Kevin Boyle

Freedom … An Article of Faith

VTR Date: February 20, 1988

Guest: Boyle, Kevin


VTR: 2/20/88

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I suppose that as an American historian I should really have known better. But I’d always thought of England as the cradle of liberty. You know, John Milton and all that. After all, hadn’t the “Areopagitica” asked “Who ever knows truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” And doesn’t one reading at least of John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” make that Briton its apostle?

Which is why I was so shocked late in 1987 by a New York Times story about the presumed erosion of press freedom in England during Prime Minister Thatcher’s regime, a story that noted a remarkable feature of recent British government efforts to suppress press freedom to be, quote, “The lack of public outcry or political opposition.”

Wrote the Guardian of England: “It tells us something particularly grim about Britain today that (such violations) can drop so silently into a still pool of civic indifference.” And a prominent character, a man who campaigned very specifically for written safeguards of Britons’ liberties said: “I think the British public don’t take very seriously the current litigation between the government and the newspapers on freedom of the press. They certainly don’t grant the press the sort of position in the organization of the State that the United States does. If they were going to have an unbridled parliament or an unbridled press, they’d prefer to have an unbridled parliament, thank you very much.” … A total about-face from what our Thomas Jefferson wrote!

In fact, when it comes to freedom of speech, it’s we here in America who seem to be spitting against the wind, flying in the face of world opinion. But since Article 19 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; (and) this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers.” … And since — thanks to the initiative of the late Roderick MacArthur and the core support of the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation — ¬there is now an international organization known as Article 19, designed to bird-dog this right, well, I’ve invited to THE OPEN MIND, its founding director, Kevin Boyle, to discuss the freedom of opinion and expression around the world today … and how it fares.

Thank you for joining me today, and I guess the question is: how does it fare around the world?

BOYLE: Well, it certainly needs an organization like Article 19. There is no such body and it may be a reflection off the fact that these freedoms that you have just mentioned, including Article 19 of the Universal Declaration, and we’re celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, these freedoms are not, in many parts of the world, taken very seriously. And our agenda, our project, as a new international human rights body, is to emphasize that freedom of expression is not … may well be protected in the United States — though I may make some observations about that — but it’s not just a characteristic or a privilege of citizens of this country. It’s a human right which is recognized in that declaration and needs protection in the world.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you say ‘a human right’ and ‘recognized in the declaration 40 years ago’ — how hypocritical is it of us to press this thought when we look around the world, and not Rousseau-like, and say, man was born and chained in freedom and is everywhere in chains. We were never in freedom and we aren’t now.

BOYLE: Well, two points. The fact that we have great aspirations — we have these wonderful international ringing declarations which are violated on a wide-scale basis, and indeed we could say censorship is the basic mode of rule in many countries of the world. The fact that you have this contrast says something about us … says something about human beings. Governments, of course, will justify censorship, will justify denial of freedom of expression as it suits their interests. What we … even in the year we’ve been in existence find very heartening as an organization, that in every part of the world there are people who identify with these rights, whatever the political system they are in, whether they are in South Africa, whether, for example, in China … the recurrent democratic movements are not an enormous part of the world’s population … have always articulated the right to speak their minds, the right to be free from control of the information that’s available to them. In other words, to have choice in information, not to have it sanitized by the government. And everywhere people are persecuted because of their opinions and that their opinions do not fit with what is regarded as the orthodox opinion. It’s a struggle. I mean, you’ve been quoting various people — I’ve always been impressed with Kant’s remark — Immanuel Kant’s remark — that human progress is not inevitable, but it’s possible. And I think organizations like ourselves believe that … just as Amnesty International has made a contribution to sensitizing world opinion to the violation of peoples’ rights through political imprisonment, we can do the same for the image of the word — the right of all people to have access to information and ideas without censorship. We can achieve that, but it will take a little time.

HEFFNER: Your quotation is to the point — of course it’s possible, but my question would be … and not a cynical question: is it really possible, given the history of mankind, and I wonder whether around the world will you find these flashes and flares of hope, whether you are not talking about the outs who wish to be ‘in’, who are persecuted because they are outs because of their opinions?

