Toby Young: O’Brien is wrong – censorship is never the answer

12 Jan

Toby Young is the General Secretary of the Free Speech Union and the Editor of LockdownSceptics.org.

I was disappointed to read Neil O’Brien’s column on this site yesterday (‘Trumpism in Britain. It’s time to call out those in the media who cynically feed the cranks, rioters and conspiracists’), and not just because I’m the only person in the media whom he actually “calls out”.

He didn’t say outright that he supports the Donald Trump Twitter ban, or the censorship of cranks and conspiracists on social media, but he came close. Indeed, he called for newspapers to no platform some of the people who challenge the official narrative about Coronavirus, dismissing them as “professional contrarians” who are poisoning the well of public discourse. “We need people in positions of power in the media to practice some basic hygiene about whose views they are promoting,” he wrote.

That a Conservative MP and the Co-Chairman of the Party’s Policy Board should set so little store by free speech is alarming. No one is suggesting that the right to it should extend to inciting violence, and some of the things that Trump said in the lead-up to the attack on the U.S. Capital last week and on the day itself crossed that line.

But couldn’t Twitter have simply deleted anything it regarded as dangerously inflammatory rather than banned Trump outright? He is the President of the United States, after all, elected by 63 million people in 2016. Who elected Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and CEO of Twitter?

O’Brien says he’s concerned that British politics will become as polarised and venomous as American politics if the media doesn’t behave more responsibly, by which he means excluding people express views he considers false and dangerous.

However, there are numerous problems with this censorious attitude, starting with the first question that defenders of free speech always ask: who decides? After all, one man’s conspiracy theory is another man’s inconvenient truth. It’s all very well saying we should ban ‘misinformation’, but these days that’s just a euphemism for ‘a point of view I disagree with’.

Sometimes, the would-be Lord Chamberlains use the phrase ‘hate speech’ to describe the views they think should be censored, but defining which opinions are ‘hateful’ and which merely controversial is notoriously difficult. Last year, I started an organisation called the Free Speech Union, and many of our members have been kicked off social media platforms for breaching anti-hate speech rules, even though their views would be considered perfectly reasonable by ConservativeHome readers.

To give just one example” a trans activist started a petition on Change.org last year demanding that the OED change its definition of woman from “adult human female” to something less “exclusionary” – i.e. delete the word “female”. The feminist campaigner Posie Parker responded by launching a counter-petition on the same platform, asking the OED to retain its definition. Change.org took it down, explaining to Posie that defining a woman as an “adult human female” was “hate speech”.

But even if there was a consensus among right-thinking people about which points are beyond the pale, would that be a good reason for banning them? I’m not talking about stirring up racial hatred, which I would never defend, although the bar needs to be set a lot higher than it was by the police in the Darren Grimes/David Starkey case.

But what about the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that Washington is run by a cabal of devil-worshipping paedophiles? If you’re concerned that people’s belief in this theory may lead to their estrangement from civil society – or worse – isn’t it better to let its proponents set out their case in the public square, where it can be rebutted with reason and evidence? If you suppress it, not only will you deprive people of the opportunity to hear these rebuttals, you will probably convince some fence-sitters that it’s true. After all, if it is obviously and transparently false, why hush it up?

As the Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, said: “if there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence”.

Which brings me to Neil O’Brien’s disapproval of lockdown sceptics. In his article, he smears me and the contributors to the sceptical website I run as cranks and conspiracy theorists, lumping us together with Covid-deniers and anti-vaxxers. He even puts inverted commas around the word “scientists”, as if no respectable scientist could be anything other than four square behind the lockdown policy.

This is plainly ludicrous. There are plenty of mainstream scientists, not to mention psychologists, sociologists, economists, historians, philosophers, statisticians, actuaries, financial analysts and novelists – even some Conservative MPs – who believe the harm caused by the lockdowns outweighs the harms they prevent.

They’re not Covid deniers or anti-vaxxers – just people who are sceptical about prioritising saving people from Covid-19 at the expense of everything else, including other deadly diseases, mental health, children’s education, the economy and our civil liberties. Many of them are contributors to Lockdown Sceptics.

O’Brien is perfectly entitled to think this is a dangerous, irrational point of view, just as most of us think his fanatical support for lockdowns is dangerous and irrational. The difference is that we don’t think he should be kicked off Twitter or no-platformed by the mainstream media. We believe in free speech, which means we think the best way to determine when the current restrictions should be lifted – and weigh up the costs and benefits of the lockdown approach more generally – is through vigorous, open debate.

