Tag Archives: freedom of expression

Freedom of speech and the right to protest

People are screaming “censorship!” today again after a student debate was cancelled. The ridiculously named Oxford Students for Life attempted to stage a debate about abortion, with Telegraph journalist Tim Stanley arguing against and fellow Telegraph journalist Brendan O’Neill arguing for. It didn’t happen after a horde of students threatened to disrupt the debate with (presumably musical rather than gynaecological) “instruments”.

Cue manufactured outrage, with Brendan O’Neill’s article on the topic making the front page of this week’s Spectator. But what’s really going on here? Who has been silenced? Not the well paid journalists, and certainly not Brendan O’Neill who has managed to make a quick buck out of it. Not the Oxford Students for Life, who are now being discussed up and down the country. Not the feminists who protested against the debate, who have also received a media platform from which to air their views.

It is clear that the debate was calculated to offend. That’s what you do when you put Brendan O’Neill on stage, who if you don’t know is a sort of Katie Hopkins for dullards – especially when you invite the notorious misogynist to speak in favour of abortion. They might have wanted the debate to go ahead, but you can bet they wanted people to be making a noise about it. For O’Neill, this is his meat and drink, and he’s managed to churn out another lazy article drawing huge generalised conclusions out of a single incident.

What we’re actually looking at is a well functioning, democratic discourse. Something to be celebrated. Paradoxically however, the only way this discourse is maintained is by everyone running around insisting that important democratic principles have been chucked in the gutter. Let’s assume for a minute that no-one had been offended about anything in this incident. The debate would have happened, listened to by a desultory bunch of spotty Herberts, and it would never have entered the public imagination. A couple of well paid men in suits would have got to play a game for 60 minutes, that’s all. It’s bizarre that O’Neill and the Spectator’s assistant editor Isabel Hardman think that freedom of speech is really that dismal, and disregard everything else that has happened over the past couple of days as just noise. But then, this is by no means the first time that I’ve seen journalists imply that freedom of speech is a thing only to be valued when it comes to the views of professional journalists.

It is very lazy indeed, not to mention potentially dangerous, to equate protest – especially disruptive, effective protest – with state censorship. It leads you down the dangerous path, which governments are quick to encourage, that protest should be silenced. The next step is that the only people who’s views are allowed to enter the public realm are those well paid men in suits, while the noisy, dirty – and yes, sometimes idiotic – masses get their heads bashed in.

If you genuinely believe in freedom of expression, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to tolerate the fact that it works both ways. And sometimes it even inconveniences privileged men.

#Leveson and the #gagginglaw: a tale of two processes

Same-sex marriages StatementI’ve been watching the live feed of the House of Commons for the past hour, waiting for the report stage of the “transparency” bill to start. As such, I’ve watched Maria Miller’s statement on the regulation of the press and her time and again defend the long drawn out Leveson process on the basis that it leads to stronger regulation.

Is holding these two debates consecutively the government’s idea of a joke? Let’s look at the two processes: the Leveson process kicked off in May 2011 following a massive public outcry. Leveson himself reported just under 12 months ago. The plans to overhaul the system for non-party campaigning at elections were announced the day before the summer recess this year, following no outcry whatsoever, either from the public or anyone else.

The government has bent over backwards to attempt to establish cross-party and stakeholder agreement on how best to implement the Leveson proposals. When it comes to the gagging law, there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny, no white paper and the old statutory requirement of a 12 week consultation period has already been relegated to the dustbin.

Both processes have profound implications for our civic society and the public’s ability to hold their government’s to account. The only difference appears to be (in stark contrast to the ludicrous claims of the gagging law’s advocates) that newspapers are owned by millionaire businessmen. Voluntary organisations are not. If Rupert Murdoch ran 38 Degrees, you can bet this law would be getting more scrutiny than it is now.

To hear Maria Miller discuss the evils of rushing through legislation really is difficult. I hope the irony will not escape MPs when debating the bill this evening and tomorrow.

Why Nick Cohen should worry less about twitchforks and more about the media Frankenstein

Nick Cohen is up in arms about how Twitter is embracing the power of the mob and that this is bad news for freedom of speech. Ironically (at least ironic to anyone who has read Mr Cohen’s denunciations Revolutionary Communists), his old sparring partner Brendan O’Neill feels the same way.

