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.