Freedom News

The right discards its free speech fig leaf

The political classes’ consensus is that the left has a problem with Palestine – but panic and the urge to repress is not coming from that quarter.

We appear to be in a moment of McCarthyism about Gaza, as the Tories attempt to turn a bizarre take that “The Left” supports Hamas into an electoral wedge issue, and Labour starts threatening senior figures for the crime of sentences like “we will not rest until we have justice. Until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea, can live in peaceful liberty.”

Some of the bullying and, dare we say it, “cancel culture” around the conflict aimed entirely at people who have voiced unease about the blown-off legs and heads of children in the Gaza strip (apparently of lesser value than those of Israeli children and woe betide anyone who says both are equally horrible) has been entirely predictable. People are forced out of their jobs where partisans hold sway for outrageous statements such as “war crimes are war crimes even when committed by allies”. Politicians attempt to get people fired for voicing free speech concerns, and countless people get monstered in the social media sphere. Football clubs ban their fans en masse, citing “a number of banners and flags … which relate to or are connected with terrorist organisations.” These ones.

So far, so boringly normal. Moral panics regularly throw up such repressive responses, which are, of course, deeply hypocritical coming from a media and right-wing political environment which has for years been banging on about its commitment to defend free speech against those rascally reds. 

But as suggested by the free speech firing mentioned above, a much more dangerous phenomenon has also been raising its head. Under the headline Government Tells UKRI To Sack Advisers Over ‘Extremist Views’, it turns out what said adviser had actually done was tweet a link to a Guardian article (Suella Braverman urges police to crack down on Hamas support in UK) with the comment “This is disturbing.”

On a surface reading (does Braverman do anything else), this is not an entirely unreasonable thing to be angry about, though trying to get people fired is a big step. Hamas is a proscribed terror organisation in Britain, and for people who trust the government to know what it’s doing, complaining about a crackdown in the aftermath of a horrific torture and murder spree by members of that organisation would seem suspect.

The problem is that this surface take is complete hokum. Because Braverman isn’t demanding a crackdown against “Hamas support” at all, she’s demanding it against anyone who shows solidarity with the civilians of Gaza and the West Bank. She doesn’t just want to crack down on Hamas; she hates the waving of the Palestinian flag. The mere act of going to a protest calling for a ceasefire is described by Ms Braverman as a “hate march” in a deliberate conflation of Hamas with those millions of people whose only crime was to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her blanket comment was aimed at hundreds of thousands of people who thronged the streets of London, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and beyond, saying they were all one and the same.  Fweinds Wiv Hamas. Hate marchers. 

This language means something, and it is not, in fact, unreasonable to find it “disturbing.” It lumps in every single person on those peace rallies as one, from the handful of idiots who do always show up in crowds of that size chanting something unpleasant to the vast mass who are simply watching footage of crying toddlers covered in the dust of their former homes and having the most noble of human reactions, care and empathy. 

And it’s being used to try and achieve something which we should all be not just concerned about but deeply fearful of.

The real threat to free speech 

For the last decade or so, the right and far-right has been pushing itself as a defender of free speech. Broadsheets have banged on about the rights of transphobes and racists to talk at (supposedly independent) universities regardless of whether they’re actually wanted. Nigel Farage went on about liberals not inviting him to waffle at them despite a near-constant presence on major media outlets. The likes of Lawrence Fox and Toby Young have gone so far as to found a Free Speech Union (FSU) to defend their “right” to spit tediously offensive drivel on major public platforms without public pushback, rather than down the pub or on Facebook comment threads like normal bigots.

But as I’ve discussed before, there is a significant difference between 1. The demand to be a prat on whatever media outlet you want, and 2. The political concept of free speech. 

The former is a demand for social privileges, which, as shown above, they really only want for themselves and people who agree with them. Beyond a perfunctory piece on the sacking of artist Steve Bell (coincidentally a good chance to have a go at hated enemy the Graun), the FSU has been entirely silent about the crushing atmosphere against dissent that has descended. Hard-right free speech zealot Brendan O’Neill has gone completely the other way, penning a deluge of articles painting Palestine solidarity as tantamount to calling for genocide, which in at least one case appears to equate a lack of physical police intervention to acting as a “religious police” in the vein, presumably, of Iran. Farage, meanwhile is merrily demanding the banning of protest marches.  Whatever happened to that old “I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” shtick, one wonders. 

The latter idea, however, is genuinely important. And, of course, it’s where the far-right’s commitment to freedoms suddenly runs out of steam. 

The freedom to speak in the public sphere, as defined by that public, is not a given. Freedom Press is unlikely to ever offer or take up requests from Anders Breivik or (were he alive) Jimmy Saville to write a column for us. The same is almost certainly true of The Times. Because y’know, standards. Public opinion would be pretty united in punishing a deliberate raising of the words of universally reviled rapists and murderers to prominence. This is part of the normal socially negotiated approach taken by every public platform when it sends out the invites.

The freedom to speak in public and not be interfered with by the police, however, is not negotiated. You are either free to speak without having your physical liberty infringed, or you aren’t. “Freedom of speech” in the sense of the citizen’s relationship to the State is one of the fundamental international indicators of a free society. 

Britain, on this basis, is not an entirely free society and never has been. The State is already known to proscribe groups and arrest people for incitement or hate speech, on the grounds that expressing certain collections of words, in certain circumstances, are effectively assertions of violence. But we do know where these limits lie, and, for most of the last century, they have erred largely on the side of allowing more free speech, rather than less. No-one’s getting executed for saying Christianity is a load of old nonsense or for saying Rishi Sunak is a wasteman… 

But by threatening large masses of people expressing solidarity in a way she personally doesn’t like, Braverman is courting an extreme extension of State power into all our rights to speak. Saying, “I have made my views clear; these are hate marches, and the police must take a zero-tolerance approach to anti-semitism” is a quite obvious instruction to the Met to treat all marchers as hostile entities and to set the bar for arrest at an assumption that anti-semitism is the intent. The Met’s leadership is well aware of the consequences of this approach, and in a chilling follow-up, Commissioner Mark Rowley offered a willingness to oblige a new status quo in which direct incitement was no longer the qualifier to repress dissenters.

“There is scope to be much sharper in how we deal with extremism within this country … The law was never designed to deal with extremism, there’s a lot to do with terrorism and hate crime but we don’t have a body of law that deals with extremism and that is creating a gap.”

To which the answer is obvious – there’s a bloody good reason why such laws haven’t been drafted before. It’s an attack on the very heart of our so-called British freedoms. 

For anyone who genuinely cares about free speech, this dovetail between Braverman’s authoritarian tendencies and Rowley’s apparent unconcern for civil liberties should be terrifying. When the political and policing sphere both signal their willingness to arrest on the grounds of “extremism” alone, to threaten protest bans, no-one is safe. Acceptable speech, the definition of “non” extreme, becomes a political matter, overseen by ministers and physically enforced by uniformed officers – people who have repeatedly been shown to be incapable of wielding such power responsibly even now, let alone into the unforeseen future.

That this is even being talked about is shocking, and the lack of a robust, instant response by the (hegemonic) political right and centre should be deeply shameful to any who consider themselves principled. But apparently, this is where we are in the dog days of 2023, watching a maddened Establishment rant incoherently about Reds being anti-semites for not wanting to see thousands of children get bombed while barreling towards the imposition of a miserable, oppressive regime in which empathy itself is considered suspicious and extreme.

To those with a bit of backbone, now’s your time to stand against them. We cannot rely on politicians, let alone the grifting right, to protect our freedoms.


Image: Guy Smallman

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