I have to say there is a grain of truth in what they are saying. Twitter has proven itself as a useful tool for fighting the forces of darkness, but it has not yet been successfully used to actually deliver progressive ends more positively. It is a profoundly reactionary medium and while it has been dominated by the left thus far we should be prepared for the fact that this may not always be the case.

The case of Jan Moir’s deplorable column about Stephen Gately’s death is an interesting one. Personally speaking, the closest I have come to having a feeling either way about Boyzone and its alumni is resenting their cold blooded murder of Baby Can I Hold You? by Tracy Chapman, which unaccountably has still not been brought before The Hague. I was profoundly and deeply unmoved by Stephen Gately’s death in the same way that I am by all the other thousands of people who die every day. Nonetheless, Ms Moir’s article was one of the most mealy-mouthed and cowardly homophobic attacks I’ve read in a UK national newspaper and it deserved a response. I’m not entirely sure the right response however was to complain to the Press Complaint’s Commission. Any PCC which rules that the Daily Mail was not entitled to publish a piece of spiteful bile like that is not one I would want to have operating in this country, on a statutory footing or not. It is only a short hop, skip and jump from there to having David Miliband prosecute a newspaper for making allegations about Binyam Mohammed’s torture in the face of the official record. Let’s not go there.

What was very much positive was the fact that many more than 22,000 people took a stand against Ms Moir and the Mail and forced a tacit admission – if not a convincing apology – that they had behaved unacceptably. This was a triumph for common human decency. They haven’t been censored but they certainly have been censured. I can’t see how this small tactical victory in the fight against the coarsening public of discourse can be in any way reprehensible and the idea that millions of tweeters should have their freedom of expression clamped down on just so a few newspaper editors and their muckrakers can have theirs is pure self-regarding nonsense coming from the fourth estate.

Mr Cohen should be less worried about censorship and more worried about the vacility of the media in the face of a few thousand emails. Mr Cohen cited the Jonathan Ross-Russell Brand-Andrew Sachs incident. Here was an example where public opinion was genuinely divided, yet the BBC went for the path of least resistence and chose to side with those who shouted the loudest. The PCC would be equally wrong to somehow punish the Mail for publishing Ms Moir’s article (not that I’m very clear what exactly it could do). By the same token, I didn’t bother complaining to the PCC about the Telegraph’s unfounded attack on Jo Swinson (and presumably she didn’t either) because I knew they would ignore it and I could never rustle up a “mob” to force them to listen. We shouldn’t have to raise an online mob to persuade the media’s watchdog’s to do the right thing but if that’s what it takes then it is inevitable that people will feel they have to organise in that way. The solution is simple: get a better watchdog.

The biggest threat to the freedom of the media is their own failure to take a stance in defence of it and to engage in this mad rush to the bottom. If Mr Cohen thinks the problem is rooted in the fact that a few million people suddenly have a slightly louder voice than they had a few years ago, he is part of the problem.

The Davies Agenda (sic)

David Davies MP has called for “abusive protests against serving military personnel” to be outlawed.

Davies has modelled himself as a staunch opponent of political correctness, but the truth is that he – like most people obsessed with the horrors of PC – is all for it really. He just has different political priorities.

It must be uncomfortable for David Davis MP to be constantly confused with a reactionary such as Davies. Given Davis’ own reactionary tendencies (before he managed to reinvent himself as a civil libertarian and self-appointed torchbearer for the modestly named “Davis Agenda“), that’s saying something. Sadly, I suspect that Davies is rather more representative of his party than Davis, as the fairly lamentable Tory showing at the Convention on Modern Liberty a fortnight ago made plain. Any party which has a Shadow Home Secretary who can utter the phrase “fewer rights and more wrongs” without cracking up can be fairly described as being “confused” (if one were feeling so generous).

This raises a serious question about how the Tories are treated by civil libertarians. One approach is to “hug them close” – i.e. applaud Conservative politicians whenever they make the right noises and emphasise how such behaviour is a clear sign of the party finally modernising and moving out of the Victorian era. The danger of that approach is that its own exponents end up being wary of criticising Tories when they say the wrong things and end up fooling themselves that a few speeches here and there will amounts to a shift in direction. If the use of the carrot approach is limited though, the stick approach is not without its problems either. Specifically, treating the Tories as The Enemy is unlikely to achieve anything much in the short term. At best, it will embolden the civil libertarians within Labour (they do still exist, even if they can be deplorably craven at times) and help to ensure Labour makes the right noises when it returns to the opposition benches.

