Sunday, 26 December 2010

Need to know basis

I've had this post going round in my head for the last couple of weeks, and some of it is probably not as contemporary or topical as it was but I still think that the prime message is relevant. It might even be a little controversial.

On the day before Christmas Eve, I was accosted by one of the many high street prowlers. This one was a 5 foot nothing student with haunting eyes who tried to use Christmas to guilt me into a monthly donation to Amnesty International. I am not uncharitable, but this was never a marketing strategy that was going to appeal to me. In life I would like to buy everything in the shops for my family, and I would like to donate to every charity that I agree with, but reality means that I have to prioritise and sometimes I can't buy the circular saw with the optional sawdust hoover attachment (which I would never use anyway). I also have to limit the amount I can donate to charity as well. And as well meaning as Amnesty is (and I was impressed by the lengthy list of celebrity supporters she was able to reel off) I have chosen other charities as my preferred recipients.

One question she asked me, however, did resurface my thoughts that I was keen to write about. She asked if I believed in freedom of speech.

There is a question. How can we live in a free society and not believe in the principles of free speech? Surely, that is the freedom that belies all other freedoms in this world? Surely without it we would live in a totalitarian dictatorship.

But hold on a minute. Do I need to know everything? Is it beneficial for everything to be out in the open? Is there ever a reason to "not tell the truth"?

There have been a number of fairly high profile leaks in recent months. Wikileaks is the prime example. But I can't think of one thing that was reported on Wikileaks that has made my life better for knowing, or for the world knowing. If anything, it has highlighted what we have always known. that people say different things in private than what they do in public. Gordon Brown made the mistake of not turning his microphone off in a car and calling one of his supporters a bigot during the election campaign. but was his crime calling her a bigot, or saying it behind her back with no intention of her ever finding out? And which other politician can say that they have never said something similar? It's just that most of them have not been caught. So it didn't come as a surprise to many of us that politicians made these types of remarks. just that they were naive enough to be collared doing it.

It wasn't a surprise to see the Panorama programme and the Times expose on the corruption within FIFA, particularly with regards to  the voting for the award of the World Cup in 2018. Was it important to be shown? Possibly. I'm not sure what good it will do. The exposes coming before the vote, scuppered any hope England had of winning the bid. This in turn scuppered billions of pounds worth of investment into infrastructure across the country (not just London like The Olympics). Nothing will change within FIFA though. Why would they want to change a system that works for the members of the boys club? If the expose had been delivered after the vote and England had lost it would have seemed like sour grapes and still nothing would change. At the end of the day, the decision to run the stories were not in "the national interest" but to interest the nation.

Wikileaks hasn't done any good other than feed the human need for scandal and gossip. If anything, they have compromised some of the intelligence that could be used to the benefit of many in the future. Recently a BBC 2 programme told the story of how a dead tramps body was used to send bogus information to the Germans during World War 2 saving many lives. Oh how it would have benefited the world for Julian Assange to have revealed this plot in advance. In fact there are many examples of how covert operations have been "in the national interest".

And it's not just in the world of big business, global politics, world security etc that diplomacy and tact has its place. Reality TV has a lot to answer for. "If I've got something to say, at least I will say it to there face" was a common cry in the Big Brother house, as if saying something nasty or bitch was OK as long as you said it to the person you were being nasty about. Actually, it's the being nasty that is the social problem here, not how you are nasty. there was an old saying that went something like "If you have nothing nice to say, then say nothing". To me, there's a lot to say for that.

Over Christmas, Twitter and Facebook's most oft repeated updates, were of the joke about Wikileaks and Santa Claus. A humorous take on the seemingly incessant need to be honest. Surely, a little white lie, here and there can actually benefit mankind. On Christmas Night, me and my family settled down to watch The Polar Express. My eldest is on the cusp of being a disbeliever. A message courtesy of Portable North Pole and the use of Norad's Santa Tracker restored the faith this time round. And the look of delight on her face was priceless.

So when i am asked if I believe in free speech, I give it a qualified approval. Free speech is all well and good when it is used for the right reasons and in the right way. But I still value the freedom to use tact, diplomacy and the little white lie. It is the responsibility of everyone to decide how best to use the freedoms we have.

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