Whatever happened to the concept of freedom of expression in Jersey?

There has been a disturbing development in Jersey over the past few years concerning the concept of freedom of expression, or to use a shorter term ‘free speech’.

Ted Vibert. Picture:DAVID FERGUSON. (30426982)
Ted Vibert. Picture:DAVID FERGUSON. (30426982)

This concept is a fundamental right of every human being to say what he likes whenever he likes without fear of retribution and is a right enshrined under the Human Rights Act, subject to the laws of libel, defamation or hate crime. The general concept is that a person can say anything they like in public provided it doesn’t cause danger to any person, race or creed.

This is a very precious right and it was one of the freedoms which our young men and women fought and died for during the Second World War as it was obvious that if Hitler ruled us that right would be non-existent.

My three uncles – my mother’s brothers, aged between 16 and 22 – left Jersey before the Germans arrived and all served their country. The youngest, Victor, was a paratrooper who had lied about his age and was only 17 when he was dropped from an aircraft over Arnhem during the Battle of the Bridges, was severely wounded and endured pain for the rest of his life; Nobby was a Petty Officer in the Royal Navy on minesweepers and submarine hunting in the North Sea and Fred served in the merchant navy on ships bringing vital supplies to Britain across the Atlantic.

I well remember a discussion I had with them when they came back from the war when I asked them: ‘Why did you all go and fight?’ They all said: ‘So that we and everyone else could be free to lead our lives the way we wanted to and to say what we liked without worrying about getting into trouble.’

I think this was one of the reasons I became a journalist, because of a fervent belief that people need to know what is going on around them and society needs to be given that information, no matter how unpalatable it is. My mentor at the time when I was a junior reporter on this newspaper was the news editor, Jim Scriven, and he drummed it into me to: ‘Check your facts, then double check them.’ His philosophy was ‘your judgment about a matter is only as good as your information’. And how right he was.

He also had firm views about encouraging people to express their opinions and was a great lover of the work of Voltaire, the French Enlightenment writer of the 1700s, a historian and philosopher, a passionate advocate of free speech and religious tolerance and Jim encouraged me to read much of his work.

I have based my way of life on a number of fundamental concepts of ‘Voltaire-isms’, which have stood the test of time and embody all that is good about freedom of speech and tolerance.

The first and most important is: ‘I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

The second is: ‘The greatest consolation in life is to say what one thinks.’

The third is: ‘It is hard to free fools from the chains they revere.’

The fourth is: ‘It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.’

The fifth is: ‘Common sense is not so common.’

The sixth is: ‘The true triumph of reason is that it enables us to get on with those who do not possess it.’

Only recently, an officer from the local Citizens Advice Bureau publicly admonished the editor of this newspaper for publishing a story about a group of Filipinos coming to Jersey to work in our potato harvest. That story, apparently, led to some nasty racist comments on Facebook and the Citizens Advice Bureau officer felt that the editor of the JEP should be more careful allowing articles to be published that led to these comments. I pointed out that it was not the function of an editor to censor news.

A few days ago I was having a discussion with a friend about Israel’s attitude towards the question of their occupation of Palestine and she said to me: ‘Ted, I didn’t know you were anti-Semitic.’ I pointed out this was the last thing anyone could say of me. And if Britain was occupying that territory I would have the same objection – it is the occupation I object to, not who is doing it.

And, of course, we now have the Prince Harry-Meghan-Oprah brouhaha with a leading TV personality resigning because he expressed an opinion that thousands objected to. In Jersey we have Deputy Lindsay Ash being metaphorically lashed for daring to criticise Oprah Winfrey’s appearance, with people claiming he was being offensive, racist and sexist and his comments were ill-judged and he should not be sitting in the States.

Those who make these criticisms clearly know nothing or care nothing about Deputy Ash’s fundamental right to express these views. Something someone says might be offensive to some people but that person is still entitled to say it. A lot of sacrifices have been made over the centuries to allow us that fundamental right and it is too precious to be demeaned in this way.

One final word from Voltaire: ‘What is tolerance? It is the embodiment of humanity. We are all steeped in weakness and error: let us forgive each other our stupidities, that is the first law of nature.’

For more comment and opinion pieces, see today's Jersey Evening Post.

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