One cannot help but wonder what happened to the country of John Locke. Doubtless for many, Milton’s Areopagitica and On Liberty by Mill – two of the first and foremost works defending Free Speech – are irrelevant historical footnotes. Now, this disregard yields results that even the most wilfully ignorant cannot easily dismiss: Free Speech is in danger.
Even when taking only a cursory glance through the end of 2010, ignoring past crises such as the Danish cartoons debacle, a range of examples underline the point.
In early November, a Birmingham City councillor made an inappropriate joke on Twitter about a journalist who had spoken on Radio 5. In response, he was arrested under the 2003 Communications Act – a labyrinth of ‘legalese’ if ever there were one. The councillor’s joke was indeed out-of-line: he called on the woman in question to be stoned to death. However, this woman’s response during a BBC interview was much more significant: “He does not have more of a right to say these things about me [than] I do about him…” Issues of manners and standards aside, a worthy question in response is: since when? Is the right to Free Speech inalienable and enshrined objectively in law? Or is it simply ephemeral and subjective, liable to reversal as soon as it causes offence?
Similarly, early December saw a related case when Home Secretary Theresa May actively considered banning Terry Jones, a highly controversial American pastor, from entering the UK. Of course, one might argue that the point is moot – with unofficial pressure mounting, Jones’s visit was called off before May could step in to ban him.
Is the right to free speech – and by extension the right to express one’s views in a given country – an unshakeable absolute? Or is it just some special dispensation, subject to allowance or restriction on a politician’s whim?
There is arguably a difference of magnitudes between the aforementioned councillor – a politician who wrote before he thought – and Terry Jones, a man who tried to organise an ‘International Burn the Koran Day.’ But nevertheless, the principle remains the same. Is the right to Free Speech – and by extension the right to express one’s views in a given country – an unshakeable absolute? Or is it just some special dispensation, subject to allowance or restriction on a politician’s whim?
Perhaps most worrying of all was a case that followed in late December – Vince Cable’s ‘declaration of war’ on Rupert Murdoch. With powers granted under the voluminous 2002 Enterprise Act, Cable sought to bar Murdoch’s News Corporation from buying up shares in BSkyB. Revealed in an interview with undercover reporters, an unwitting Cable talked confidently about going to war with Murdoch’s ‘empire.’
This flippancy masks the undoubted sincerity that the Business Secretary spoke with. Moreover, it attempts to evade the implications that his stance held for Free Speech: Cable sought to hamstring the expansion of a media network politically opposed to his ideals, hence limiting or undermining the opposition it could afford. Cable’s aspirations thus represented an implicit attack on Free Speech – an underhand, intellectually dishonest form of ‘censorship by degrees,’ you might call it. One cannot help but think of Noam Chomsky’s witty remark: “Goebbels was in favour of Free Speech [but only] for views he liked.”
That we can take Free Speech for granted is a badge of honour for our country – but we have to reconsider how we look at it. It is not a gift from society or state – it is your birthright. It is not some vague abstraction to be rescinded whenever Vince Cable or Theresa May say so – it is objective and universal. Once we have re-affirmed our committal to this, we can rest on our laurels. Until then, our complacency will make for a poor guard against politicians’ abuse and excess.