Friday, February 10, 2006

Wink. Nod. Blind horse.

Franco Frattini, the EU Commissioner for Justice, Freedom, and Security — why didn't they toss in Dental Hygiene, Green Tourism, and Self-Esteem for good measure? — either did, or didn't, call for European news media to exercise voluntary censorship when reporting about religions, one religion in particular. Or, in a typical political shimmy, he both did and didn't. (Tip of the hat to The Belmont Club.)

The Telegraph reported that Commissioner Frattini planned "to bring together European newspapers and media groups, and draw up a voluntary code of conduct, committing editors to 'prudence' when reporting Islam and other religions." Frattini, perhaps feeling himself to be caught in the headlights, then issued a disclaimer, also quoted in The Telegraph:
"Since September 2005 I am in close contact with various representatives of the media, including the European federation of journalists, on issues linked to freedom of speech. I have offered to facilitate a dialogue between the media representatives and between them and faith leaders if that would be found useful by both parties. ...

"Such a dialogue would aim at discussing a number of pertinent questions which we are confronted with nowadays. One of them being 'How are we to reconcile freedom of expression and respect for each individual's deepest convictions?', a relevant question as formulated by many actors, including the International Federation of Journalists.

"It is a dialogue on such a question which I would be wiling to facilitate but I will not impose such a role on any party if such a need would not be felt. Finally, I have never suggested imposing a code of conduct on the press, it is up to the media themselves to self-regulate or not, and it is up to the media to formulate such a voluntary code of conduct if it is found necessary, appropriate and useful by them."

Taken at face value, that seems mild enough, provided you agree that there is a need for such a "dialogue" in the first place. Journalism has operated for centuries without the perceived need for any reconciliation between its freedom and any individual's "deepest convictions" — and no profession is more given to looking over its own shoulder than journalism, which endlessly sponsors seminars in which media pooh-bahs ruminate over Their Role. So you might suspect that this initiative is yet another off-the-books concession to Muslim tantrums over the Mohammed cartoons.

Why should the media have to reconcile themselves with anyone's convictions, whether they're shallow or plunge deep into the earth's core? This is just the old politically correct prohibition on "offending" anyone's sensibilities. The give-and-take of political and social debate, which is the fuel of democratic civil society, must from time to time deal with questions that involve people's deepest convictions, and about which they are highly emotional. If the media have to declare all such issues out of bounds, what is left? Publishing and broadcasting that are completely free to probe trivia.

That, in fact, is where many of our legacy news sources appear to be already. A journalist from 50 years ago, if suddenly transported to our time, would be shocked at the amount of coverage mainstream media now devote to celebrities, Grammy Awards, trends, gossip and other soft "news." The beauty of that sort of mush, from a craven publisher's standpoint, is that you can generate and cover lots of meaningless "controversy" that won't have any true believers wanting to be off with your head.

Anyway, although Frattini has found a soothing verbal formula to describe his supposedly non-coercive intervention into media practices, I distrust language such as, "it is up to the media themselves to self-regulate or not, and it is up to the media to formulate such a voluntary code of conduct if it is found necessary, appropriate and useful by them." If self-regulation and a code of conduct are actually up to the media and voluntary, what business is it of his to bang on about them?

Recently I asked a friend in London what the English mean by the saying, "A wink is as good as a nod to a blind horse." He replied:
Colloquial Britspeak goes out of date even faster than expensive computers, but I think this means that if you give the slightest indication that you approve of something it is assumed you are entirely in favour. Stalin was good at this — he would write something like "solve this problem" on Rick Darbievich's file and when poor old Rick got shot the next day Stalin wouldn't object. See Orlando Figes' splendid and important book A People's Tragedy for specific examples (and much more).
I can't help thinking that Frattini has just written to the European media, "Solve this problem." And if freedom to debate and question anyone's "deepest convictions" goes before the firing squad, he wouldn't object.


John Rudkin said...

The more usual "A nod is as good as a wink to a blind man" means that it is a waste of time to try to tell something to someone who is unwilling or unable to receive the message, just as a visual signal such as a nod or a wink is wasted on a man unable to see it. In the abbreviated form "a nod is as good as a wink" the meanng is different; it means that more explicit information is not going to be given or expected, and that a secret may be implied.

Rick Darby said...

Thanks, John. I think a blind horse would have better sense than a blind man, though. A blind horse would instinctively pull back from the edge of a cliff.