“To this [civil] liberty, the greatest danger is always posed by those who are the most powerful in the country by dint of their positions, estate, or wealth. Not only can they easily abuse the power they hold, but also constantly increase their rights and strength, so that the other inhabitants must fear them more and more,” Peter Forsskål, §4 Thoughts on Civil Liberty.
Peter Forsskål’s words, written in 1759, seemed particularly pertinent during yesterday’s Select Committee hearing in Parliament. MPs asked determined and powerful questions [PDF link] to News International CEO and chairman James Murdoch about media power, management and secrecy.
Forsskål was a very early freedom of information campaigner, during Sweden’s “age of liberty” in the 18th Century. He paved the way for Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act in 1766. The botanist Carl Linnaeus, chose to name the stinging nettle after his former pupil, Forsskål: Forskålea tenacissima. “This may have reflected his personality – but freedom of information often stings too,” reflected a modern day FoI specialist, Martin Rosenbaum in 2009.
Two years ago, Forsskål’s pamphlet, Thoughts on Civil Liberty was published in English for the very first time, a project led by David Goldberg and involving Gunilla Jonsson, Helena Jäderblom, Gunnar Persson, Thomas von Vegesack and David Shaw. You can access it via http://peterforsskal.com/ and buy the book here.
Forsskål also said, in §.8 of the text:
Divine revelations, wise fundamental laws and the honour of private individuals cannot suffer any dangerous damage by such freedom of expression. Because truth always wins when it is allowed to be denied and defended equally.
The text again felt relevant as Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger last night described the development of the phone hacking scandal and how Guardian’s reporter, Nick Davies
…was threatened, lied to and ignored, but he did what good journalists do: tracked people down; won their confidence; verified what they told him; checked it with others; and, over time, painstakingly built up irrefutable evidence of what had gone on inside the News of the World. The eventual truth was revealed to the public, not by the police or parliament or the courts or any regulator. It was revealed by a reporter.
I am not the first to use Forsskål’s text to think about the phone hacking debacle. In John Lloyd’s short book ‘Scandal!’, a Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism publication, he quotes Forsskål’s last passage:
Finally, it is also an important right in a free society to be freely allowed to contribute to society’s well-being. However, if that is to occur, it must be possible for society’s state of affairs to become known to everyone, and it must be possible for everyone to speak his mind freely about it. Where this is lacking, liberty is not worth its name. Matters of war and some foreign negotiations need to be concealed for some time and not become known by many, but not on account of proper citizens however, but because of the enemies. Much less should peacetime matters and that which concerns domestic wellbeing be withheld from inhabitants’ eyes. Otherwise, it might easily happen that only foreigners who wish harm find out all secrets through envoys and money, but the people of the country itself, who ideally would give useful advice, are ignorant of most things. On the other hand, when the whole country is known, at least the observant do see what benefits or harms, and disclose it to everybody, where there is freedom of the written word. Only then, can public deliberations be steered by truth and love for the fatherland, on whose common weal each and everyone depends.
The significance of the 1766 Swedish legislation, influenced by Forsskål, “was its prodigious embrace of the concept that citizens had the right to see the fundamental decisions of their state – until then, assumed to be the eyes of the elite only,” argues Lloyd (p.23).
And that has helped develop our 21st century right to hold powerful commercial organisations to account. As many of us watched the live stream from Parliament yesterday afternoon we were doing just that. It was not just for the eyes of the elite.