The responsibility of a free press

The responsibility of a free press

By Kjell Olaf Jensen, president, Norwegian P.E.N.
Speech given at a seminar in Minsk, Belarus, October 19. 2002

In many parts of the world, the Scandinavian countries are looked upon as models of democracy and human rights.

To a certain degree, this picture is correct: We are a happy corner of the world, maybe partly because no major powers seem to be very interested in what is going on in our small societies, maybe also because not very much is really going on. And on this year’s survey made by the UN, Norway figures as the one country in the world where living conditions are the best, followed by Canada, Sweden, Denmark and the USA.

Still, even our people did learn, some time ago, that political freedom, freedom of expression and other human rights were something one had to fight for. But this was 60 years ago, and it concerned my parents’ generation. Today, this seems to a certain degree to be forgotten knowledge. We are happy, so why care?

The obvious answer to this question, «Why care?», is formulated by the Finnish 19th-century poet Runeberg, in a beautiful poem entitled «Paavo, the Peasant». Paavo is a poor peasant with only a small field of rye somewhere in the Finnish forests. One year, the rye seems to yield a beautiful crop; but just before harvesting time, there comes a hail storm destroying most of the corn. And Paavo tells his wife: Grind 50% pine rind into the bread flour, so that we shall survive the coming winter. Every year, this scenario is repeated. Each year, the crop looks great, but then some calamity occurs – frost, hurricane, thunderstorm, destroying the rye; and every year, Paavo tells his wife to grind 50% pine rind into the bread flour, in order to survive the coming winter.

But finally, one year, everything goes well, and Paavo is able to make a magnificent rye harvest. Now at last, we can make real rye flour for our bread, says his wife. No, says Paavo, you just grind 50% pine rind into the flour, for behold: Our neighbour’s field lies there, frozen, and he needs bread to survive the coming winter.

The second answer to the question «Why care?» when you live in an idyllic society, is less altruistic and maybe more realistic. If we do not maintain a continuous fight for our right to freedom of expression, it will die; a freedom which is not used continually, will get lost. An emblematic illustration for this is the famous Lutheran priest Martin Niemöller from Nazi Germany and his laconic remarks: «First, they took the communists,» said Niemöller, «and I did not protest, since I am not a communist. Then, they abducted the Jews, but I did not say anything, for I am not a Jew. Afterwards, they arrested the catholics, but why should I bother, I am not a catholic? And when they came to get hold of me, there was, strangely enough, nobody left to protest.»

The Norwegian government established some years ago a commission under the leadership of the former President of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, history professor Francis Sejersted, whose task it should be to reformulate the constitutional article guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression, which is article 100 in Norway’s almost 200 years old Constitution. The commission should find out whether or not there was any reason to change the wording of Article 100. They arrived at a conclusion which was dangerously erroneous according to my view, namely to leave unchanged the old idea that the right to freedom of expression should be granted by the Parliament since it is essential for the maintenance of a free society. But if this is the case, the Parliament may also, any time, decide that the right to freedom of expression is no longer essential for a free society, and if so, the Constitution would make it the duty of the Parliament to abolish the right to freedom of expression, according to this logic. If the constitutional reason for having this right was not defined by what is useful for society, if it was defined by some sort of natural law like it is in the French Revolution’s Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, or even by some sort of divine law, it would not be possible for any given Parliament to abolish our right to freedom of expression.

The Norwegian Commission for the Freedom of Expression, as this commission was called, also stressed the importance of having a continuous debate going on in what the commission called «the vast public space», if we want to keep our right to freedom of expression and a real democracy in which the whole population has a right – and a duty – to participate. This space, or this permanent forum of debate, is defined, managed and governed mostly by what we, a little derogatively, call the mass media, which puts an extremely heavy responsibility on these media, both on the written press and on radio and television. (Maybe on the Internet users as well, but since Internet is neither edited nor published by anyone, the responsibility in this case falls on every individual user of the medium.)

So far, everything seems quite logical and without problems. And yet, when we take a closer look at the media in our free society, we immediately feel that something is very wrong.

I come more or less directly from the International Book Fair in Frankfurt, where there were, as always, interesting and essential debates all over the place for a week, also concerning the right to freedom of expression and how to conserve a free society. Little of all this was reflected in our Norwegian media, and mainly in the smaller newspapers, magazines and early morning and late night programs on the radio. One of our largest newspapers, priding itself of being a cultural paper caring for the right to freedom of expression on which it lives, had three journalists at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Excellent. But these journalists spent three days on following one Norwegian publisher around everywhere, reporting on all his doings. The reason for this peculiar interest for one single, small publisher was that he had just published a book written by the Norwegian King’s young daughter, the Princess of Norway, in which Her Royal Highness described her marriage ceremony earlier this year – an event which had already been most plentifully covered by the media at the time. This was seen as more important than all other events going on at the Book Fair.

Some years ago, Moris Farhi visited Oslo. Several of you will know Moris Farhi – he is a very interesting novelist and essayist, at that time he also was Chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. He is a Jew, born in Turkey, half Greek, with family roots in Egypt and Lebanon, living in London as a British citizen. Brief, an international figure of the highest interest for «the vast public space». We organized interviews by several interested journalists. But in some of the main Norwegian newspapers we met a problem. Yes, the editors saw the point and understood why they ought to be interested, but the problem was that Monica Lewinsky was visiting Oslo at the same time, promoting the book about her eventual relationship with then president Bill Clinton, so all the journalists were busy with a problem much more interesting and important than poor Moris Farhi. Television, both public and private: same thing.

This begins to resemble the society described by Aldous Huxley in his famous novel from 1934: Brave New World. In Huxley’s society, no repression is necessary, because everybody is conditioned to think that the existing society is wonderful, and that they all are extremely lucky to live in just this society and to have just this position in this society. All literary classics, with Shakespeare as the foremost example, are banished: «We are not interested in such things». Instead, citizens play stupid ball games and drug themselves. The American professor Neil Postman approached the same question several years ago, by calling his most well-known book We Are Amusing Ourselves to Death – in this book professor Postman states, among other things, that American university students today are not able to concentrate their attention for more than 20 minutes at a time, this being the average time between two publicity spots in most American television channels.

In Aldous Huxley’s society, there are no expressions worthy of the name. And what does the right to freedom of expression mean, in a society where there are no real expressions because all meaningful expressions are deemed to be «unnecessary» or not to be funny or «cool» enough?

This is where the activities of many of the larger media in the West may be bringing us today – this is, quite simply, what may happen when the media do not know their responsibility in a free society, namely to be a watchdog for the society, to scrutinize the society continually and put it under continuous debate, as the Danish literary critic Georg Brandes said more than 100 years ago. In the post-communist societies, you know from personal experience what George Orwell’s society from his novel 1984 would look like. Today, we have to guard our media against the danger of falling into Aldous Huxley’s trap, amusing ourselves to death.

Do you remember Homer’s episode about Scylla and Carybdis, from the Odyssee?