Threats to free speech in Britain

Freedom of speech is the life-blood of democracy. It is also the best defence the people have against those in positions of power abusing that power. No surprise then that the establishment is always looking for new ways to stop wrong-doing from being exposed

Lord Leveson casts a long shadow...
Robin Mitchinson
On 22 June 2015 09:22

Our masters have always been ambivalent about ‘freedom of speech and expression’. Supposedly, it is entrenched in common law and the Human Rights Act. But we mustn’t be fooled by this; it is shot through with exceptions.

They include ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour intending or likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress or cause a breach of the peace’.

The effect of this is that mere vulgar abuse is now a crime. Then there is ‘racist speech, sending another any article which is indecent or grossly offensive with an intent to cause distress or anxiety, speech of a racist or anti-religious nature, incitement to racial hatred, and incitement to religious hatred’.

One of the outcomes of this was an Irish comedian being taken down the local nick for questioning after he had told an Irish joke.

Unsurprisingly, the very application of all this is very partial. A while back, the egregious Alibhai Brown of the Guardian did a piece which seemed to be an apologia for the stoning of women in Muslim countries for adultery. A minor Tory politician jokingly tweeted that it would be a better idea to stone Alibhai- Brown.

His reward was to spend several hours in custody, ‘helping the police with their enquiries’. And it appears to be sufficient that the alleged victim of ‘hate speech’ says that he was offended; apparently a court does not have to take an objective view as to whether ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’ would be offended.

The Establishment looks after its own. There are restrictions on court reporting, including names of victims and evidence and prejudicing or interfering with court proceedings, prohibition of post-trial interviews with jurors, criticising judges, privileged communications, trade secrets, classified material, copyright, patents, military conduct, and limitations on commercial speech such as advertising.

Our defamation laws  are among the strictest in civilised world. Possibly uniquely, they put the burden of proof on the defendant.

Until recently there was a flourishing trade in libel tourism where foreigners would sue in the English courts because their chances of success were much higher, especially if Mr Justice Eady was hearing the case.

Fortunately this abuse has been extinguished. And in two landmark cases, the ‘public interest’ requirement in press reporting has been modified to the defence that journalism undertaken in the public interest enjoys a complete defence against a libel suit and that the balance of the piece was fair in view of what the writer knew at the time.

The truth is that the British Establishment -- politicians, judges, civil servants -- has always been uncomfortable (to say the least) about freedom of speech. Whenever they pontificate about it, their utterances always seem to end in ‘but……..’

It is all very well for Cameron to say that his government stands for free speech and the right to cause offence whilst at the same time arresting people for posting nasty jokes on-line and boasting that it would quadruple imprisonment of internet trolls.

The Labour Party is just as hypocritical. It has proposed a blacklist of internet offenders to warn prospective employers not to give them jobs, and  ‘asbos’ banning trolls from the internet social media.

Which brings us to Leveson to which Labour is ‘absolutely committed’. The Leveson proposals are entirely about state regulation of the press -- in a word, censorship.

The harassment and intimidation of the media by the police is a direct consequence of Leveson. Except that the judges and juries in the 60-odd cases brought against journalists have tossed out all but one of them. The judge in the case of the sole conviction obviously was puzzled to know just what offence had been committed so he handed down a suspended sentence.

We even have luvvies joining the ‘ban them’ brigade; Hacked-off, the noise-makers supporting press censorship, is mostly composed of fading celebs like Hugh Grant. Elton John started an international boycott against a pair of gay Italian fashionistas for saying that homosexual adoption of babies was ‘unnatural’, a view probably held by a lot of ‘straights’ also.

"But you must remember, my fellow-citizens, that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing’.

So said Andrew Jackson, and it’s as true today as in 1837.

Robin Mitchinson is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former barrister, living in the Isle of Man, he is an international public management specialist with almost two decades of experience in institutional development, decentralisation and democratisation processes. He has advised governments and major international institutions across the world

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