Enforcing the Code of Malpractice

The Press Council of Ireland in deciding to uphold a complaint against Kevin Myers and the Irish Independent erred badly and in blinkered fashion. It found that Myers’ column from July 10 entitled ‘Africa is giving nothing to anyone apart from AIDS’ was in breach of Principle 8 of the Code of Practice for Newspapers and Periodicals.

Principle 8 refers to incitement to hatred. This principle was supposedly breached despite the Press Council acknowledging that there was nothing to suggest that Myers sought to stir up hatred or that hatred was likely to result from what he had penned. The council held that where Principle 8 was violated it was on the grounds of the article in question having caused offence. There is little in the Press Council’s justification for its actions that displays the slightest awareness of the vast gulf between writing that is offensive and writing which is penned for no other reason than to fuel hatred.

What was Myers guilty of apart from being absolutely wrong? He caused offence as does much of the country’s better writing. Even if the column was in direct conflict with human rights precepts this was no reason to hound it. Human rights are social constructs. They do not exist in an ahistorical hermetically sealed vault but operate within moveable boundaries. How those boundaries are drawn is partly the result of informed discussion and debate, a process Myers was contributing to when the dogs were set on him.

Arguably what the myopic stance of the Press Council has completely missed in its deliberations is the intrinsically self defeating nature of the Myers column which needed no outside intervention in order to ensure the logic of the column was spiked. Myers, albeit unintentionally, underlined the view that stubbornness, chauvinism and wilful indifference are three strands weaved together to form an obstruction that is clumsily heaved across the tracks of public concern in relation to Africa. The hope of those sympathetic to what Myers wrote was the derailing of any progress that may be made in the difficult task of overcoming Africa’s terrible predicament. It is arguably a forlorn hope. After reading the irascible column I became even more convinced that the author had got it wrong and that much more should be done to put a fair wind at the back of agencies like Goal.

The Press Council in making its customary nod to free expression claimed that:
The opportunity for robust presentations in the print media of widely different views, however controversial or disturbing some of them may be is a powerful indicator of a mature and confident democracy.

Then with a liberal injection of forgetfulness it immediately lurched onto the home ground of the censor with its comment, ‘but ultimately the same broad boundaries which limit all freedoms must apply to freedom of expression including comment in the press.’

How ludicrous. Freedom of expression inextricably linked with free inquiry is what allows society to ponder on what freedoms actually are and where the boundaries should be placed. We don’t need to be lectured that freedom without limit is license. But to curb liberties, even where distastefully used, through introducing the constraint that opinion should ‘have regard for others and for the common good’ is an abdication of vocational responsibility on the part of the Press Council. It empowers the licentious concept of political respect by dressing it up as neutral and overlooking its cultural signifiers. This allows cultural mores to morph into rights. Consequently license is granted to a gamut of power structures which use respect as an armour to ward off free inquiry in relation to what malpractices may be ongoing behind the shield. It affords protection to the vile freedom usurping practice of speaking power to truth.

The Press Council has failed to show that Myers actually violated any rights other than the pseudo right not to be offended. His ‘rhetorical extravagance’ is a well known polemical device not a rights crusher. In its verdict the Press Council is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It is a disquieting outcome which paradoxically will produce a quieting of the worst possible sort – censorious silence. Keep going as we are and soon only anodyne vicars will be columnists.

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