The worst 10 assaults on freedom
From bans on songs and leafleting to war against gossipy tabloids, 2011 was a bad year for free speech.
If one had to pick an image to sum up the British attitude towards free speech in 2011, it would have to be the three monkeys in the Japanese proverb who ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’. This year, we were treated like a nation of chimps, who had to be protected from certain words and images – for our own good, of course. Here are the Top 10 most annoying erosions of free speech in the UK this year.
No.10: Twitch Hunts
Far from being, as Twitter CEO Dick Costolo likes to put it, ‘the free-speech wing of the free-speech party’, Twitter has proven to be an intolerant and conformist sphere, often used to mobilise followers to grass people up to the authorities for committing ‘speech crimes’. Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson felt the self-righteous wrath of Twitterers more than most this year. When he made a bad joke about striking workers in November, trade-union leaders went from campaigning to save jobs to joining with the Twitterati to demand that Clarkson lose his.
No.9: Leafleting bans
In many towns and cities across the UK, it’s becoming a criminal offence to hand out leaflets without first getting them vetted and authorised by local councils. Councils such as Leicester, Birmingham, Brighton and Leeds have introduced ‘leafleting zones’ where anyone wanting to hand out leaflets must first fork out cash to the council and wear a special badge. It’s a sad day for free speech when such a long-standing, primary form of public communication is curtailed in this way.
The war against gossip intensified in 2011 with the rise of gagging orders – aka superinjunctions. When an injunction is taken out, usually by the rich and famous, it becomes a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment, for anyone to publish the offending claims. So-called hyperinjunctions went further, preventing people even from discussing the subject of an injunction with their MP. As Brendan O’Neill observed, this represents a ‘flashback to the feudal era, when badmouthing the upper classes was a risky endeavour for mere plebs and peasants’.
No.7: Criminal ASBOs
Since New Labour introduced them in 1999, anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) have been used to regulate individuals’ behaviour. Now they’re being used to clamp down on the freedom to protest. In March, English Defence League (EDL) member Shane Overton received a Criminal ASBO banning him from attending or helping to organise any demonstration, meeting or gathering held by the EDL, and even from visiting its website for 10 years. Later in 2011, police tried to slap an ASBO on EDL leader Stephen Lennon that would have prevented him from having any involvement with his own organisation. This was rejected by a judge as being a bit OTT.
No.6: The censorship of Human Centipede 2
Horror movie Human Centipede 2, with its gruesome scenes of people having their mouths stitched to other people’s anuses, probably isn’t to everyone’s taste. But for a time in 2011, people in the UK were denied the right to decide for themselves whether or not it was to their liking. The British Board of Film Classification denied the film a certificate, effectively meaning it was banned, on the basis that it might ‘corrupt’ audiences. Director Tom Six rightly asked: ‘How can it be that adults are not allowed to choose whether or not to see a film? This kind of censorship is ridiculous.’
No.5: The banning of sectarian songs in Scotland
The mere act of singing certain songs in Scotland will soon be enough to have you locked up for up to five years. The SNP’s Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communication Bill was passed in December, criminalising ‘offensive’ songs and chants by football fans – especially fans of the two Glasgow clubs that dominate Scottish football, Celtic and Rangers. As Kevin Rooney argued on spiked, ‘In Scotland, the idea that football fans are a thick-skinned bunch who can put up with abuse from rivals for 90 minutes every Saturday has been replaced by the assumption that the majority of fans are potential victims at permanent risk of suffering offence or psychological damage’.
No.4 The Advertising Standards Authority’s antics
From its censure of an allegedly racist chocolate advert to its ban on airbrushed make-up ads for being ‘misleading’ to its chastising of a lighthearted Phones 4 U advert which featured a winking Jesus, the officious, censorious quasi-government group the ASA was working overtime in 2011. It also expanded its mandate to cover online ads, meaning there is now even more material the British public is prevented from seeing just because a small board of unelected officials has deemed it ‘offensive’.
No.3 The banning of protest marches
Lib-Con home secretary Theresa May casually banned protesters from marching this year. Responding to campaigns by certain illiberal left-wing groups who wanted the EDL banned from marching in Tower Hamlets in London, May decided to outlaw all marches in six London boroughs for a period of one month. You might think this would have encouraged left-wing activists to question their tactic of placing faith in the state to decide which groups should be allowed to protest. But no, and sadly their liberty-related naivety looks set to continue in 2012.
No.2: The jailing of ‘Facebook rioters’
During the English August riots, 20-year-old Jordan Blackshaw set up a Facebook ‘event’ entitled ‘Smash Down in Northwich Town’. It was an event only he showed up to (he was promptly arrested) and yet he received a four-year jail sentence for his FB antics. The judge justified the jailing on the basis that this ‘happened at a time when collective insanity gripped the nation’. Other youngsters were also imprisoned for Facebook speech crimes. It seems this ‘collective insanity’ extended to the judges, who evidently didn’t realise they were eroding a fundamental democratic freedom by jailing people for doing nothing more than publishing words online.
No.1: The Leveson Inquiry
The post-hacking scandal closure of the News of the World, a paper of 168 years standing, was a dark day for press freedom. As Karl Marx warned, ‘you cannot enjoy the advantages of a free press without putting up with its inconveniences. You cannot pluck the rose without its thorns!’ The subsequent Leveson Inquiry into the ethics of tabloid press, cheered on by celebs and broadsheet journalists, could well lead to the establishment of an authority ‘with teeth’ designed to tame the feral tabloids. Some anti-tabloid types have even proposed a system of licensing journalists, who could then be struck off if they do something bad. It seems clear that the tabloids have already been found guilty, and in 2012 we, the British public, will be further instructed on what we should and shouldn’t read.