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David Puttnam

Representation, Democracy and the Duty of Care

Representation, Democracy and the Duty of Care

A Speech by Lord Puttnam of Queensgate C.B.E.
Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre

Friday, June 14, 2013


It’s a genuine pleasure to have been asked to address you this afternoon.

I’d like to start with the story of the “Paisley snail”.

On the evening of 26 August 1928,

May Donoghue took a train from Glasgow to the town of Paisley, seven miles east of the city.

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 labelled "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 Glasgow Royal Infirmary and diagnosed with severe gastroenteritis - and shock!

The case of Donoghue vs Stevenson that followed set an 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, 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 neighbour”.

Indeed one wonders, without a duty of care, how many people would have had to suffer from gastroenteritis before Stevenson went out of business!

Now, please hang onto that 'paisley snail' story, because an important principle goes with it.

Last year the Hansard Society, a non-partisan 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 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 newspaper at all…

Tabloid-only readers are twice as likely to agree with a negative view of politics, than readers of no newspapers.

They are 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.”

I doubt if anyone in this room would seriously challenge that view, but if Hansard are right – and they usually are - then we’ve a serious problem on our hands, and it’s one I’d like to spend the next ten minutes focusing upon.

Since the 'paisley snail', and especially over the past decade or so, a great deal of thinking has 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 where one individual, or group of individuals, undertakes an activity which has the potential to cause harm to another, either physically, mentally, or economically.

This has 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 has 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 of a brand new school in the North East of England - it had been re-named by its pupils 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 said:

"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 two thousand years to come to terms with that simple notion as being our minimum expectation of each other"?

Isn't it time we developed 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 to easily amount to accusations of ‘negligence’; that being the case, can we really be comfortable with the thought that we are, 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?

There will be those who'll argue that this could all too easily drift into a form of censorship - albeit self-censorship!

I don't buy that argument.

It has to be possible to balance 'freedom of expression' with wider moral and social responsibilities.

To explain why, let me offer an example from my own career as a filmmaker.

Throughout that career I never accepted that a filmmaker should set about putting their own work above or outside of 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 they live.

I'd go further, a responsible film-maker should never de-value 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 film-maker, and the responsible journalist or 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 is often under-valued, and can quickly be undermined.

It's a prize easily lost, and once lost, once surrendered, it could prove extremely hard to reclaim.

And its first line of defence has to be our own standards, not those enforced by the 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 are part of a 'collective' responsibility – the responsibility of the artist or journalist to deal with the world as it really is; and this must go hand in hand with the responsibility of those governing society to also face up to that world,

and not to misappropriate the causes of its ills.

Yet, as has become strikingly clear over the last couple of years, such responsibility has to a 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 similar contemporary aberrations are threatening to squeeze the life out of active, informed debate and engagement.

The most ardent of libertarians might argue that Donoghue vs Stevenson should have been thrown out of court; 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 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?

Far from signifying over-bearing 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 content of much of our democratic discourse.

Democracy, in order to work, requires that 'reasonable' men and women take the time to understand and debate difficult, and sometimes complex issues, 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,

priorities .

It's about reconciling conflicting preferences, wherever and whenever possible based on facts.

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?

In the end it all 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, the second led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act - both of which represented giant leaps forward.

Democracy, well led and well informed can achieve great things.

But there's a precondition - we have to trust that those making these decisions are acting in the best interests, not of themselves, but of the whole of the people.

To be sure of that, we need factually based options clearly laid out; not those of a few powerful and potentially manipulative corporations, pursuing their own frequently narrow agenda; but accurate, unprejudiced information with which to make our own judgements.

If we want to provide decent fulfilling lives for our children, and our children's children, we need to exercise - to the greatest degree possible - that 'duty of care' for a vibrant and hopefully lasting democracy.

Thank you very much for listening to me.