Ultimately, stroking politicians in Westminster will only have a limited effect. If you want a lasting reversal of Labour’s authoritarian agenda, you have to change minds across the country.

UPDATE: Heh. Great minds think alike.

Child porn, cartoons and unintended consequences

Everyone hates child porn, right? So, superficially, who could possibly object to government proposals to “help close a loophole that we believe paedophiles are using”?

The problem is twofold however. Firstly, what the government is planning to do is “create a new offence for the possession of non-photographic visual depictions of child sexual abuse.” From reading the consultation paper, this would appear to exclude the written word and apparently this will exclude any “items of genuine historical interest” – so that’s Romeo and Juliet and the Gospels saved then. But everything else is for the pot. Last time I looked that would include a lot of anime and manga.

Secondly, the Ministry of Justice’s “justification” for this is as follows:

We are unaware of any specific research into whether there is a link between accessing these fantasy images of child sexual abuse and the commission of offences against children, but it is felt by police and children’s welfare organisations that the possession and circulation of these images serves to legitimize and reinforce highly inappropriate views about children.

In other words, they have no grounds for doing this whatsoever and don’t even know whether it would be counter-productive (i.e. are paedophiles using visual representation of child abuse as a substitute for the real thing), but they are going to do it anyway.

This has bad law written all over it. This is an explicit attempt to legislate against thoughtcrime and “yuk”.

I mentioned manga above. Comics have regularly fallen foul existing obscene publications legislation and while such attempts often fail if contested the lack of money sloshing about in the industry (as opposed to, say, cinema) means that there is a tendency to play safe. All it would take is an over-zealous police chief to launch a couple of dawn raids on his local Borders with the active support of the Daily Mail and the whole industry would go into a tailspin. We’ve been here before.

The consultation paper also includes this section which, again superficially, sounds quite scary:

Technological advances mean that current software can allow a user to photograph an image (or download one onto a computer) and manipulate it to look like a drawing, a tracing, a painting or cartoon. It is possible to manipulate a real photograph (or video recording) of real child abuse into a cartoon or drawing format, be it still or animated. In that scenario the image/s would appear to be merely a fantasy cartoon or drawing, etc, but would in fact be a distinct record of an actual abusive and illegal act. Yet under current legislation, while possession of the original images of child sexual abuse would be illegal, it would not be illegal to make and possess these cartoon or “fantasy style” images, and they would not be subject to forfeiture by the police.

It may, in some circumstances, be possible for the police to re-engineer the resultant “fantasy style” image to discover the original indecent photograph. In this case a prosecution under POCA 1978 could follow. However, if the process was unavailable and the original indecent
photograph, or convertible data, remained undiscovered, i.e. if the “fantasy style” image had been forwarded on or simply printed as a hard copy, then it would not be possible to prosecute. In addition, the images would not be subject to forfeiture and would remain in circulation.

Note that this is carefully worded to NOT suggest that this has ever actually been done or even that police have come across material where this may have been done. And why would anyone do it? The purpose of filming pornographic images is to give the viewer a sense of reality. Making it look unreal to such an extent that it would be literally impossible to tell if it was real or a drawing would defeat the whole point of the enterprise. And if technology really did advance to such a stage (we’re talking about ever paedo having the skill and resources of Industrial Light and Magic at the click of a mouse key), why would anyone go to the risk of filming an actual act of child abuse when they could simply replicate it artificially.

The bottom line is we can’t legislate for every single hypothetical science fiction scenario. On the other hand, if we do legislate, we should perhaps consider what is going on, right now. Yet I can’t find anywhere in this consultation paper any reference to “second life”, “avatar”, “role play”, “virtual reality” or “MMORPG” despite the fairly obvious implications. Is every avatar in a school uniform going to be banned?

I want to hear a compelling argument backed by strong evidence, not rumour and speculation, before I will consider a law to be necessary. In lieu of I hope the Lib Dems in Parliament will give these proposals short shrift.