It’s about respect, not rights

Freedom of expression, as enshrined in the Universal Charter of Human Rights, implies that it is unlawful to restrict free speech through legislation but it does not touch upon whether the freedom should be exercised equally in all cases.

At certain levels, there seems to be widespread misconception regarding the fundamental human right to freedom of expression.

At least two common misconceptions appear to strike out in different directions. One, recently seen in action in the controversies surrounding ‘Stitching’ and a short story by Alex Vella Gera, operates from the censorial angle. It has been argued that ‘freedom of expression’ is not absolute, and that it may be subject to limitations at the discretion of a central authority… on grounds of public morality, and so forth.

The second misconception comes in from the clean opposite angle. Many people interpret ‘freedom of expression’ as granting them the fundamental right to speak whatever nonsense springs to one’s mind, in the absence of any self-imposed limitations whatsoever. As the Italian comic legend Toto once put it: “Democracy means everyone is free to speak as much rubbish as he likes.”

Both definitions are widely off the mark. Freedom of expression, as enshrined in the Universal Charter of Human Rights, implies that it is unlawful to restrict free speech through legislation (immediately putting paid to the first misconception)… but it does not touch upon whether the freedom should be exercised equally in all cases.

That is where individual discretion and judgment come into the equation. And both qualities seem to be sadly lacking in public discourse today.

Glenn Bedingfield, a former One TV journalist and now consultant to the Prime Minister, gave a demonstration of both these fallacies, in a recent, lewd post on the social media site Facebook. Responding to the Archbishop’s perceived ‘interference in political affairs’ – when in actual fact, Mgr Charles Scicluna was merely exercising his freedom to criticise the Prime Minister’s televised New Year message  – Bedingfield retorted: “At least the Prime Minister did not enter some child’s bedroom.”

The barb is not just banal and misplaced: it is quite frankly unbecoming of a public official at any level. Yet in his defence, Bedingfield argued that he had a right to express himself in public, like everybody else.

In truth, no one is contesting the first part of this assertion. Bedingfield is certainly ‘free’ to insinuate paedophilia in the case of someone who was actually a prosecutor against child abuse cases within the Vatican. Freedom of expression would only come into this if the government were to pass legislation against him making such statements… in which case, yes, there would be a very serious violation of human rights (as there was in the abovementioned cases). 

This does not apply here: the question is not whether Bedingfield should be permitted to speak his mind; it is whether a person who utters such insulting, inflammatory and ultimately libellous remarks should be retained as consultant to the Prime Minister. He may be free to speak his mind, but not necessarily like anyone else.

With rights come obligations; and, in this and all similar cases, there will always be a price to pay for exercising the right to speak freely. We see similar, self-imposed restrictions in other areas. Employees often sign non-disclosure agreements, accepting to voluntarily limit their own freedom of expression insofar as company matters are concerned. There is no violation of the right involved: it is a mutually accepted practice.

Public officials like Glenn Bedingfield are not perhaps contractually bound to control their excesses, as other employees are. Ideally, they should not have to be, either. As a public servant, one would expect that public behaviour – and especially public comments about other public personalities – would reflect the gravitas and decorum of their role.

It remains a fact, however, that the standards of behaviour from public officials often reflect nothing more than the most base examples of verbal violence. Bedingfield is not the only other public personality who seems totally unaware of the responsibilities involved in free speech. Labour MP Joe Debono Grech recently gave vent to arguably worse verbal aggression in parliament… threatening physical violence upon a female MP, no less… and while he later apologised, the incident likewise underscores the lack of a basic culture of respect.

Simply put, it is no longer tolerable for people in sensitive positions to resort to such language. Aside from the fact that it automatically lowers public respect for the person in the role – to the extent that his continued occupancy will be questioned – it also demeans the institution of government in its entirety.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat may not share his consultant’s personal opinion; but he cannot totally distance himself from it, either. At a lower level, Glenn Bedingfield – and all in such positions – also form part of the government’s interface with the public. Tolerating such innuendo lowers the standards one expects from public officials… at a time when Muscat’s government has promised to raise them.

There is, however, more to be done than merely disciplining a random offender. The incidence of such outbursts is all too widespread: we must also try to understand why public standards are plummeting so fast.

It is not just respect for (in this case) the Archbishop that is at stake; across the full spectrum, Muscat’s administration must also work harder to regain the respect it seems to be losing.

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