Monday, 16 March 2020

The Future of Free Speech

Since the beginning of the year, I have been hard at work on a series of five documentaries for the BBC World Service. They are called The Compass: The Future of Free Speech, and the first in the series will be broadcast on Wednesday. The programmes will all be available online – click here for the link – and on BBC Sounds.

Each of the programmes focuses on what we are calling different free speech gatekeepers, the people who draw the line between what we are, and are not, allowed to say. The first programme looks at the courts, and then we move on to universities, religions, journalists, and social media platforms.

It’s a fascinating, complex – and highly topical – issue, so I do hope you’ll get a chance to listen.

Meanwhile, here’s an article I have written to introduce the series, and which appears in the current edition of Radio Times:

I have no doubt that the world would be a much more pleasant place if we tried not to be offensive. Twitter and Facebook would certainly be much more pleasant places. But I am also in no doubt that we must defend our right to be offensive – and it is that right which now seems to me to be increasingly at risk.

Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having. So why, after nearly 50 years as a journalist and broadcaster, am I increasingly worried that speaking inoffensively may soon be all that we are allowed to do?

While researching my new series, The Compass: The Future of Free Speech, I met Gerard Biard, editor-in-chief of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which was attacked in 2015 by two jihadi gunmen who shot dead 12 people, including several of its best known cartoonists. He now has a round-the-clock bodyguard and operates from an office at an undisclosed address.

Biard says that since the explosion of social media sites, many have come to regard their own feelings as more important than the law. Narcissism rules. Instead of free expression, they demand censorship. Instead of testing ideas, they post selfies. The courts can insist until they are blue in the face that the law upholds the right to offend, but many people, including those jihadis, insist instead on their right not to be offended. (Charlie Hebdo had published cartoons mocking the Muslim prophet Mohammed.)

If you spend as much time on Facebook or Twitter as I do, it is easy to conclude that free speech is a mixed blessing. No wonder, you might think, that the government now proposes to put media regulator Ofcom in charge of making sure that social media sites do more to protect their users from ‘harmful’ content.

Yes, there is plenty of foul stuff online. Yes, it can do real harm. So can the nutty conspiracy theories that swill about in the deeper recesses of the internet. Even so, I think there is real cause for concern if a State regulator is to be given the power to decree what is ‘harmful’ and what is not.

Back in 1968, an anti-Vietnam war protester walked into the Los Angeles county courthouse wearing a jacket emblazoned with the slogan ‘F*ck the Draft.’ He was arrested, but the case ended up in the US Supreme Court, which ruled that his arrest had contravened his First Amendment right to free speech. In the words of Justice John Marshall Harlan II, if the arrest were deemed to be lawful, ‘government might soon seize upon the censorship of particular words as a convenient guise for banning the expression of unpopular views.’ So three cheers for the US Supreme Court.

I accept the need for laws that ban the incitement of hatred or violence. But I am pleased that just last month, Harry Miller won his case against Humberside Police, who had warned him against posting allegedly transphobic comments on Twitter that, although they broke no law, the police chose to classify as ‘hate incidents.’

We need to recognise that one of the prices of living in a democracy is that sometimes we’ll be shocked. We also need to encourage Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and others to grow up and take responsibility for the monsters they have created.
In Washington, the law professor Stephen Wermiel told me that the previously accepted bargain – you put up with stuff that you don’t like in order to uphold free speech – is a bargain that more and more people are now not prepared to accept. I think that is a very dangerous development. And so would George Orwell, whose warning is inscribed on the wall of the BBC’s London HQ: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

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