David Puttnam [TEDxHousesOfParliament] I’d like to start, if I may, with the story of the Paisley snail. On the evening of the 26th of August, 1928, May Donoghue took a train from Glasgow to the town of Paisley, seven miles east of the city, and there at the Wellmeadow Café, she had a Scots ice cream float, a mix of ice cream and ginger beer bought for her by a friend. The ginger beer came in a brown, opaque bottle labeled “D. Stevenson, Glen Lane, Paisley.” She drank some of the ice cream float, but as the remaining ginger beer was poured into her tumbler, a decomposed snail floated to the surface of her glass. Three days later, she was admitted to the Glasgow Royal Infirmary and diagnosed with severe gastroenteritis and shock.
The case of Donoghue vs. Stevenson that followed set a very important legal precedent: Stevenson, the manufacturer of the ginger beer, was held to have a clear duty of care towards May Donoghue, even though there was no contract between them, and, indeed, she hadn’t even bought the drink. One of the judges, Lord Atkin, described it like this: You must take care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbor. Indeed, one wonders that without a duty of care, how many people would have had to suffer from gastroenteritis before Stevenson eventually went out of business.
Now please hang on to that Paisley snail story, because it’s an important principle. Last year, the Hansard Society, a nonpartisan charity which seeks to strengthen parliamentary democracy and encourage greater public involvement in politics published, alongside their annual audit of political engagement, an additional section devoted entirely to politics and the media. Here are a couple of rather depressing observations from that survey. Tabloid newspapers do not appear to advance the political citizenship of their readers, relative even to those who read no newspapers whatsoever. Tabloid-only readers are twice as likely to agree with a negative view of politics than readers of no newspapers. They’re not just less politically engaged. They are consuming media that reinforces their negative evaluation of politics, thereby contributing to a fatalistic and cynical attitude to democracy and their own role within it. Little wonder that the report concluded that in this respect, the press, particularly the tabloids, appear not to be living up to the importance of their role in our democracy.
Now I doubt if anyone in this room would seriously challenge that view. But if Hansard are right, and they usually are, then we’ve got a very serious problem on our hands, and it’s one that I’d like to spend the next 10 minutes focusing upon.
Since the Paisley snail, and especially over the past decade or so, a great deal of thinking has been developed around the notion of a duty of care as it relates to a number of aspects of civil society. Generally a duty of care arises when one individual or a group of individuals undertakes an activity which has the potential to cause harm to another, either physically, mentally or economically. This is principally focused on obvious areas, such as our empathetic response to children and young people, to our service personnel, and to the elderly and infirm. It is seldom, if ever, extended to equally important arguments around the fragility of our present system of government, to the notion that honesty, accuracy and impartiality are fundamental to the process of building and embedding an informed, participatory democracy. And the more you think about it, the stranger that is.
A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of opening a brand new school in the northeast of England. It had been renamed by its pupils as Academy 360. As I walked through their impressive, glass-covered atrium, in front of me, emblazoned on the wall in letters of fire was Marcus Aurelius’s famous injunction: If it’s not true, don’t say it; if it’s not right, don’t do it. The head teacher saw me staring at it, and he said, “Oh, that’s our school motto.” On the train back to London, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I kept thinking, can it really have taken us over 2,000 years to come to terms with that simple notion as being our minimum expectation of each other? Isn’t it time that we develop this concept of a duty of care and extended it to include a care for our shared but increasingly endangered democratic values? After all, the absence of a duty of care within many professions can all too easily amount to accusations of negligence, and that being the case, can we be really comfortable with the thought that we’re in effect being negligent in respect of the health of our own societies and the values that necessarily underpin them? Could anyone honestly suggest, on the evidence, that the same media which Hansard so roundly condemned have taken sufficient care to avoid behaving in ways which they could reasonably have foreseen would be likely to undermine or even damage our inherently fragile democratic settlement.
Now there will be those who will argue that this could all too easily drift into a form of censorship, albeit self-censorship, but I don’t buy that argument. It has to be possible to balance freedom of expression with wider moral and social responsibilities.
