How liberty can be just a game of chance

The First Freedom
July 11, 2003

It seems quite an oversight if this book really is the first history of freedom of expression, as it is billed, given the intensity of the debate about free speech in the past few years.

In true journalistic style, Robert Hargreaves, a former ITN correspondent and editor, guides us through the development of current western notions of freedom of expression by focusing on key individuals such as Erasmus, Thomas Paine and William Tyndale. Each chapter looks at one or more important individuals from a particular era and includes interesting anecdotes and discussion of how their work changed the ideas of those around them.

Hargreaves is a great admirer of these figures, but his admiration is mostly reserved for those of a democratic bent. He points out how some figures, such as Martin Luther, moved the debate on while being intolerant of others' views themselves. Some may find the focus on individuals rather than general social development frustrating, although Hargreaves would no doubt argue that the human-interest angle gives his book greater appeal.

The book shows how a range of factors, including chance, has influenced western liberal traditions. It also shows how freedom of expression must be defended anew each generation. For Hargreaves, the main obstacles to free expression are the church, "mediocre academics" intent on guarding their own sense of superiority and laws constructed to defend freedom of expression, which often tend to restrict it. He fears that different European traditions and recent debate over legislation against incitement of religious hatred may curb the British tradition of free expression. He believes that issues such as scurrilous reporting and hate speech are best dealt with by "the ordinary law of the land". For instance, hate speech can be dealt with by laws governing incitement to violence.

Another major threat to freedom of expression, Hargreaves foresees, is liberal democracies' confusion about their own moral identities. He believes this leads to societies allowing intolerant minorities to dilute long-fought-for freedoms, as happened in the Salman Rushdie affair.

This is a timely book, but, with most of its interest being in pre-20th-century Europe, much of the current debate about freedom of expression passes it by. It mentions the Rushdie affair only fleetingly in the last chapter. It looks at only western traditions of freedom of expression, seeming to assume their superiority. Hargreaves' argument is that for much of the 18th and 19th centuries the spread of free speech was "very much an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon", but this is surely not a credible defence, especially given that the book covers free speech from the ancient Greeks to the present day. It bypasses the impact of western law on colonised countries and, in so doing, sidesteps the issues that have led to recent debates about relative rather than universal human rights.

There is also little mention of how 20th-century totalitarian regimes have been able to clamp down on free speech; of the growth of freedom-of-expression pressure groups, which have come about in part from awareness of that repression; of how societies emerging from totalitarianism have embraced - or not - freedom of expression; and of the way multinational news corporations can influence editorial decisions and limit debate. This lack of a more international perspective means the book's relevance to present-day debates is not as great as its title pretends. A pity: a more far-reaching book is desperately needed.

Mandy Garner is features editor, The THES .

The First Freedom: A History of Free Speech

Author - Robert Hargreaves
ISBN - 0 7509 2923 5
Publisher - Sutton
Price - £20.00
Pages - 338

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