Freedom in Expression

It’s been a blur of tests, high temperatures and soft food for the last couple of weeks. I’ve felt fragile, addled and more than a little helpless under the scrutiny of doctors and nurses. I’m now familiar with a raft of medical acronyms and have a grasp of the numbers connected to blood counts and infection indicators. I’ve done very little writing, but I have had time to read, listen to the radio and think.

Before I carry on with this blog, I should make it clear that in the current referendum on whether my home country of Scotland should be independent, I stand firmly in the Yes camp. I’m not a nationalist and I was born in England. For me the issue is simple: Who do I want to make the decisions on the future direction of my country – a government voted in by the people of Scotland or a government where my vote has virtually no impact, if any at all?

But that isn’t what this blog is about. As a fledgling writer and someone who has worked in the media, I’ve been increasingly concerned with the way the referendum debate has been represented by our media outlets. Not more so than in the recent storm-in-a-teacup surrounding J K Rowling’s announcement that she is supporting the Better Together (No Thanks) campaign to the tune of £1 million.

Now I know very little about J K Rowling as a person but I saw her giving the commencement address at Harvard via TED talks and was impressed by her eloquence and compassion. Her statement, and I’m paraphrasing, that those more privileged are duty-bound to those less so not to squander their opportunities, was laudable and resonated with my own beliefs. She’s worked with Amnesty International, for whom I too have volunteered, and gives a substantial amount of her money to charity. In my view, this makes her a decent person. She also has a lot of money, to do with what she will. And that’s an important point – to do with what she will. In the same way that the Weirs (a Scottish couple who won a huge amount on the Euro lottery) choose to use their money to support worthy causes and the Yes campaign, JK is at liberty to use her money as she sees fit.

Similarly, she’s free to her opinion – on this matter (and probably many others) I don’t share it, but she’s entitled to it. It’s the beauty of living in a democracy and the right to free speech. Now here’s the rub;  in a democracy, oftentimes people will disagree with you. And with freedom comes responsibility. So when people, on both sides of the argument, start abusing others for not sharing their view, everyone loses.

What bothered me most about JK’s statement is this; she cites the ‘fringe nationalists who like to demonise anyone who is not blindly and unquestionably pro-independence’ and then goes on to make the assumption that she will be considered ‘insufficiently Scottish’ by the same people. No-one had said this, she just imagined it would be true. Which would be less derogative if she had then gone on to acknowledge the fact that there is also an unsavoury element on the fringes of the BT campaign. She didn’t.

As the writer of one of the most successful series of stories ever, if she wishes to speak out on a subject (and that is her right), she does indeed have a responsibility to use her privileged position well, as does anyone with that kind of public profile, as do we all.

It wasn’t which side she chose, or in her donating money that I think she failed to live up to that responsibility, it was in her lack of respect for those that don’t share her view by failing to recognise the unpleasant elements of her chosen campaign.

The vast majority of Yes campaigners are reasonable, passionate, dedicated, positive people who are hoping for a better future for their country and its glorious mix of people – many of whom, by JK’s reckoning would also presumably be ‘insufficiently Scottish’.

That said, my bigger gripe is with the mainstream media. I worked in radio and as a press officer for various charities for a number of years and I’ve become more-and-more dismayed by the lack of quality journalism in this country – there are of course exceptions, thank goodness, but they’re few and far between.

When the Weirs gave money to the Yes campaign they were not only personally attacked but also lambasted through certain media outlets and their donation was questioned publically by politicians. I for one, saw very little sympathy for them in the mainstream media. Contrast this with the outrage at the nasty cybernats in the media when JK received some abusive Tweets (don’t get me wrong, they were horrible) and the difference is astounding.

One of the greatest rights of a democratic society is freedom of expression. As a child I was in awe of those who brought us the news, both from my country and abroad. I was proud that our media was considered to be amongst the most honest and unbiased in the world. I could weep when I look at it now.

I’ve deliberately chosen not to address the political issues regarding the referendum, I understand them enough to make my own mind up but would be unwilling to speak to them when there are so many others more qualified. The information is out there, you just need to want it.

My final thought on the matter is this: I believe most in the good of people and I respect their right to hold an opinion even if it opposes my own. I may sometimes find it difficult to swallow but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Opinions are there to be challenged, that’s how great ideas are born. But we should always do it with the utmost respect. Otherwise we all lose.