Let me explain why by taking the example from my own career as a filmmaker. Throughout that career, I never accepted that a filmmaker should set about putting their own work outside or above what he or she believed to be a decent set of values for their own life, their own family, and the future of the society in which we all live. I’d go further. A responsible filmmaker should never devalue their work to a point at which it becomes less than true to the world they themselves wish to inhabit. As I see it, filmmakers, journalists, even bloggers are all required to face up to the social expectations that come with combining the intrinsic power of their medium with their well-honed professional skills. Obviously this is not a mandated duty, but for the gifted filmmaker and the responsible journalist or even blogger, it strikes me as being utterly inescapable.
We should always remember that our notion of individual freedom and its partner, creative freedom, is comparatively new in the history of Western ideas, and for that reason, it’s often undervalued and can be very quickly undermined. It’s a prize easily lost, and once lost, once surrendered, it can prove very, very hard to reclaim. And its first line of defense has to be our own standards, not those enforced on us by a censor or legislation, our own standards and our own integrity. Our integrity as we deal with those with whom we work and our own standards as we operate within society. And these standards of ours need to be all of a piece with a sustainable social agenda. They’re part of a collective responsibility, the responsibility of the artist or the journalist to deal with the world as it really is, and this, in turn, must go hand in hand with the responsibility of those governing society to also face up to that world, and not to be tempted to misappropriate the causes of its ills. Yet, as has become strikingly clear over the last couple of years, such responsibility has to a very great extent been abrogated by large sections of the media. And as a consequence, across the Western world, the over-simplistic policies of the parties of protest and their appeal to a largely disillusioned, older demographic, along with the apathy and obsession with the trivial that typifies at least some of the young, taken together, these and other similarly contemporary aberrations are threatening to squeeze the life out of active, informed debate and engagement, and I stress active.
The most ardent of libertarians might argue that Donoghue v. Stevenson should have been thrown out of court and that Stevenson would eventually have gone out of business if he’d continued to sell ginger beer with snails in it. But most of us, I think, accept some small role for the state to enforce a duty of care, and the key word here is reasonable. Judges must ask, did they take reasonable care and could they have reasonably foreseen the consequences of their actions? Far from signifying overbearing state power, it’s that small common sense test of reasonableness that I’d like us to apply to those in the media who, after all, set the tone and the content for much of our democratic discourse.
Democracy, in order to work, requires that reasonable men and women take the time to understand and debate difficult, sometimes complex issues, and they do so in an atmosphere which strives for the type of understanding that leads to, if not agreement, then at least a productive and workable compromise. Politics is about choices, and within those choices, politics is about priorities. It’s about reconciling conflicting preferences wherever and whenever possibly based on fact. But if the facts themselves are distorted, the resolutions are likely only to create further conflict, with all the stresses and strains on society that inevitably follow. The media have to decide: Do they see their role as being to inflame or to inform? Because in the end, it comes down to a combination of trust and leadership.
Fifty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy made two epoch-making speeches, the first on disarmament and the second on civil rights. The first led almost immediately to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the second led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, both of which represented giant leaps forward. Democracy, well-led and well-informed, can achieve very great things, but there’s a precondition. We have to trust that those making those decisions are acting in the best interest not of themselves but of the whole of the people. We need factually-based options, clearly laid out, not those of a few powerful and potentially manipulative corporations pursuing their own frequently narrow agendas, but accurate, unprejudiced information with which to make our own judgments. If we want to provide decent, fulfilling lives for our children and our children’s children, we need to exercise to the very greatest degree possible that duty of care for a vibrant, and hopefully a lasting, democracy.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Jaap Joris
Lord Puttnam is the chairman of Atticus Education, an online education company based in Ireland, that delivers interactive seminars on film and a variety of other subjects to educational institutions around the world.
He retired from film production in 1998 to focus on his work in public policy as it relates to education, the environment, and the ‘creative and communications’ industries. In 1998 he founded the National Teaching Awards, and from July 2002 to July 2009 he was president of UNICEF UK, playing a key role in promoting UNICEF’s key advocacy and awareness objectives.
In 2007 he served as Chairman of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Draft Climate Change Bill, having performed the same role on the 2002 Communications Bill. He has also been Chairman of two Hansard Society Commission Reports on the relationship between Parliament and the Public; he serves as Senior Non-Executive Director on two public companies.
David was awarded a CBE in 1982, a knighthood in 1995 and was appointed to the House of Lords in 1997. He has been the recipient of more than 40 honorary degrees from Universities in the UK and overseas.