Conditions For Ensuring Freedom Of Expression

It must be realised at the outset that all attempts at freedom of expression on offer to society entail some form of persuasion. The suppliers are concerned to persuade us to 'buy', as it were, some idea. Sometimes the acceptance of the idea brings with it the expectation that the persuaded will buy some product for which they are willing to pay. Sometimes, all that is hoped by the persuaders is that their ideas alone are accepted, but that they entail a change in the preferences of the persuaded which will increase the utility of the persuaders. Of course, the distinction is a fine one. Thus acceptance of a religious or political opinion which is novel to the persuaded may entail offering material support in the form of gifts of money to a religious order or political group and, in the latter case, to accepting the tax regime which they introduce if they become the government in power.

However, if freedom of expression is to have a positive value to a community in which it is assumed that persons have the right to accept or to reject the goods and services on offer, its members must have the opportunity for testing the product. The usual way in which we do this is to 'sample' the product until we are sure that the persuaders have fulfilled their promises. But the process goes further than that. A vital part of the testing process consists in being able to compare alternative products which satisfy the same 'need' In short, the positive value of freedom of expression to the 'buyer' entails free competition in the presentation of ideas.

The importance of competition soon becomes obvious. It not only facilitates the testing process in appraising 'contingent' persuasion, i.e. where being persuaded means parting with money. It applies equally in the realm of 'ideological' persuasion, i.e. it entails competition between political parties, intellectual movements, and religions. But competition has another vital function to play in a world in which freedom of expression is to be valuable to the community. It is likely to encourage the 'sellers' of ideas to provide full information on their content, for, if they fail to do so, they will be at a disadvantage compared with rivals who will be only too willing to indicate where the gaps in information are to be found. In short, competition reduces the cost to the buyer of ideas of obtaining the requisite information upon which an intelligent choice can be based.

Two examples may be helpful here. First of all, take a common form of 'contingent' persuasion - the advertising of some domestic product. It is in our interests for the car salesman to extol the virtues of a new Toyota and he must be given the same freedom to express his views as the car salesman making a pitch for a Nissan. If we already have experience in driving cars, we have some check on these views, but what we cannot expect is that he will extol the virtues of the rival product and we would be right to be suspicious if he attempts to 'knock' his rival's product. Fortunately, his rivals are only too willing to point out the differences between their products and that being 'pushed' by the Toyota salesman. However, if there were no competition for cars, there would be no incentive for the sales representative of the monopoly firm to reveal much about the product and the costs of obtaining information by the customer would be made much more difficult.

Exactly the same reasoning can be applied to the 'sale' of political or religious views. Competition with freedom of entry into the 'ideas' market must encourage the 'sellers' to be much more specific about the content of their 'product' and how it is to be differentiated. With 'freedom of expression' under conditions where different views can be expressed there is at least some prospect that 'the wool will not be pulled over our eyes'.

Let me now try to deal with two objections. The first concerns the nature of the experience of new ideas and concepts, whether contingent or not. The examples I have given emphasize rational calculation on the part of the 'buyer' of ideas and the right of those who seek information to be able to trace the connection between that information and their needs. However, often our experience of new ideas, as when we visit the theatre, the concert hall or museum, leaves us questioning our own ideas about life and work. We become confused, though perhaps elated. Sometimes we may be outraged and angry. We may not be sure whether our welfare has been increased. Does this not entail that 'freedom of expression' as found in the arts must have some separate justification other than its contribution to what we perceive as being our welfare?

There are two answers to this objection. The first is that anyone who does not wish to risk the discomfiture of being shocked and startled by artistic endeavours is not forced to submit themselves to the 'ordeal'. The second is that it is usually possible to obtain full information on the nature of the 'happening' which could change one's preference structure. In other words, the presuppositions for a rational calculation are there if we want to take advantage of them.

The second objection relates to circumstances where the nature of the choices we have to make cannot offer the opportunity to repeatedly sample the product as a test of the veracity of those who produce it. I may consider it desirable that everyone who is able to offer me a hip operation should have the right to inform me about the relative merits of their surgical skills. However, in the absence of technical knowledge, who am I to believe? And if I make a wrong decision, I cannot learn from my mistakes, for the mistake cannot be rectified if the operation cannot be repeated in the event of failure. Freedom of expression, in the form of freedom to give information about the nature of the service, may encourage suppliers to take advantage of the ignorance of buyers when there is no learning curve for them to move down.

Ignorance may make us vulnerable to freedom of expression which embodies a false prospectus, as with unscrupulous doctors, lawyers and, say, fortune tellers and clairvoyants, but this is not to say that a gap in our knowledge cannot be filled or if it cannot be filled very easily that we are totally at the mercy of the clever propagandist. If a sufficient number of people suffer from ignorance with potentially awful consequences, then the media will have a strong incentive to investigate such situations. Professions faced with public exposure of their activities will see that it is in their interests to enforce acceptable standards, quite apart from any satisfaction which individual members will derive from behaving honestly and efficiently towards their clients. Gaps in the information system may also be filled by consumer organizations to which the 'ignorant' can subscribe in return for guidance on the performance of those who supply them with 'one-off purchases. In short, one important function of freedom of expression by the press is to facilitate monitoring of the performance of those providing services which cannot be adequately tested by consumers themselves.