Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech at the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) Conference

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, London
Source: Thatcher Archive: COI transcript
Editorial comments:

1040-1125. Autocue was used - text in THCR 5/1/5/628.

Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1825
Themes: Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Foreign policy (Central & Eastern Europe), Media, Terrorism, Civil liberties

Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen.

First, may I welcome you to Britain and to this London Information Forum. We are very pleased that the meeting is being held in our country and hope that you will enjoy your stay here. I can guarantee that you will not find yourself short of information in this town.

I hope you will also take advantage of your stay to visit Parliament and while I do not want to indulge in advertising, I can promise that you will find Prime Minister's Questions on Tuesdays and Thursdays particularly lively. But do not ask for your money back if you go this afternoon, I shall not be there because I shall be in Luxembourg for the 150th anniversary celebrations.

I am also very grateful for the chance of being your first speaker. Indeed I have a particular interest in your subject matter. [end p1]

When I became a Member of Parliament thirty years ago my very first speech was to introduce what we call a Private Members Bill with the title “The Public Bodies Admission of Press to Meetings Bill” . Its purpose was to ensure that the general public would be informed through their local newspapers of what their locally elected representatives were doing, or intending to do, with the powers and monies entrusted to them.

You will be interested to know that I was much criticised by an official opposition spokesman at the time on the grounds that my Bill provided for an excessive enlargement of the privileges of the press. Members of the British delegation will doubtless take note.

One of the great speeches of this century was delivered by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 during the Second World War. He looked forward then to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. First among the four he put freedom of speech and expression, everywhere in the world. Nearly fifty years later we still have not fully achieved that freedom in all European countries let alone the whole world. And that sobering thought should be our starting point at this Forum.

It is the circulation and exchange of ideas which has enabled civilisation to develop over the centuries and it is only where ideas can be freely expressed and discussed that their true value can be seen, the good developed and hopefully the harmful rejected. [end p2]

Without the free competition of ideas, ignorance, prejudice and oppression flourish. And that is why access to information and lively public debate are such an essential part of our way of life in the West.

The Final Act of the Helsinki Conference held in 1975 was very clear about some practical measures which were needed so that everyone in Europe could share in the benefits of free debate and the free exchange of ideas. It called for freedom of thought and expression, freedom of choice, freedom to acquire and disseminate information, better cooperation between East and West in the field of information, and improvement in the working conditions of journalists.

These were accepted as solemn commitments by the governments taking part in the Helsinki Conference and our first task at this Forum must be to consider what still needs to be done to make those commitments and the wider purposes of Helsinki effective.

We recognise and warmly welcome the great changes we see in some of the countries of Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union. We welcome in particular the more open discussion of their own recent history and the greater freedom to express views and opinions which are not necessarily those of their governments or ruling parties.

That is what freedom of speech means, freedom to express thoughts and views with which others do not agree. [end p3]

But our purpose here is not to criticise. Rather the aim of the Forum is to be constructive by encouraging everyone to adopt the basic Helsinki standards for free exchange of information. There will only be a common European home if the occupants can mingle and talk freely.

But the aim of implementing the Helsinki commitments is really too modest. We need to set our sights higher and see if we can agree on additional measures which will serve as a beacon for the new spirit of glasnost and openness.

That would make this Forum a genuine landmark in the process of building trust and confidence between East and West. Freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of choice, freedom to acquire and disseminate information are at the heart of democracy. We have never believed that policies have to be accepted without discussion. Our tradition is of fierce debate, of testing ideas on the anvil of argument, of assembling the facts to enrich and inform discussion.

It is not only a question of differing ideals and philosophies, it is also very much a practical matter. We would never have had the great surge of technological advance which has revolutionised our standard of living without the creative discussion which leads to scientific discovery and its application. [end p4]

It is not a matter of luck that the West has led the way in scientific advance, in computers, in medicine, in agriculture, in protecting the global environment and in many other areas. Nor would we have had that personal enterprise which has been vital for our prosperity if people had not been free to make their own decisions based on the best information.

The central command system under which people are instructed what to do has quite plainly failed. That is not just my conclusion, it is clear from the changes that are being made in the Soviet Union and other countries in Eastern Europe. It is clear too from the priority which General Secretary Gorbachev is giving to political change and greater openness, in which we wish him every success.

