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Apocalypse now for free speech?

Mayan End Times may not have materialised, but if we’re not careful free speech could be consumed by hellfires.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics

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We will no doubt survive the Mayan apocalypse this Christmas. But will freedom of speech survive into 2013? This year, the boundaries of what can be said contracted to an unprecedented degree. Here’s a Top 10 countdown of some of the worst erosions of freedom of speech in Britain in 2012.

10) Defamation Bill

In 2012, many of the activists in Britain’s free-speech lobby unwittingly cheered on censoriousness. Consider their response to the government’s Defamation Bill, which is supposed to make England’s ridiculous libel laws ‘fairer’. Index on Censorship excitedly exclaimed ‘We did it!’ when the bill was unveiled. But the bill proposes expanding the remit of the libel laws to cover the internet, and removing the right to trial by jury in defamation cases, which would give judges even greater authority over the question of what is acceptable speech. Fundamentally, the bill enshrines the idea that the state is best placed to decide what should and shouldn’t be uttered.

9) Protest bans

‘Fuck your free speech!’, shouted an anti-fascist campaigner at the far-right English Defence League (EDL) during a march in Walthamstow, London in September. It typified the illiberal outlook of some on the radical left. When the EDL announced it would march through Walthamstow again in October, anti-fascists gave up on the idea of holding a counter-protest and instead successfully campaigned to have the march banned. Home secretary Theresa May also banned every other group, both right- and left-wing, from marching in Walthamstow, to be on the safe side. Which only shows how foolish it is to imbue the authorities with the right to decree who may march and who may not.

8) Plain cigarette packs

This year, it became compulsory in Australia to sell cigarettes in mucus-coloured ‘plain packs’ covered in pictures of dead babies or rotting organs. All company branding is outlawed. Other countries, including Britain, plan to follow suit. But isn’t this an affront to freedom of expression, effectively preventing companies from expressing themselves on their own products? Even worse, such anti-ciggie censoriousness implies that the public at large is incapable of making rational decisions about health and is easily swayed by flashy, colourful packaging. So the state opts to cover our eyes and protect our fragile sensibilities.

7) Gay marriage

In 2012, many of those who criticised the gay marriage campaign were denounced as ‘bigots’, heretics, in essence, for daring to dissent from the broad church of political and media activists who support gay marriage. Gay marriage is now openly described as ‘utterly conventional’ and even ‘beyond argument’. It isn’t illegal to criticise it, of course, but then it doesn’t need to be – the moral forcefield erected around this issue demonstrates the power of what John Stuart Mill called the ‘despotism of custom’, whereby the informal enforcement of convention ends up crushing curiosity.

6) Child protection

This year, Durham-based Toni McLeod, an eight-month pregnant 25-year-old mother-of-three, was told by social services that her new baby would be taken away from her because of her links with the EDL. Then it was revealed that a couple in Rotherham had their foster children removed because of their support for the mainstream UK Independence Party (UKIP). Apparently, if you support a party that criticises the politics of multiculturalism, you aren’t fit to look after kids, and the state will punish you for holding Wrong Views.

5) The war on trolls

The definition of ‘trolling’ expanded exponentially in 2012. It now covers not only those who make nasty threats online, but also those who make daft or drunken comments on Twitter or who slag off the British Army on Facebook; such individuals can now be arrested. And increasingly, anyone who simply expresses a view that goes against the grain can be written off as a ‘troll’ and twitch-hunted into obscurity. In insisting on conformity and consensus, troll-hunters prove more problematic for online freedom than ‘trolls’ themselves.

4) Ad bans

This year, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) continued its one-quango war against saucy or provocative ads. It banned billboard posters for the Channel 4 series Big Fat Gypsy Weddings (following 372 complaints from the public); an American Apparel advert that apparently sexualised children (two complaints); and a jokey ad showing a brain surgeon booking a holiday online while also operating on someone (441 complaints). The ASA encapsulates the way the confused and defensive modern elite uses tiny numbers of ‘offended people’ as a stage army to enforce its own censorious moralism.

3) Football freedom

From fans’ chanting to on-pitch banter, never has football-related speech been as obsessively policed as it was in 2012. From cops and stewards looking out for any borderline racial utterance in the stands to demands that Tottenham Hotspur fans stop referring to themselves as a Yid Army, from the proposal to fine teams whose fans chant lewd things to the attempt to stop fans using the word ‘gay’ in a derogatory way, in 2012 football stadiums became laboratories for modern PC censorship. And the free-speech lobby failed to kick up a fuss.

2) Twitter

Is Twitter, as CEO Dick Costolo said, ‘the free-speech wing of the free-speech party’? Pull the other one. From the #shutdownTheSun campaign to various efforts to have offensive tweeters reported to the cops, Twitter risks become the censorship wing of the censorship party. The number of twitch hunts is increasing, including campaigns to have the far-right Nick Griffin expelled from Twitter for being predictably offensive and the mass emailing of anti-celeb trolling tweets to police forces around the country. Let’s have a new hashtag in 2013: #TwitterTolerance.

1) The Leveson Inquiry

As spiked argued from the outset, the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry was an act of serious state interference in the press. And sure enough, following a drawn-out process of mini-showtrials and celebrity circuses, in November Leveson recommended setting up a regulatory body with statutory backing. Whether or not his proposals are adopted, it’s already clear that a dangerous precedent has been set for 2013 – that the government, judges and various experts have the right to sit in judgement on grubby newspapers and tell them what their ethics and morality ought to consist of.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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