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Do we need a bodyguard for Truth? 

In his latest blog, Matt Minshall, member of CRJ's Advisory Panel, asks the question: Has Freedom of Speech been hijacked as an excuse to lie?
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It is possible for Freedom of Speech to become a weapon in the hands of the irresponsible if the truth is continually undermined and organisations and influencers choose to deal in lies instead. Image: Weerapat Kiatdumrong|123rf

Civilisation is a veneer of value that differentiates humans from other life forms. It is the protection that maintains peace and gives the ability to exist in situations alien to nature. For civilisation to prevail it relies on a code of rules and morals which collectively make up its value. This protocol gives the right of protection of life, property and expression, all of which give liberty; but, as with all rights, such freedom is effective only when matched with an equal understanding of responsibility. Of concern is that these basic morals have lessening worth, which has dangerous implications for the future. A principal victim of the decline is truth, which is becoming subordinate to the right for freedom of expression and, if not checked, will result in a marked downward trend in civilised behaviour.

One of Winston Churchill's wartime epigrams was: "In war-time, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." This was to ensure that vital secrets were protected and accepted as legitimate ruses de guerre; but it cannot be something to be harnessed at will. Lying has ever been taught to children as fundamentally wrong, but parents who engender this essential moral duty find it increasingly difficult when public leadership and some media managers treat lying as normal. Even more concerning is that that lies are not only being employed openly, but highly irresponsibly under a vague mantra of Freedom of Speech. This is a dangerous evolution. 

Freedom of Speech is the power or right to express one’s opinions without censorship, restraint, or legal penalty. It is a human right of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and is recognised in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 19 of the UDHR states that: "Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference," and "everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression…" But, often ignored, is that ICCPR later amends this by stating that the exercise of these rights carries "special duties and responsibilities" and may "therefore be subject to certain restrictions" when necessary "for respect of the rights or reputation of others" or "for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals."

A disturbing development is that legal intervention for the deliberate and illegal starting of a false rumour and similar acts can apparently be avoided when the falsehood becomes accepted through repetition and popular acquiescence. Following the terrorist attack in Strasbourg in late 2018, a seemingly random Tweet alleging complicity by the French Government to distract from the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ protests, attracted populist support. The utterances of British politicians around the mismanagement of Brexit are frequently risible as they try to display an image to the world that is truly Potemkinesque and hold value only to those for whom the truth is subservient to dreams. That Donald Trump can now say anything, in the face of contrary evidence, and be believed, is another indication that truth is of rapidly decreasing value; but such irresponsibility is of equal disservice to civilisation as the denial of freedom of the Press or opinion. 

The Spanish proverb: “Wit without discretion is like a sword in the hand of a fool,” is adaptable to describe how Freedom of Speech can become a weapon in the hands of the irresponsible. Freedom of speech and expression is not one sided, and the limitations or boundaries which exist morally and legally must be given equal value. To rework Churchill’s epigram on lies, it could be said that for civilisation, Freedom of Speech is such a burden of honour that it should always be supported by the respect of responsibility, and, as Kipling said, if you want to be someone "…don’t deal in lies." 

If truth is destroyed as a concept it will have a marked effect on all aspects of society, but critically on the organisation and outcomes of crises. Apart from the absolute necessity of accurate reporting from the outset, a key element of crisis management is the aftermath. During the immediate post-crises debriefing, analysis of all actions is taken with the aim of learning the important lessons with which to improve the reaction and control of future situations. Should the accuracy of information for life threatening events be treated with as cavalier a fashion as the current general devolution of respect for the truth then the future does not look bright, or very safe.

Should other civilisation principles be treated as negligently as truth - such as respect for life and property - then a decline in civilised norms and a reverse of evolution is inevitable. Once there was an acceptance that there should be the balance of no entitlement without duty, and no rights without responsibility; but this is less the case now. It appears timely for the equilibrium to be restored, particularly for the protection of the truth; without which murder and ownership can be deniable. The current degeneration must be halted, and while responsibility for the guardianship of truth is universal, governments should lead by example through their own integrity and by the rigid application of legal enforcement. 

Matt Minshall, 30/09/2019
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