When was the last time you read in your local paper or watched on your local news, a report of a suicide? I don't mean a suicide where the victim was a public figure, such as Hunter Thompson or Michael Hutchence, but an ordinary suicide. The answer is most probably never.
This is, of course, to say nothing of diagrams depicting the means of suicide or photos of the scene itself.
It is not because it is illegal to report suicides, but simply because the media recognizes that its responsibilities extend beyond to merely 'publish and be damned'. There is recognition that whilst freedom of speech guarantees certain rights, it is a mark of civility and civic responsibility that some things are better left unreported. The reporting of suicide is one such area where there is little public benefit, but the potential for considerable harm: if, for example, such reporting encourages others to commit suicide by describing techniques and methods by which one might effectively end one's own life.
Were the media to report suicides with the same level of detail afforded to murder cases, and there was a rise in suicides as a result, the public would soon be demanding that the media exercise greater restraint. There would also be calls for the government to intervene, perhaps through the passage of new laws limiting freedom of the press.
A freedom faces few threats greater than a freedom misused. The media has long understood that it must operate with some level of responsibility and moral maturity. At times, this even takes the form of self-censorship. Yet, this has not stopped the media discussing the problem of suicide but at the same time there is an appreciation that it is no more necessary to include photos or descriptions of suicides than the debate about pornography requires the publication of pornographic imagery.
The case of the twelve cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad - commissioned by a Danish newspaper and subsequently republished across the world - should be viewed in this light. The intent behind the cartoons was to ostensibly 'test' the limits of free speech: to determine if a set of gratuitously offensive cartoons, of no intrinsic intellectual or comedic value, would anger the world's Muslim community. The answer, as should have been obvious, is that Muslims do indeed react angrily when the Prophet Muhammad is seen to have been traduced.
As the backlash has grown and spread, so has the issue morphed into a debate about 'free speech'. However, there was never any risk or suggestion that the Danish newspaper would be prevented from publishing the cartoons. Despite the many problems that have resulted from their publication, the Danish government has, quite rightly, not moved to limit media freedoms.
It is, of course, true that freedom of speech guaranteed the right of the Danish newspaper to publish the images, and it is true that the Danish government could not legally intervene to stop their publication.
Yet, it is misguided to suggest that because we are free to speak, everything must be spoken.
As with reporting suicide, the media must consider the ramifications and make judgments as to the worth of a particular story. In the case of the Danish cartoons, there was little to be gained and little debate to be furthered by publishing the images, yet the costs have been
substantial: the cancellation of millions of dollars of contracts; the boycotting of Danish produce; attacks on Danish embassies and consulates through the Muslim world; and, most importantly, providing extremists - finally - with what they will see as incontrovertible evidence of European (read 'Western') contempt for Islam.
Even if not entirely acceptable, the reaction of the Muslim world was entirely predictable. Voltaire, John Stuart Mill and the secular nostrums which afford Western media the right to mock religion mean little on the 'Arab street'.
Yet, perhaps the real damage to free speech comes not from a Muslim boycott of Danish cheese, but from the newspapers that published these cartoons. For as the economic damage and social turmoil unleashed by their publication increases and spreads, so will the argument be bolstered that, if journalists cannot exercise their freedom with due consideration for the obvious consequences, the state must assume a greater regulatory role.
This, of course, reflects a timeless truism: if man (or a newspaper) cannot refrain from harming others, then the state must restrain him - with the commensurate loss of liberty for all that always accompanies it.
Perhaps, this is the real threat to freedom of speech. The more that freedom of speech is invoked to justify irresponsible actions that serve no greater purpose than to offend and provoke others, the more that such freedoms are weakened and undermined.
Amir Butler is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia.
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