Friday, March 03, 2006


[This is the text of a talk given at a forum organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, 27 February 2005.]

Ever since the controversy over the Prophet Mohammed cartoons broke out, allusions have been made to a so-called Clash of Civilisations between the West and Islam.

More sober minds have rightly resisted framing the issue in such polarising terms. Yes, Muslims may be universally offended by the cartoons. However, the politicisation of this affair and its escalation into acts and threats of violence by some people in some places was contingent upon quite specific political factors, and not some built-in tendency within Islamic civilisation.

Similar nuance is called for when thinking about what the controversy says about Western media. A strong commitment to liberal ideals is not necessarily incompatible with greater sensitivity to the feelings of Muslims and other cultural groups. The media do need to accommodate a global, multicultural audience, but these accommodations can be made within the Western discourse on press freedom.

Just as Muslim leaders and thinkers today are finding, within Islamic tradition itself, the cultural and theological resources for a tolerant and progressive worldview to challenge extreme and militant thinking, so too it is possible for the liberal West to locate, within its own discourse, the seeds for more sensitive media coverage of the world.

A good starting point is a 60-year-old document, A Free and Responsible Press. Better known as the Hutchins Commission report, it was published by a commission of inquiry initiated by Henry Luce, the founder of Time magazine. It is a classic text that continues to be essential reading in many journalism and media studies programmes in America.

Being a thoroughly American document, the report stays true to the principle of the First Amendment, under which the government is basically prohibited from making any law that infringes on press freedom. However, as its title states, the report invokes the need for responsibility.

It makes a crucial distinction between press freedom as a moral right and press freedom as a legal right. Press freedom is a moral right because a man “owes it to his conscience and the common good” to express his ideas. Yet, precisely because the right is based on the duty one owes to the common good, the right disappears when the duty is ignored or rejected, the commission said. “In the absence of accepted moral duties there are no moral rights.”

This description of a moral right that only exists when twinned with responsibilities sounds surprisingly similar to how press freedom is cast outside of the liberal West. Thus, at the level of moral arguments, the civilisational divide is not as great as is sometimes assumed.

It is in translating morality to law, however, that there is a significant difference. In the liberal view, as expressed by the Hutchins Commission report, legal rights must always be broader than moral rights. In other words, the moral responsibility of the press cannot be made legally compulsory. To allow the state to encroach on legal rights when the press gives up its moral rights may be “a cure worse than the disease”, as the report puts it.

While no country offers its citizens absolute legal freedoms, it is certainly the case that legal protections against censorship are wider in liberal jurisdictions than in non-liberal jurisdictions, where there is a stronger impulse to fit the legal to the moral.

So, yes, there is a yawning divide in legal rights between liberal and non-liberal societies. However, defenders of liberal freedoms have struck an unnecessarily petulant note in the current debate by failing to distinguish moral arguments from legal arguments.

Liberal societies have good reasons for protecting press freedom with broad legal rights.
However, they confuse themselves and offend others when they say that the press is right to publish whatever the press has the right to publish; in other words, to equate what the press can do in a liberal society with what the press should do.

This is a matter of conjecture, but I do suspect that the present furor could have been averted if, early on, politicians and journalists in the West had made such distinctions, and resisted the urge to mount the moral high ground when defending the legal rights of their newspapers. It was their failure to acknowledge that the offending newspapers had violated any moral duty that provoked the Muslim anger.

Unfortunately, liberal societies tend to be allergic to any criticism of the press by government leaders. Politicians observe this taboo out of respect for press freedom. Such an attitude is misguided. In liberal societies where press freedom is deeply entrenched, it is self-serving of the press to affect indignation at any criticism of its conduct, as if it is a precursor to censorship. Furthermore, such reactions smack of a deeper fraud. Press freedom does not belong to the press; it belongs to society as a whole. Liberal societies should have no qualms about members of society, even its political leaders, declaring that the press did not get it right, and if necessary disowning views that are circulated in the media.

Such an admissions of failure, I have tried to argue, would not violate the precepts of liberalism or press freedom.

On the contrary, as the Hutchins Commission report suggests when talking about the future of press freedom in America, “The legal right will stand if the moral right is realized or tolerably approximated.” That is why, across liberal societies, newspapers generally do not take too many liberties with the feelings and values of their own communities. They have the legal right to, but they choose not to offend their readers’ deepest cultural and religious norms, either because the journalists share those norms or because they know better than to alienate their readers too much.

Thus, accommodating different communities around the world, including Muslims, does not require any qualitative shift in what the best liberal newspapers already do. It simply requires that existing professional instincts be applied to the new realities of globalisation.

Many Muslims have argued that the way to build bridges with the non-Muslim west is not to be any less of a Muslim but to be a better Muslim. The same logic applies to the liberal press. The way to accommodate communities that they do not understand is not to be any less of a liberal journalist, but to be a better liberal journalist.


Anonymous said...

Hear, hear. Unfortunately, I just do not think the Western idea of sensitivity is similar to say, the Asian concept. Regardless of similarity in moral rights, I'd point to cultural differences as the defining factor in the controversy. Is empathy and an abandonment of ethnocentrism too much to ask for from people of a certain heritage? Maybe it's too much to ask for from the marginalized. I'd say the more oppressed and isolated a community feels, the more it'd want to define itself as different from the mainstream. It's only natural. In this context then, the olive branch must stem out from the West, not the Muslims. Yet this seldom happens. Look at the US in the Middle East, for example. It is clear as day that sometimes, in daily life, all one needs is a little empathy.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, are we assuming that moral rights can be arbitrarily applied across liberal and less liberal countries?

"It simply requires that existing professional instincts be applied to the new realities of globalisation."

Lovely argument.