Does free speech matter any more?

This piece is not all about Kevin Roberts. But it was inspired by reflection on the controversy in the summer, when he generated more column inches in the last weeks than in his whole career – not about his very real achievements as a business leader, but because he said in an interview with Business Insider that the “fucking debate is all over” when asked about gender diversity in the ad industry.

He’s a controversial character, who has never hesitated to tell it his way – at Lion Nathan, at P&G, in his role with NZRU, and latterly at the head of Saatchi & Saatchi. We wondered about Lovemarks. Can you really turn a brand into an icon simply by wanting it to be one? He can also be incredibly dominant and self-serving. I was one of those who watched his performance at Adforum in Sao Paulo in 2014 when he wouldn’t allow his talented colleagues at F/Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi to speak in their own office.

Greeted by a storm of outrage about his reported comments, Roberts was first suspended and then persuaded to bring forward his retirement from S&S and the Publicis Groupe. Here is a sample comment from the CEO of Ketchum London, Denise Kaufmann: ‘When I read Kevin Roberts’ comments on diversity, I was at first shocked, then horrified, then angry and then very, very sad. [He] is wrong – the gender debate is far from over. How is it possible that in the year 2016, a man could make such misguided and crass comments about the ambitions of women?’ Maurice Levy’s heir apparent, Arthur Sadoun, said, ‘behaviour like this will not be tolerated in our Groupe’.

Hang on guys. He didn’t say the issue was dead, but that the debate (as far as he was concerned) was over. And when did giving an interview count as behaviour?

Before returning to the rights and wrongs of the excommunication of Roberts, I thought it might be an idea to look at how free we are to voice opinions nowadays. We all know that the First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the passing of any law that “abridges the right to free speech”. We don’t have a written constitution, but all my life I have heard people say, ‘this is a free country’. And part of being a free country is having the right to say what you think. Another well-worn cliché is, ‘I disagree with what you say, but I defend your right to say it’.

Have political correctness, and recent legislation outdated all this? The UK signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights in 1998, which contains a provision as follows: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”.

The Convention does contain some restrictions: “The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or the rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”.

Each member country of the EU has enshrined specific conditions in its Bill of Rights (or equivalent), and the UK is no exception. We have considerable restrictions on the right of expression. Some of these unsurprisingly relate to national security, public morals, the monarchy etc. But mostly they are designed to prevent threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour designed to cause harassment, alarm or distress or cause a breach of the peace (which has been used to prohibit racist speech targeted at individuals).

I think this element of causing distress should be at the heart of any cause célèbre like the Roberts case. Is it justification enough that people disagree with an opinion Roberts expresses? Shouldn’t there have to be evidence that he intended to cause distress, and that actual measurable distress was caused, and moreover that the said distress was objectively justifiable? Almost certainly, yes.

What Roberts said was that the debate is a dead duck, not that the issue isn’t important any more. He went on to put forward supportive evidence that Publicis Groupe, and Saatchi & Saatchi in particular, are way ahead of the game on providing female employment and advancement.

Was what he said calculated to cause distress? Are individuals like Ms Kaufmann justified in registering distress? Clearly not, I would say.

Were M.Sadoun and other high ranking Publicis executives from M.Levy down entitled to be angry that one of their most senior and powerful colleagues committed an undoubted gaffe (the ‘fucking’ didn’t help), while still in office. Clearly yes, in my view. That’s a potential disciplinary matter, if the indiscretion could jeopardise client relations, the share price etc.

But the outcry in the media, inevitably fanned by diversity zealots like Cindy Gallop, had nothing to do with disciplinary issues. It was about people saying that Roberts should not be free to say that the debate wasn’t a live issue any more, and that we should all move on.
I have thought about this a great deal, and I firmly believe that he was in his rights to say what he said (however fervently others might disagree with him). The media storm was probably misguided, and should be reserved for real bigots – which Kevin Roberts is not.

Two possible conclusions:

  1. Free speech should continue to be a vital ingredient in a democracy
  2. Ageing white males are neither universally wrong, nor completely redundant. There – I have declared my interest!