Britain: flying the flag for censorship
In debates about freedom of expression in the UK, a common refrain is ‘well, at least we’re not as bad as Over There’. Whether it’s France banning burqas, Poland prosecuting those who ‘insult Poland’, or half of Europe prosecuting Holocaust denial, we’ve usually been able to point to some more authoritarian, European neighbour to reassurre ourselves that we’re not as bad as all that. Well, it’s time we snapped out of it, and realised we’re no longer in a position to do this. The list of countries that are worse than us on free expression is rapidly diminishing.
By way of illustration, let’s look at some recent examples. I’m going to set aside the lunacy of our undergraduates for now and look to the police, who have been arresting people for flying flags in London. Two men on a pro-Palestinian march were detained on terrorism charges for displaying the flag of Hezbollah. A police spokesman explained that ‘activity and behaviour like this can cause concerns within communities’, and that ‘while holding extreme views is not in itself unlawful, those who seek to create division within our communities’ will be ‘dealt with robustly’.
So, you can hold the views, as long as you don’t express them in public; they may ’cause concerns’. Worse, if someone sees your flag, it may incite acts of violence, perhaps even terrorism – which wouldn’t otherwise have taken place – and it’ll be your fault. Except, of course, that is totally absurd. Remember when that guy walked past parliament wearing an Islamic State flag on his back? The police chose not to take him in, and we basically coped, didn’t we? Some people thought he was a bit of a twerp, a few said so on social media, and now we’ve all pretty much forgotten about him.
This latest clunking fist reminds us of the toxic assumption behind such curbs on free expression. That is, that we are all simply squirming little bags of reflexes, prone to react violently and without reflection when presented with some basic stimulus. We, therefore, require herding away from anything that may inflame our passions.
This attitude is also demonstrated by last week’s announcement from Police Scotland that they are hunting a group of men for singing ‘religiously offensive and illicit songs’ on a train. There are few more bloodcurdling phrases in the English language than ‘illicit songs’. However, considering that Police Scotland once tweeted that they will ‘continue to monitor social media, and any offensive comments will be investigated’, nothing they do can shock us anymore. The police are now protecting us from becoming a bit riled up – for fear of what atrocities we might unthinkingly commit. That’s about as bad as anything going on Over There.
Alasdair Riggs is a writer based in London.
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