You are here:   Features > Do we value freedom of speech in Britain?
 
"We're not that keen on free speech in this country." These words were said to me by a tabloid journalist in London the day after two men gunned their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. At a time when most people were digging down into comforting half-truths and flagrant untruths, here at least were some honestly spoken words. And although recent events in Britain are not comparable to Paris and Copenhagen, think back to the days before Paris and you will see that Britain is a country which now has trouble with free speech. The problem runs through our laws, policymakers and public.

(Illustration by Michael Daley)

Early in January a major news story was whether the Sun columnist Katie Hopkins would be arrested for tweeting about "sweaty jocks". Hundreds of complaints were made to the police and "Police Scotland" announced that it would "thoroughly investigate any reports of offensive or criminal behaviour online and anyone found to be responsible will be robustly dealt with". Hopkins had been reported for "hate crimes" before, including once live on television after criticising a fat woman's size. Such recourse to the law is now the norm in Britain.

Recent freedom of information requests revealed that in the UK in the past three years nearly 20,000 adults and 2,000 children (the youngest aged nine) have been investigated by the police for comments made online. Like everything else, there usually needs to be a "celebrity" link to make these stories public knowledge. But Twitter is now full of people and groups who not only report anything that offends them as a crime but encourage others to do the same. Some are recipients of public funds from a system which encourages reporting of what it terms "hate crime".

The truth is that Britain's free speech sinews were flabby long before their most serious challenge came along. Few people wanted to defend the right to be rude on Twitter. Nobody wanted to defend a Sun columnist who makes a career out of meanness. It is hardly surprising that there is barely anyone left to defend people who might have offended, as we are always threateningly reminded, around one and a half billion Muslims. The idea that we might need to retain the right to offend the religious must have got lost around the time we were wondering what to do with people who tell fat people they are fat.

Britain's free-speech problems have been mounting for years. The first mistakes were the legal ones over what does and does not constitute free speech. Even free-speech absolutists support incitement laws. But the bar of what constitutes incitement has been greatly lowered in recent years. You used to need a mob with pitchforks in front of you; now the perception has arisen that the public are perpetually in pitchfork mode, so that almost anything addressed to them could be incitement. The last Labour government consistently worked to lower this bar, even criminalising speech simply deemed "offensive". It is also worth recalling that in 2006 that same government came within one vote of passing a Racial and Religious Hatred Act which would have criminalised all criticism or ridiculing of religion. The government's defeat did not close the debate. When the current government overturned the worst portion of the Public Order Act (relating to "insulting words") the Labour opposition expressed deep concern over how this might negatively affect minority groups. This was a great theme of the Blair years and it has remained with us-the idea that minority groups are especially beleaguered and must therefore have special protections from offensive words.

View Full Article
 
Share/Save
 
 
 
 
Observer of the Scene
March 20th, 2015
9:03 AM
I can think of someone who doesn't like free speech, but I have a funny feeling Douglas Murray will not want to denounce him: "This Model Law, drafted by leading European experts and legislators, and supported by the EMC, defines the limits of tolerance, which is the demand for security. ... In the immediate term, intelligence-gathering and sharing across Europe must increase. It is now well known that all of the perpetrators of the attacks in Paris were on the radars of intelligence and police officials. The question of prevention must be readdressed, because the current paradigm is simply not working," Dr. Kantor said. "Police and law enforcement also need to be strengthened. This includes actively enforcing laws against incitement and Islamophobic speech, and taking a firmer approach against those who promote hate and violence. Never before, has Europe's intellectual elite joined with the continent's senior political leadership and top-legal experts within the same conference to genuinely address the very real threats faced by al Europe's citizens. Now we must transfer these important words into real action," Kantor said. More Tolerance Must Mean Less Free Speech

Sholto Douglas
March 12th, 2015
11:03 AM
Lucky that Victorian England did not have laws against giving offence, or Darwin would have been stopped in his tracks. Alas the Left have taken over the public sector (where else can you take a degree in Gender Studies?), so they get to control the narrative. We have reverse Darwinism, where those with the most intellectually and academically questionable qualifications end up with the most influence over the rest of us. Here in Australia that weapons grade jerk Tony Abbott has backed away from repealing our 'hate speech' law. Hate speech is not defined as incitement to hurt or kill, but merely saying something insufficiently flattering towards the fashionable victim groups. The West is f***ed.

newbold9
March 6th, 2015
1:03 PM
so right Douglas, when I think of all those young life's lost on the battlefield of Europe so we can maintain our freedoms, I find the treatment of this precious gift sickening. you can't have laws based on people getting upset.

amcdonald
March 2nd, 2015
8:03 PM
On the Pegida side of the demo in Newcastle the flag of Israel and the Union Jack were flying. On the much larger counter-demo fronted by millionaire George `Bradford is an Israel-free zone` Galloway there were no flags except for a Palestinian one . GG denounced Pegida as "Nazis". It`s true the speaker from Germany was an intelligent,young, beautiful,blonde female and GG isn`t. No country needs Islam,sharia,korans or muslims. Putin has at least stated this truth for Russia. In WW2 Stalin was a necessary ally.

observer
March 2nd, 2015
7:03 AM
The problem is that an essentially left wing (liberal or otherwise) view of free speech prevails. Free speech is seen as the right of the rebellious, marginalised, oppressed etc to speak out against "the establishment". In this one-sided view the establishment is, of course, right wing and determined to crush the left and dissent generally. To take one example: in speaking out against the real establishment those who are sceptical about climate change/global warming/AGW are increasingly labelled "deniers". The implication is that their opinions are so dangerous and outrageous that they must be silenced not debated. So called deniers are assumed to be right wing and establishment while environmentalists, however much power they wield, are the brave rebels.

Post your comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.