Now, with the microchip, we are fast moving into a new age of information technology. We have ever more rapid access to ever more information. Countries which try to insulate their people from these developments, which try to limit access to information, to control the use of photocopiers, to restrict contacts with foreigners, do not just fail to live up to their commitments under the Helsinki Accords, they condemn their people to lower standards of living and to a second-rate existence.

Mr Chairman, freedom of expression has always meant in our system freedom within the law—a law, passed by a democratically elected Parliament and administered by independent and impartial judges. [end p5]

Yes, there are occasions when that law does restrict freedom in this country as in others. For instance we have laws of libel and slander to protect people from defamation. We have laws against incitement to violence, racial abuse, and obscene publications. We protect the ownership of copyright and other intellectual property, the fruit of creative individual effort. We also restrict freedom of expression in order to protect national security and to prevent terrorists from using the media to promote their aims.

And I make no apology for measures taken to prevent men of violence using television and radio to spread fear and create an illusion of authority. Terrorists have no respect for freedom. They exploit freedom only to undermine it.

Every restriction on freedom of expression has to be carefully weighed to ensure that the remedy is not worse than the disease. And the case has to be made by those who propose a new restriction and every proposal is subject to the most searching examination by Parliament.

What must never be permitted is arbitrary denial of freedom at the whim of government. Yes, Government is sometimes criticised from both directions, by those who say that no restriction is ever right and by those who want us to restrict freedom more by censoring a book like the one written by Mr Rushdie which broke none of our laws. [end p6]

This must never be an area where government has discretion. Government too must always act within the law. But if governments have responsibility of ensuring freedom for the media it is the duty of the press and the media themselves to use that freedom responsibly.

That means respect for the rights and privacy of the individual. It means respect for fairness and balance. And it means respect for accuracy for the facts. Lack of respect for any or all of these represents an abuse of the freedom of the media. There is great concern in this country about these matters and about the difficult balance to be struck between the right to privacy and the legitimate publication of information.

Indeed some MPs would like the individual to have a right of reply to allegations made in the media. A newspaper, and of course a radio or a television station, is a business but it is also much more than that. It has enormous power to influence opinion. In the words of C P Scott, one of our great 19th Century editors: “The press has a moral as well as a material existence and its character and influence are determined by the balance of these forces.”

That can only be achieved when the best standards of professional journalism are upheld. Relations between the media and the government of the day will never be entirely smooth-running in any country. T S Eliott once suggested that irritation was a necessary part of any civilised society. By this standard I suppose you could say that Britain is a very civilised society indeed. [end p7]

This meeting takes place at a time of great hope in relations between East and West. Only two weeks ago we welcomed President Gorbachev once more to Britain. He told us of the progress of perestroika in the Soviet Union. We welcome and support his reforms as well as the remarkable political change taking place in Poland and Hungary.

All this helps to build the trust and confidence between East and West which is the purpose of the Helsinki process. And this is especially important in the area of human rights. At the recent Vienna meeting we firmly established the principle that any country is entitled to enquire about, check and question the policies of others in the field of human rights and freedoms.

The commitments are there in black and white. They allow no equivocation. They are not on a pick and choose basis. All are equally important and all must be equally respected. Trust is impossible when the promises we make to each other, as well as to our own peoples, are broken. The most fundamental test which we apply to other countries is the way in which they treat their own people. Confidence in other areas such as arms control will be much harder to achieve if human rights commitments are not honoured.

Mr Chairman, this Forum is tackling issues which are fundamental to the way of life we seek for all the peoples of Europe. Free access to books, newspapers, periodicals, scientific papers and literature. Free discussion and debate, free exchange of ideas, of information and people. [end p8]

It was John Quincy Adams who said: “To furnish the means of acquiring knowledge is the greatest benefit that can be conferred upon mankind.

Your aim at this meeting should be to increase the opportunities for all European peoples, to hear differing ideas, views and opinions. So that they can make up their own minds on the great issues affecting their lives. That is what freedom is about.

I hope that the results of your discussions and your practical recommendations will take us forward from Helsinki and Vienna and will be beneficial for our peoples, our countries and our continent alike. I wish you enjoyment and success in your great endeavours.