Free speech is the courage to burn bridges

The year 2015 has begun with a great deal of debate about free speech. The fanatics who murdered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists saw to that—their sympathisers in Copenhagen have kept the fire burning.

The discussion has largely been about what one can say about your ideological opponents. Is it Okay to blaspheme? What are the limits to giving offence? When does criticism of one group or another slide into hate speech and incitement. In these examples we usually debate whether the law can interfere with our speech.

It’s worth noting that other kinds of free speech dilemmas exist. An important example of this is on show in Peter Oborne’s seething explanation for why he resigned from the Daily Telegraph.

It’s an important article that should be read in full, but Oborne’s mental journey from keeping quiet, to speaking out, is worth drawing out here. First, the decision to leave quietly:

He stressed, however, that the Telegraph would continue to honour my contract until it ran out in May. For my part I said that I would leave quietly. I had no desire to damage the newspaper. For all its problems it continues to employ a large number of very fine writers. They have mortgages and families. They are doing a fine job in very trying circumstances. I prepared myself mentally for the alluring prospect of several months paid gardening leave.

But then, a change of heart:

After a lot of agony I have come to the conclusion that I have a duty to make all this public … The Telegraph’s recent coverage of HSBC amounts to a form of fraud on its readers. It has been placing what it perceives to be the interests of a major international bank above its duty to bring the news to Telegraph readers. There is only one word to describe this situation: terrible.

There is courage in this. It is not the same thing as setting up a democracy blog in the certain knowledge that you will be flogged for it, or the choice to carry on cartooning when you’ve had death threats, but it is brave nonetheless. Oborne has, with this article, burned a lot of bridges and probably lost a couple of friends. Last month I wrote that “I am not brave enough to be Charlie… And neither are you“. I suspect that most of us aren’t brave enough to blow the whistle on our employers, either.

I’m reminded of another recent, classic case of bridge burning: Andrew O’Hagan’s long essay on his time with Julian Assange. O’Hagan was employed as a ghost-writer and his piece for the London Review of Books must have divulged information given in confidence. Again, the burning of bridges in sacrifice to some higher ideal. An admirable thing.

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