Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Free Speech in a Globalized World - Panel Discussion at Columbia University

Columbia's president Lee Bollinger presented his book Uninhibited, Robust and Wide Open: A Free Press for a New Century that advocates, as the title suggests, a "global public forum" that all countries and journalists should be engaged in. All countries are becoming dependent on all other countries in unforeseen ways--economically, politically, socially--and it's time to become a globally connected entity. Bollinger warns against censorship which could become inevitable with greater global integration and warns, "censorship anywhere is censorship everywhere." He is a lawyer who specializes in the First Amendment so he is all about free speech.

The 3 panelists were Salman Rushdie, David Ignatius (columnist and associate editor, Washington Post) and Michael Schudson (professor at Columbia's Journalism School), who presented their views and reactions to Bollinger's book as well as general thoughts on free speech, a free press, its impacts on journalism, global connectivity, etc.

Rushdie went first. He was awesome--full of stories and comedy! Of course he had several zingers which I'll try to quote below. He talked about the "religious rhetoric" and how, with free speech and the right to say anything (even offensive), there needs to be a re-description of the meaning of the word 'respect.' "We do not have a right," he said, "not to be offended. Offense becomes a limiting factor on thought," and then no one can speak. Opinions are, by default, varied and conflicting, but they must be allowed to coexist. "A frequent fact of free speech is that you find yourself defending people you don't like," Rushdie reminded the audience. The point of free speech is that people are still allowed to say what they like. He told a great story of going to the House of Commons in London with Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) to understand a bill that Blair was trying to turn into law that banned any anti-religious sentiments being expressed. All the MPs were falling over themselves to impress and please Atkinson, who they are very fond of, but Atkinson didn't take the bait. He makes a joke on his show where, showing footage of Muslims praying and prostrating in a mosque, he says in voice over, "and the search goes on for the Ayatollah's contact lenses!" Would this still be allowed, he asked? The MPs were foxed, flummoxed and stumped. Brilliant, Mr. Atkinson!

Rushdie also talked about a movie made in Pakistan after the fatwa was issued against him called International Gorillay that portrayed him as an evil man being pursued and eventually, killed. They had me in eggplant- and vermilion-coloured safari suits, he complained, "the fashion insult was really very profound." When they tried to show the movie in England, the latter's film corporations refused, for fear of being sued by Rushdie, by then a UK resident. Rushdie, ever the free speech advocate, wrote to the UK Film folks and urged them not to ban the movie on his account, promising not to take legal action if they allowed the film. So they allowed it and the movie was all set to be screened in a Muslim-heavy community somewhere in London. On the day it was released, no one showed up. "People know the difference between good and crap," Rushdie concluded. No one wants to spend 10 quid watching a bad movie. Now, if the movie had been banned originally, everyone would have wanted to get their hands on it. Allowing the movie to exist in peace prevented it from gaining any gossip-worthy notoriety. In this ironic example, Rushdie allowed a movie denouncing his very existence, upheld free speech and escaped film-generated infamy.

Re: funding, Rushdie pointed out that many prestigious (American) universities are recipients of public funding, yet they preserve academic freedom. Journalism can behave the same way, he insisted.

Rushdie spoke sadly of MFHusain who, at the age of 90, has moved to Qatar to get away from angry Hindus chastising his recent series of paintings of nude Hindu goddesses. Little has been said in the press of Husain's reactions and his status as an established, prominent, talented Indian artist is neither mentioned nor appreciated. The obvious question, Rushdie insisted, was to ask the offended Hindus about paintings of Hindu goddesses with clothes on since, according to Rushdie, "the wardrobe of Hindu goddesses could be contained in my pocket." Perhaps he is referring to sculptures and the apsaras draped all over Hindu temples since, as far as I know, all the goddesses are sari-clad in pictures I've seen. (But I personally would not be offended by a nude goddess.)

Rushdie had a great point he brought out through the Natya Shastra, an ancient Indian text on the performing arts. I had never heard of this before, so it was nice to learn something new. It explicitly says that art will not be blemished by restrictive opinions, that anything can take place on a stage in the name of art. Pretty cool! Rushdie proposed that various cultures have something recognizing freedom of expression in their traditional cannon and that they should be brought to the fore of Bollinger's 'global public forum.' Making the First Amendment into an "American export becomes a reason to object it," he argued and could be better received if it was translated into ideas that other cultures already contain (regardless of how effectively they espouse them).

David Ignatius went next. As a journalist and an editor, he focused on Bollinger's thoughts on placing journalists in war zones by "embedding" them with soldiers, arming them, etc. He has done his share of war coverage, both on the ground and remotely, and spoke against embedding journalists with army units for various reasons. He also wasn't in favour of too much public funding for the press since today's media is already perceived as embedded in government voices. (He wasn't as fun to listen to, so I didn't take as many notes!)

Michael Schudson introduced himself as the guy whose boss (Bollinger) was sitting next to him, so he better be careful flattering and criticizing Bollinger's book! He and another journalist put out a report about providing more government funding to journalists which received a flurry of reactions opposing such a move for reasons Ignatius covered. But, Schudson argued, does that mean that any kind of funding is bad? Will corporate funding mean corporate-biased news? Will philanthropic funding mean a different slant on reportage? NPR and PBS, America's public radio stations, are superbly run, entirely publicly funded, and completely sans government influence. The BBC is a stellar source of news and also unblemished by government voices, even though it, too is funded (it's annual budget is $6 billion).

Schudson praised American journalism for its uniquely curious journalists. Apparently Watergate created a ripple effect around the world and there were "____gates" covered in several countries after that! "Self interest, not moral arrogance, should be why we promote American journalism traditions abroad," he concluded.

All in all, a fascinating talk, great speakers (especially my story-telling hero, Rushdie) and what seems like a good book from Bollinger!

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