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Freedom does not stand alone

07 December 2012

THOSE who are hopping mad about the Leveson conclusions have one persistent cry: press freedom. Freedom is a hurrah word, with which no reasonable person can take issue. Freedom justifies itself. It has become the ace of spades of moral discourse. Freedom-fighters are the heroes of political struggles such as the Arab Spring.

When the US got shirty with the French for opposing the Iraq war, they changed the name of french fries to freedom fries. And when large multinationals want to pay as little tax as they can get away with, they plead the need for freedom from the dead hand of state control. The problem is that what was once a word of liberation has now become a subtle cloak for oppression.

Everybody loves freedom. From the liberation of the people of Israel in Egypt to the liberation of Europe from the Nazis - even to James Dean's Levi-wearing version of freedom as teenage rebellion - freedom is the dollar of moral exchange, the dominant common currency in which everything can be traded. But freedom for whom? And it is beginning to dawn on us that it is mostly the freedom of the powerful to do as they please.

Go to the inner-city ghettoes of most cities in the United States - where the freedom project has been most vigourously applied - and see what this freedom means to the poorest in society. It's a cruel joke to speak of freedom to those who live in conditions of such appalling poverty. Speak to Milly Dowler's parents about the freedom of the press, and they will tell you that it means the freedom of powerful bullies to do exactly as they please.

Operation Enduring Freedom is the official US name for the war in Afghanistan. Indeed, part of the reason why Islam seems so alien to many in the West is that it doesn't worship freedom as the value of all values.

I don't deny that this is complicated. Unfreedom is hardly an attractive alternative, although if unfreedom is simply large companies' paying their fair share of tax, and better regulation to stop egregious press intrusion, then so be it. Freedom has to be a part of a basket of values - an important one, of course - but one among many.

Increasingly, we need to see it offset by a more robust account of fairness. Freedom has become too much the freedom of the powerful and the wealthy. Freedom of opportunity is all very well. But if it has become disconnected from freedom of outcomes for millions of people, we have to keep on asking whose interests all this rhetoric of freedom really serves.

Canon Giles Fraser is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's, Newington, in the diocese of Southwark.

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