Jake Rowbottom

How did you come to be an academic?

It was never part of a plan. I had been working for a politician in the USA and did not know what to do when I returned to the UK. I considered several options, such as law, journalism or academia. An academic job was attractive because it would let me think more carefully about the things I had seen in US and British politics. I saw a newspaper advert for a job at New College, Oxford and applied for it. I quickly realised I had made the right career choice. 

What is your research about? What arguments or views are central to your research?

There are several strands to my research. My first big project was focused on the influence of money in politics and attempts to control it. This went from the familiar issues of campaign finance to the regulation of lobbying, the right to protest and the role of the media. There is a common theme in all those topics - the risk that those with greater economic resources or that control the major channels of communication have greater opportunities to influence political decisions. 

More recently, I have been writing about free speech and media freedom. This line of work looks at the balance struck between expression rights and a range of other rights and interests – such as reputation, privacy, fair trial rights and government secrecy. That balance evolves with the political culture and reflects the values in the constitutional system. 

You wrote a book about freedom of expression, right? What do you argue for there? 

Yes - in my first book, Democracy Distorted, I argued (like many others) that freedom of expression is legally protected because of its importance in a system of democratic government. That system also demands a commitment to political equality – that people have roughly equal opportunities to influence political decision making. That commitment means that some controls on money in politics advance the same goals that underpin freedom of expression (rather than impermissibly restrict that right). 

There is also a positive aspect, the need to ensure that people have access to communicative resources and the meaningful chance to participate. This can mean certain expressive activities could be subsidised and protected from forms of private censorship (such as unfair exclusion from publicly accessible forums of communication).

When I started writing about free speech, a classic example of private censorship was a landowner excluding people from a shopping centre, or a media outlet excluding certain viewpoints. In the mid-2000s, I argued that the same problem could be found to some degree with digital communications. In the last few years, that view has become more widely held, given the concerns about the power of digital platforms to decide what content we are most likely to see and hear. 

Have you explored the topic of communicative power and democratic government more? How does thinking about digital platforms affect what we should say here?

Yes. These themes also fit with my work on media law. In my recent book, Media Law, I argue that various laws attempt to constrain media power. The key challenge in the area is strike a balance so that a media organisation does not abuse its power, while ensuring that it can still perform key democratic functions. 

Digital media poses a big challenge in identifying what counts as a media organisation and what is an individual speaker. I have argued in several articles that our understanding of free speech was shaped in the 20th Century by cases and issues primarily involving the mass media. We can’t assume that the expectations and protections applied to the mass media can easily be applied to individual speakers. The freedom to speak also includes the freedom to informally engage in conversation and sometimes say things we regret without life-changing consequences. 

What do you find most exciting about your research?

First and foremost, issues surrounding free speech and political participation are important for us all, as the controversies about fake news and its possible role in election campaigns shows. 

Another attraction with this field is the constant change. The communications system is changing rapidly. It feels like we are in unchartered waters. This demands that we fundamentally rethink many aspects of our understanding of free speech. At same time, in the UK, we have only had two decades of the Human Rights Act. So the domestic legal principles on free speech are starting to crystalise just as the system of communication is being transformed. It is exciting (but not easy) to be working in the field while these processes are taking place and where so much is on the table that will shape the democratic system for years to come. 

What are some big trends in Jurisprudence these days and how do you feel about them?

I am not sure I can say much about the big trends. I think of myself as a public lawyer with an interest in some areas of theory. I guess that it might be a problem that many of us work in relatively specialist fields without always knowing what is happening in other lines of work. 

If there is a big trend, it is that so much is now on the table. Everyone seems to be talking about regulation of digital platforms. It is a pivotal moment for free speech. Yet I’m not sure there is a general intellectual trend and there is a wide disagreement about what should be done. 

What would you like to see change in academia?

There are lots of small things I would change. Sometimes I think more could be done to ensure that teaching and research interests are more closely aligned. I also think it is important to ensure that we maintain the freedom of academic inquiry in the face of increasing pressure to produce research outputs.

What are some of your non-academic interests, pursuits, or hobbies?

To switch off from work, I have always enjoyed cooking. But with a young family, this is no longer a leisurely activity involving adventurous recipes and is more of an attempt to make something that everyone will agree to eat! In recent years, I have revived my old obsession with electronic music, synthesizers and drum machines. 

If you had to pick a desert island music album or film, which one would it be?

For films, I’d go with something directed by Fritz Lang. For music - a tough call – maybe Bowie’s Hunky Dory, 808 State’s 90 or Daft Punk’s Discovery

This interview was conducted in June 2019 by Carolina Flores (St. Hugh's, MMathPhil, 2016) who is a philosopher working in epistemology and social philosophy. 

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