BOYLE: Yes. Yes, I think that’s a fair argument. But if you look at what’s happening in the Soviet Union, it is very interesting is it not, I mean, it was a very propitious time for Article 19 to come into existence in late 1986 as an inter¬national human rights body because perestroika and glasnost … I mean, whatever one … we don’t really know how that’s going to work out … but what Mr. Gorbachev was saying to his own people, I think, is that you cannot have an efficient economy … you cannot have an effective economic system, you can’t run that with closed minds — information must flow up and must flow down. And there has been very interesting progress in that connection. Let me give one illustration which emphasizes the point of ‘without regard to frontiers’ in the Declaration, in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration — the right of everyone to access of ideas — the most subversive one of all — ‘without regard to frontiers’. Now we have a situation in the Soviet Union where all the radio jamming effectively is stopped, except for Radio Free Europe, which is still regarded as too hostile. But you may sit in Red Square and you may tune into the BBC World Service in Russian and receive that information, or listen to it, as many, many” many people do. Whereas before you could not. So that there are possibilities of progress and as I say, we are encouraged by the evidence. And if you take the utilitarian point of view that it’s good for your economy to have freedom of information, that’s one aspect of it. Obviously, I suspect, you and I would agree that freedom of the mind … freedom of expression should not … doesn’t need that justification, it’s a human attribute — your right to speak out, your right to have access to ideas. But nevertheless, the fact that that justifica¬tion is put forward in the Soviet Union, and to some extent in China and Vietnam, is encouraging, is encouraging. We believe that we can generate, over time, a movement of people in different parts of the world, which will operate to try to bring the governments to account, to book on these rights. Now the basic principle is this: it’s not so much you are asking a privilege from your government, but your newspapers should not be controlled or censored, or that your music, as in many countries, is not controlled. Rather you are saying, this is a right that inheres in me as an individual. It is a right” very often, which you pay lip service to at the international level. Now it’s a right that we want you to, as a government, to deliver on the ground. That has proved very effective — mobilizing public opinion on imprisonment … political or arbitrary imprisonment has proved very important. I seem to be justifying myself, but you take even the ecology movement — 20 or 30 years ago, concern with the environment would not have been as widespread as it is now. And I think non-governmental organizations have done a lot in that area.

HEFFNER: Yes, but it is so interesting — you talk about the ecological movement — there you are talking about something that you can tie quite readily to pragmatism, to pragmatic utilitarian concerns. When you tie the question of freedom to utility” then you may end up where I gather, and you know this so much better than I do, where Mrs. Thatcher has taken you — for perfectly pragmatic, seemingly quite appropriate national security reasons — the lid is put on again and again and again in the name of security upon free expression.

BOYLE: Yes, I agree with that and I would say, in terms of the United States, that while, I am sure, many of your viewers will not be all that fond of lawyers, law does have a role and the existence of your First Amendment, the existence of a constitu¬tional affirmation of these values and rights, which also exist at the level of the International Declaration … the Universal Declaration … is very important. The position in Britain, basically, is this, that — there is no written constitution. There is only one constitution which consists of one principle that Parliament is sovereign. And freedom of expression, and indeed other freedoms — like freedom of association — exist only insofar as the Parliament forbears, and the government forbears, from acting to diminish it. What we’ve seen with Mrs. Thatcher is precisely for causes that she would claim to be important, such as national security” efforts or actions which have seriously damaged the credibility, for example, of the BBC, the British Broadcasting corporation, which is regarded … I mean, the showpiece of British media … which has been affected very deeply by pressure, complaints, by criticism, and indeed in some cases by actual police raids on the BBC to seize programs” to seize tapes. We’ve seen the Spycatcher Affair, where … and your viewers may find this, and I hope they do, quite remarkable … that whereas the rest of the globe can read Peter Wright’s memoirs, which isn’t really a ‘great read’ as literature, but nevertheless contains very … he was a former MIS officer or agent, secret service agent in Britain … and discloses quite a number of serious allegations of wrongdoing and skullduggery that went on during his period — burglaries, for example, in Britain, plots to assassinate former President Nasser. Although these revelations can be enjoyed, if that’s the right expression, here and everywhere else — not in Britain. So that the newspapers, since 1986, have been banned and are still struggling for the right to report on these serious allegations of wrongdoing. And I say that part of the problem there is that there isn’t sufficient legal protection. I take the point in your introduction that the British people may be said not to care very much, but if you have a principle that freedom comes first, and the newspapers and media generally can invoke that principle, then you have a stronger case to resist a government which has very, I think, anyway, dangerous tendencies.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting that, in a very real sense, that those dangerous tendencies in England that you touch upon, come from, seemingly, the fact that England is more of a democracy than this country is — that majority rule prevails without the mitigating circumstance of minority rights, of freedom of expression, the written document that you referred to.

