000 followers on Twitter, should be struggling so much financially was something that worried me greatly.  It made me worry about all the stories that are going untold, due to a lack of networks and resources, in places like West Papua and the Central African Republic, where the world’s pens and cameras do not find it fashionable to linger too long.

If there is to be any positive legacy from the last week’s atrocities in Nigeria and France, I would like it to include a surge in funding towards journalists covering those areas of the world where free speech is under the greatest threat.  Where should this money come from?  Well, members of the public can help.  I actually think that much more could be done by those companies who pride themselves on providing a wider social benefit: companies, for example, working in the fields of clean energy.  I also believe that private donors have a role to play.  In my more idealistic moments, which are frequent, I imagine a group of a few dozen people – those, say, who’ve tech fortunes, and those who’ve inherited wealth – pooling their resources, and putting together an endowment of a couple of hundred million pounds.  That endowment would then be carefully managed, and then a group of journalists would be paid their salaries out of the interest earned on that endowment. Journalists could also be given fixed-term grants to work on a single story in depth.

Of course, there are already organisations with a similar kind of structure, and so it makes most immediate sense to seek them out, and see whether they need further financial assistance.  The ones I have found most useful, in my last couple of years of internet use, have been the aforementioned Mother Jones, Global Voices, Writers of Colour, Open Democracy, and Democracy Now. I hope that one day at least one of their names might be as readily on most people’s lips as, say, that of a large aid organisation.  Whilst I acknowledge the boundless optimism of this wish, I should only add that this is precisely what dreams are for.

 

 

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