“It’s alright. You are safe. They have freedom of speech here.” Those wonderful words broke into my silent irritation at the sight of the mess and the noise outside Parliament the evening before the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton. One of the two young men walking behind me was visibly scared when he saw the demonstration about Britain’s continued presence in Afghanistan. His friend’s words, however, made me want to turn cartwheels for joy.
In spite of the untidiness and frequent disconnect, in spite of sometimes being regaled with sights and sounds we would rather not see, we have a freedom which is unmatched in many other countries across the world. We are not expected to ‘toe the party line’ and fall in unanimously behind every thought word and deed of David Cameron or any other Prime Minister. The Opposition, or to give it its full title, the Loyal Opposition, does not expect to be silenced for objecting to whatever words of wisdom (real or apparent) which might come from across the other side of the Parliamentary chamber. We might have a superabundance of CCTV cameras positioned in every conceivable place, but their aim is not to spy on the legitimate activities of the law abiding general public.
It might seem unimportant, but a small, tangible sign of our democracy-in-action happened when, over the August Bank Holiday weekend, the poorly-regulated noise from a nearby fairground and an almost equally close music festival became unbearably loud. Personal complaints had no effect. Eventually, late at night and trapped indoors by the inescapable nuisance of window-rattling sound, I e-mailed my local MP. Within fifteen minutes of her office opening on the Tuesday morning, a response appeared in my Inbox. Since then, I have had two letters detailing the progress of the negotiations between the two adjacent local Councils. I am impressed! As with any human institution, nothing is perfect, but we do have a system which, by and large, works.
The Chief Justice of India P. Sathasivam, recently remarked that, “All the major legal systems of the world... recognise that the expression of facts and ideas and opinions can never be absolutely free. Words can do damage in many ways even if they are true, such as by prejudicing a trial or by inciting communal hatred... ‘free speech is what is left of speech after the law has had its say.’”
We have recently seen a very good example of that! A prospective demonstrator from the English Defence League argued his case for free speech and democracy – but the police still wisely moved the demonstration from the heavily Islamic and multicultural area of London’s Tower Hamlets to an area which could be more easily controlled. The man did not lose his right to protest, but neither did the residents of Tower Hamlets lose their right to safety.
The media play a huge part in, not only exercising our right to free speech, but also in channelling its exercise. How often do we know, for instance, more about the misbehaviour of celebrities than about their words and deeds which are to be highly commended? How often are so-called leaders of public opinion celebrities who have perhaps never been encouraged to think more deeply than their next photoshoot?
It is very noticeable that, at present, Pope Francis is extremely popular with the world’s media, which seems to hang on his every word regardless of the journalist’s agreement or disagreement with its content. So it is that many of the same stories, quotes and images are available time and again in both the religious and the secular press. It is not a problem: suddenly the world seems to be waking up to the fact that the Church has something to say which might be worth hearing and which might offer hope in a frequently troubled and violent scenario. Some have not noticed that the basic content of the Pope’s message happens to be the same as his predecessors over the course of the last 2,000 years. He just happens to say things differently, in catchy soundbites and with brilliantly personal, genuine and meaningfully spontaneous gestures. He has a gift which, surely, must be the envy of opinion leaders across the world. How many other Heads of State, for instance, could call for a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria and be assured that millions will hear and respond, regardless of their nationality, language, gender, colour and creed?
Certainly, Pope Francis has a delightful talent for saying the most profound things in words which anybody can understand. Perhaps that is one reason why the media are so eager to listen to what he will say next, knowing that it will probably be unexpected and will probably be in words which journalists and writers will wish they had thought of for their own use.
Take, for instance, the forthcoming visit to Assisi in order to celebrate the feast of St Francis on 4 October. The Bishop of Assisi, Domenico Sorrentino, said, “Just after he was elected Pope I sent him a letter on behalf of the diocese, reminding him that as Bishop of Assisi I live in the place where Francis undressed before his speechless father, Pietro di Bernardone, eight centuries ago, to free himself entirely for God and for his brothers... I remember him being really touched by this. So I took the liberty to say to Pope Francis: ‘So, Father, it would be great if among your many other commitments today, you came here at least to say the Our Father, as Francis did 800 years ago.’ The Pope’s answer really threw me. He said: ‘The Our Father? But I want to talk about how the Church should undress and somehow repeat that gesture Francis made and the values inherent in this gesture.’” What a call to simplicity – and yet unselfconsciously couched in words which really did hit the headlines!
Yet what happens when people have no chance of obtaining the rightful publicity that they need for justice and for peace? Pope Francis is trying to be ‘the voice of the voiceless’, but what about local advocates? Where is their voice heard? Where are they allowed to be heard? Why do some die before anybody pays attention? Take, for example, 4 year-old Daniel Pelka whose mother and stepfather recently beat and starved to death. It is only after, and as a result of, his death that things will change. Banner headlines across media outlets proclaimed the cruelty and injustice of his treatment – but in a country which is proud of its record for freedom of speech, why did we only become aware of Daniel after the event? How many others will never be heard?
It takes considerable effort, courage and time to sensitize the world to justice and peace. Even the incredible lead offered by Pope Francis will not change things overnight. Syria, in spite of a day of fasting and prayer, will be a problem today and tomorrow. Yet we could listen to the words of St Francis, who said, “Let us begin, for until now we have done nothing.” We could make a start. Our free speech is also a universal call to justice and peace.