Daniel Hannan: Overstretched – that’s how our police see themselves. So how have they found time to hound a young Geordie journalist?

14 Oct

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Which of the following do you reckon constitutes a public order offence? Holding a demonstration in defiance of lockdown rules; vandalising a statue; recording an interview with a well-known Cambridge historian in which he makes a racist remark.

If you picked the third option, you could have a glittering career in the Metropolitan Police. London’s coppers, who switched from heavy-handed enforcement of the lockdown to indulgence of Leftist demonstrators, who literally dropped to their knees during violent protests, and one of whose commanders went so far as to issue a video asking BLM agitators to break the law considerately, has decided to investigate Darren Grimes over his interview with David Starkey.

Grimes, a Eurosceptic commentator, has been interviewed under caution in connection with Section 22 of the 1986 Public Order Act which makes the producer of a broadcast containing abusive or threatening language liable if “(a) he intends thereby to stir up racial hatred, or (b) having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby.

No one, as far as I can tell, has defended Starkey’s assertion that, had the transatlantic slave trade constituted a genocide, “there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks”. Indeed, the dyspeptic doctor himself has issued a (for him) exceptional apology.

We can all agree that his remarks were intemperate, inaccurate and impolite. More than that, they were racist – a word that has been cheapened throughoveruse, but which applies in this case. A racist remark, though, does not in itself constitute a crime. The test is whether anyone hearing it would be stirred to racial hatred. In this instance, it seems vanishingly improbable. The common reaction, as we have seen, was a shudder of distaste at the speaker.

There used to be a clearly understood distinction between opinion (“Why are there so many damn Archenlanders in Narnia?”) and incitement (“Are you just going to stand there and let these Archenlanders violate our Marshwiggles?”) But that distinction has been systematically demolished, partly through legislation, partly through judicial activism and partly through over-eager policing.

It seems highly unlikely that the action against Grimes will result in a prosecution, let alone a conviction. But that doesn’t make it OK. For one thing, every investigation of this kind diminishes civil liberties and undermines the police. For another, there is a human cost even in cases that don’t reach court. As Mark Steyn (himself a victim of frivolous and malicious hate crimes accusations) puts it, “the process is the punishment”.

Grimes spent the better part of four years fighting off vexatious charges brought by people who resented the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum. Although he was completely exonerated in the end, nothing could undo the stress, the financial cost and the damaging media reports. Now, he faces going through another such ordeal. And the poor chap is still only 27.

Hate crimes are one of the places where we hear screeching gears as our politico-legal class pulls one way and public opinion the other. It is incomprehensible to most people that a police force that claims to be overstretched and underfunded can find time to chase a young Geordie journalist (“investigate crimes, not Grimes”, as one wag put it).

There is also a strong suspicion of partiality. Had David Starkey made his remarks in, say, a Guardian interview, does anyone seriously imagine that that paper’s editor would find herself under investigation? Yet, as the public looks on in bewildered alarm, the Law Commission is plugging ahead with its attempts to extend hate crimes legislation even further – this time to include misogyny.

Labour MPs have piled in against Grimes. Karl Turner, a shadow law minister, came out with a singular definition of free speech when he declared: “Of course everyone has the right to freedom of expression. But that doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences from what they have said. As I understand it, the police are investigating complaints. And it is right that they should investigate racist behaviour.”

Got that? You have absolute freedom of expression, but you may end up getting your collar felt if you exercise it in the wrong way.

Keir Starmer agrees. “I think it does sometimes have to involve the police,” he said on Monday. “There has got to be a level of tolerance of course, but there is a line which can be crossed, and it’s very important that it is investigated, and that in some cases there are prosecutions.”

Starmer has what coppers call “previous” here. When he was Director of Public Prosecutions, he reportedly overruled his staff to insist on pushing ahead with a case against someone who had made a joke on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood airport.

If Boris Johnson moves to reverse the spread in these illiberal laws, he will be in the happy position of having the electorate with him but Labour against him. That, though, is not why he should act. He should act because, until he does, there will be many more travesties: more wasted resources, more ruined lives, more tarnished liberty. “It’s a free country”, we used to tell one another. Let’s make it one.