The UK government’s sudden and selective embrace of free speech is a little hard to swallow.
On the face of it, new government proposals to ensure free speech in higher education are highly laudable and much needed, and the resultant squealing and whataboutery of academics on social media simply emphasises the fact. If, as they say, there is no free speech crisis in universities, then what is the issue? But if, as plenty of evidence shows, student unions and pressure groups are no-platforming and cancelling anyone with opinions that they don’t like, then it’s certainly a problem that needs solving. Maybe not our most pressing one, but I doubt that Covid-19 is taking up all the time of every department, and life goes on. The fact that some activists are now claiming that their free speech will be oppressed by no longer allowing them to silence voices that they disapprove of simply proves the point. No one is suggesting that speakers can’t be protested, criticised or even – God forbid – debated, but of course, this isn’t good enough. But even in a world where words are seen as being actual violence, not being able to stop someone else from speaking is a curious interpretation of having your free speech curtailed. That some people honestly believe their rights of self-expression depend upon silencing others is a sad indictment of society.
So this is, in many ways, a much-needed proposal. But for all its high-minded statements about allowing all opinions and ideas, it seems strangely at odds with what British governments generally do. The announcement comes just a week after someone was arrested for making an ‘offensive’ tweet about Sir Tom Moore, after all – not much consideration of free speech there. In Britain, free expression has always depended very much on whether or not the government of the day believes that said expression is morally unacceptable. Dangerous ideas, distressing concepts, unorthodox beliefs and unfashionable opinions have always been silenced and persecuted by those who have decided that they know better than the rest of us. Britain has a long history of censoring for the good of society. But as greater men than us have long argued, free speech has to protect the things that offend and challenge us or it isn’t free speech at all – it remains censored, selective, moralising and protectionist, and you can never quite be sure that its restrictions won’t be applied to you next.
In his foreword to the free speech bill, Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson waxes lyrical that “free speech is fundamental to our society”. He boldly declares that “it is the lifeblood of democracy and the cornerstone of a free and liberal society. Throughout history, free speech has been a constant sword against tyranny, injustice and oppression.” all very noble and admirable. Williamson then discusses the dark days of the Salman Rushdie fatwa and the attempted banning of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, which he declares “an embarrassment that was thankfully in the past. Though people might disagree and protest, there was no right not to be offended.”
This is an interesting point because it moves the argument away from the merely political – the right of opposing views to be expressed on university campuses – to the cultural. If Williamson is suggesting that our laws based on moral outrage over material that some find unacceptable should be scrapped, then bravo. Somehow though, I suspect he is not. It’s easy to mock the Lady Chatterley trial, though we might remember that the case was lost by the government and the book was liberated; it’s uncontroversial to scoff at local councils banning The Life of Brian even though the BBFC had passed it uncut for anyone over 14 years of age. Would Williamson be as critical of the British censors banning Gestapo’s Last Orgy, as they did last month? Or would he agree that this mid-Seventies exploitation film was still a clear and present danger, even for adult viewers? I think we can guess the answer.
We can all look back at impositions on free speech in the distant past and be horrified. Britain’s censorship regimes have always been extensive. Let’s not forget that in the era since the Lady Chatterley trial, publishers have continued to be prosecuted. They are, of course, the publishers of less respectable literature. Publishers of pornography have been sent to prison or had their publications confiscated and destroyed; Oz, The International Times and other underground publications were seized and prosecuted; Savoy Books’ David Britton was imprisoned for publishing the novel Lord Horror in the 1990s. Some poor bugger was prosecuted for writing online sex fantasies about Girls Aloud in 2009. Is Williamson equally ashamed of this, I wonder? Is he aghast at the hundreds of films banned in the 1960s and 1970s? That John Lindsay went to prison for showing consensual porn films in a private cinema to paying adults? That David Hamilton-Grant was imprisoned for releasing a version of Nightmares in a Damaged Brain that was a minute longer than the BBFC-approved version? Where does his embarrassment over the moral censorship of yesteryear end?
Perhaps he is ashamed of the prosecution of The Anti Nowhere League’s So What or NWA’s Efil4zaggin. Maybe he agrees that fining subscription porn channels for showing too much sex at 3am in the morning is ludicrous moralising; indeed, that the ban of such channels from showing hardcore is as laughable as the prosecution of Lady Chatterley. Possibly he would nod furiously if you claimed that the BBFC’s ban on hardcore sex, even at the R18 level, until 2000 – and the heavy censorship of kinky sex in those films after that point – was a national embarrassment. Who knows?
But Mr Reprobate, I hear you say, things have changed. We now only ban art if it is dangerous – work that will stir up hatred and cause anti-social behaviour. But of course, that was always the cry. We never, officially, banned anything just for being offensive. The Obscene Publications Act talks of work that ‘depraves and corrupts’, rather than simply offends. The BBFC’s James Ferman often claimed that the board censored material that was dangerous, not simply tasteless – the sort of stuff that would inflame the car worker in Birmingham, perhaps. Video Nasties and pornography alike were seen as undermining the very fabric of society. The Extreme Porn laws exist to protect people from being depraved by the wrong sort of sexual imagery. Section 28 existed to stop straight kids from being sucked into the homosexual lifestyle. Allowing Gerry Adams to speak on TV would undermine the fight against the IRA. Swearing in pop songs warps the minds of children who otherwise would never hear such words. Violent video games cause violent behaviour. Chocolate bars near the supermarket tills cause obesity. Strip clubs spill rapists onto the street when they close. The covers of Loaded and Nuts turn boys into misogynists. These things are true because we are told that they are true, and any claims otherwise – any demands for actual evidence – are to be ignored. The censors know best. Bad ideas incite bad behaviour. The British people are uniquely susceptible to bad influences and must be protected from themselves. “The public has shown their preference but the public are wrong“, as one MP put it during the Video Nasties scandal.
Perhaps Williamson is a sole voice of reason in the government, pissing in the wind of censorship and restriction. Or perhaps he is just paying lip service as the government seek to pass a bill that only protects the sort of speech that they approve of. There are no signs in this bill of any other moves to abolish restrictions on freedom of expression in the UK; indeed, the current government seem as keen as its predecessors to expand the rules and regulations over what can be said online beyond the video sites. Free Speech will not, it seems, extend to what is considered ‘fake news’ or offensive commentary or contrary opinions on social media sites, even though the idea of government authorities like OFCOM overseeing what is or isn’t the truth does not seem like a good idea.
Moral panics come and moral panics go. What seemed a threat to civilisation yesterday is the respected classic today. It’s pathetically easy to quote Monty Python’s Life Of Brian as an example of the dreadful censorship of the past to show just how far we have come as a society. Reference Nigel Wingrove’s Visions of Ecstacy or Danish porn movie I Saw Jesus Die as examples of the shameful censorship from the past and I might believe you more. Condemn the BBFC for continuing to ban films in the 21st century, roll back laws against BDSM and other consensual sexual acts, promise us that no one will ever be arrested again for saying something offensive online and set in place a legal overhaul that removes any legal restrictions on opinions, images or ideas beyond the very minimal (say, clear incitement to criminal acts, visual records of criminal sexual behaviour) and enforces a public and cultural framework that allows everyone to battle it out in the marketplace of ideas without restriction. Do that, and then we can talk about your commitment to free speech. Until then, we’ll just assume that you are the classic censor, acting as the gatekeeper for what is or isn’t a dangerous idea according to your own moral sensibilities – free speech for me, but not for thee.
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