BOYLE: Well, that’s quite an interesting view, Dick, and I’m sure you are being provocative of democracy — it’s measured only by what the majority can get away with. I, in fact, though as I say” I don’t think that the United States has as clean a bill of health as it sometimes pretends. I prefer the notion that individual rights are protected … minority rights are protected and can be challenged against the majority. A point, I think, that is not often recognized in this country, which has great admiration of Britain, for obvious reasons, I mean, your basic values in many respects come from Britain. I think that the American constitution was an effort to set down what we regarded as the British rights, which the British weren’t upholding.

HEFFNER: But that, of course … when I began I was saying that that was my mistake in making that assumption — there was the cradle of liberty, that was the source of our rights.

BOYLE: Yes. But I think, you see, that you went the Republican route and your principle is that power derives from the people. You must not forget that Britain is a monarchy, ultimately. The British … well, they’re citizens, yes, but they are also subjects, and you can argue that what happens in Britain is that there is a regular election which, as it were, legitimizes or endorses the constitutional monarchical rule through the government, and that exhausts British democracy. One of the features that Article 19 is interested in in this country and in Sweden and Norway is the expansion of freedom of expression. Not only … that’s to say, you’re in my right to sit here and with absolutely no censorship, say what we wish. But the right that you and I have to get to know what the government … what information it holds about us in their personal files, and also public information … information about its own policy and own policy decisions. In other words, freedom of information. And that’s so far away in Britain that it is worrying.

HEFFNER: You see, it seemed to me … I wasn’t really baiting you before … if you think in terms of pure democracy, if you think in terms of no other consideration except a pure majoritarianism, it seems to me that that is what we have wisely avoided. We have maintained, as you suggest, thanks to our written constitution, thanks to that First Amendment, something that cannot be swept aside by popular opinion at anyone moment.

BOYLE: But one of the major things that I think is worth saying to your viewers is that this lesson which the United States learned early is a lesson that in principle the rest of the world has learned since the Holocaust and since the Second World War, that it is no longer acceptable to simply say that a State can do what it likes with its own people, that it’s no concern of ours, that’s entirely their internal policy. And it was the ravages of fascism and Stalinism in the 30’s that lead to the human rights movement after the war, led to the notion of the centrality of the individual and the need for international protection of – individuals and minorities, often against their own governments. And that’s the source of Article 19, I mean that’s the dynamic behind our activities and Amnesty International and Americas Watch in this country and other human rights groups. They cannot be answered by a government saying, “That’s not your business, what we do with our own individual citizens is our affair.” They can invoke these international standards and call governments to account for these standards. Which, like the United States Constitution, puts the premise that there is a limit to what the majority may do.

HEFFNER: And Mrs. Thatcher be called to account?
BOYLE: Ultimately, yes. Within the European system, we have a quite remarkable, I think … many Americans … I think it’s quite remarkable … we have a system whereby I, as an Irish person in my State, or a British person can bring a complaint against the British government and its human rights practices to an international court of human rights based in Strasburg, the European Court of Human Rights. And I have no doubt at all that this particular Spycatcher saga, and possibly some other cases involving assaults on the media in Britain, will ultimately be brought to Strasburg, as has happened in the past, so that you have now other possibilities of international … actual international litigation on human rights” which I think is a very exciting and a very interesting development of protection.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication at all that Mrs. Thatcher’s hand has ever been stayed because of the presence of this possibility?

BOYLE: No, not, I suppose, very much in this particular regard, though … when we were talking about, and you even quoted about British public opinion being indifferent and you cited Lord Scarman, well that is true and it is true for the bulk of it, but British public opinion also contains its minorities and there is a genuine interest … a genuine concern in Britain that the traditional liberties” the traditional way things had been played in the past … that’s to say, hands off government … I mean, unwritten rules that the media w,re not interfered with, that the media were free to publish, that they would not be subject to governmental informal and formal pressure. There is concern that that whole system is falling away and therefore that we ought now to move to a written constitution. And if that comes about — a Bill of Rights — then it will reflect these international human rights standards, which are also reflected in the American Constitution.

HEFFNER: You know, when THE OPEN MIND began, oh, 100 years ago — 1956 actually — each year … the first program of each year was a survey of civil rights — what progress had been made, or what progress had not been made — Father LaFarge and Roy Wilkins and Irving Engel would meet and we would sit around this table and have a report. I haven’t had the opportunity to read more than the reports of your group on the United States and England. But if you look around the rest of the world, how sanguine are you?

