Prof. Brian Winston on freedom of the press

By Professor Brian Winston – Chair of Communications, University of Lincoln

The Linc made a fine debut last year – it got into hot water or more than one occasion which is exactly what the press is supposed to do. Great.


Prof. Brian Winston in his office. | Photo: Samuel Cox

Of course, I am not condoning sloppy reporting or unethical behaviour. Tons of bricks should fall on the The Linc’s head if it doesn’t perform to high professional standards: but it is the job of the press ‘to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’. Doing that often requires that authority will not be best pleased with it.

In 1720, as the legal basis of the essential liberty of a free expression was emerging, two London journalists, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon writing under the nom de plume ‘Cato’, laid down the essence of the principle: ‘Freedom of speech…. is the right of everyman, as far as by it he {sic} does not hurt or control the right of another; and this is the only check which it ought to suffer, the only bounds it ought to know….’ Note: this does not include the notion that somebody can prohibit, or seek to prohibit, expression merely because they are offended, or even distressed, by it.

We have been very careful in our development of restrictions on this right. We have held, since the 18th century, that freedom requires, normally, publication occurs and consequential damage has then to be demonstrated: ‘there shall be no prior constraint.’

Beyond this, we have restricted speech for a variety of reasons – state security, protection of identity of minors, obscenity and so on. Publication of facts and opinion, nevertheless, are not in any sense generally limited unless incitement to illegal acts can be proved — and that, as numerous court cases have shown, is still far from easy.
 Above all, what is published must be, almost but not always, undamaging. 
Telling the truth is the best way of exercising this freedom, of course.

It is entirely to be expected that The Linc will occasionally embarrass, offend even. It is, unfortunately, also the case that it will sometimes get things wrong. That, though, is the price we pay for a free press. As Churchill once said of democracy in general, it’s not a very good system; it’s just better than any other. The same is true of the principle of free speech. The paradox is you only know this freedom really exists when offensive expression is freely published.

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