BOYLE: Well, there is massive violation, there is a large agenda. I mean, the report you mentioned will be published in this country in September by Time Books and it is an attempt, for the very first time, to grapple with the global position of freedom of expression, to try to look at the state of health of these rights in 50 countries, representative of all regions
and ideologies. There is no doubt that violation, indifference, government’s rejection of international standards, government’s clear efforts to say, ‘The only information that is available or the only opinions that may be expressed are those that conform to what is the official view in the State as to political progress or whatever.’ But there are also signs, as I indicated earlier on, that not everyone is happy with this. I don’t really think I would be involved in this endeavor if I didn’t believe that there were not sufficient individuals who can be energized across the world and linked … journalists, lawyers, librarians, many different sorts of people who do believe, genuinely” in these freedoms and who are prepared … and who will struggle against their violation and censorship, as we see in many parts of the world.
HEFFNER: I have a question that I’d like to put to you … it isn’t fair to you, it isn’t fair to Mrs. Thatcher, I understand, but you and I are here now … what rationalization, what thought-process do you believe that Mrs. Thatcher experiences as she is confronted with steps that she is taking that are so antithetical to her presumably best friend’s tradition — to the American tradition, in terms of Spycatcher, in terms of the raid on the BBC?

BOYLE: Well, I think it goes back to basic principles. I mean, it’s like a catechism or basic doctrine. For all of the … to some extent, similar abuses in this country on grounds of national security. At least you can say here, that freedom comes first, freedom of expression, and the government must justify any limitations that it is going to impose or any implication of national security to restrict access to official information. I’m afraid that Mrs. Thatcher’s thought-process is — national security comes first, and freedom of expression is what’s left over. And that arises out of … as a national organization, of course, we don’t want to get involved in the politics of a particular country, but I would argue that that has developed out of the failure to clarify, lack of constitutional protection, lack of basic principle, where the British model has been ad hoc and it depends, therefore, on the particular government you get in power. And Mrs. Thatcher’s government is rather authoritarian in approach. And therefore she is able to tone the exception … such as national security — she makes that the rule and freedom of expression is what survives.

HEFFNER: Of course, I guess that’s what it is that I was driving at, because as an outsider, as I read your account and the presses account of what has been taking place in England, I find it very difficult to see even a glimmer of national security concerns. The words are there, of course.

BOYLE: It’s very difficult to make the case that national security is at issue in the Spycatcher Case, when the book is actually available in Britain — it may not be loaned by public libraries — and it’s read allover the world … I mean, Mr. Wright and his assistant certainly have made, I presume, quite a lot of money. So it is difficult to argue national security considerations, but across the world, in many countries, and Britain is actually not the worst, governments invoke these censorship grounds and they say national security, public order, public health even, to impose widespread, systematic censorship, and it is our job to challenge that as an international organization.

HEFFNER: Of course, Mr. Boyle, you say Britain is not the worse, and I realize that. It’s just my feeling that it can’t be true of England — it just cannot be, and yet here it is true. Is there any feeling on your part, on the part of the segments of your organization, coming from England, coming from France, from other countries, who feel that way about this country? Where do we stand?

BOYLE: Well, we do not get into a league table and I’ve already made enough bouquets to the United States and its First Amendment, but the point in the United States is” I suppose, it’s always a continuing struggle. I mean, your history has not been an uncheckered one, if one thinks of the whole McCarthy period -¬McCarthyism — if one thinks of the celebrated obscenity trials — the books that I’ve seen on Fifth Avenue which were banned, and so on … and in particular, I think, currently, not only the issues of censorship in public libraries and local schools, but what would produce most of the concern in our report is the extension of national security by the executive arm of your government to justify restricting access to what was before unclassified information, even efforts to deny private institutions, or to prevent private information companies from making available information, public information in their databases, to foreign scholars because sensitive information may leak out, etc. I feel that the situation in the United States may not be even all that different, but you do have a framework which you can battle for these freedoms. In Britain there is none.

HEFFNER: Mr. Boyle, I do appreciate your coming and talking about Article 19 and throwing that kind of light upon what is happening here and elsewhere. Thanks for joining me.

BOYLE: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you will join us again next week. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s theme, please write THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. And for transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, good night and good luck.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey, the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney, The Richard Lounsbery Foundation, Mr. Lawrence A. Wien, and the New York Times Company Foundation.