Free speech as an issue has had a hard time of it over the last ten years. A large section of the left has given up on the concept of it completely. That this has happened at the same time as the rise of the “I’m literally a communist” meme is not coincidental. The portion of the left which has been in the ascendancy over past decade would love to see the portions of the press it doesn’t like – the centre-right newspapers, the BBC, well, pretty much all of the press, actually – either shut down or “corrected for use”. This has spread into the academic world with puzzling results. Meanwhile, free speech has become a clarion call on the far right, being used to try and shut down any and all critiques of various viewpoints in the name of anti-political correctness. Caught between these two forces, those who are passionate about free speech have sometimes had a tricky time having their defence of it taken at face value.
These are just the challenges facing free speech in liberal democracies. While all this has gone on, the world at large has become an unsafer place for journalists, writers and free speech generally. Turkey has gone full blown authoritarian in a power grab by Erdogan, closing down what free press the country previously had; Russia had got even worse on this front, closing down discussion within its borders more and more while simultaneously spreading as much disinformation as it can outside, creating a huge problem for defenders of free speech in regard to the issue of genuinely fake news; China has tightened its already unyielding grip on information within its confines.
With all of that as the backdrop, we now face a massive crisis that has really only just begun. We are probably going to be living with CoVid19 for a couple of years at least. In order to try and keep the spread of the virus relatively at bay, we have accepted a massive state intervention into all of our lives. With this may come much more surveillance by the state for a variety of disease control related reasons in the years ahead. We have accepted this because we accept the premise as to why it has been instituted. Yet as history shows, state interventions can be tough to roll back once they have served their appointed use. Take for example the idea of trying to stamp out false information regarding the virus and its spread. While this could be well-intentioned in some respects, it would be easy for it to become draconian and impinge on other areas of wider discussion. As an example, it could make the press more fearful of whistle blower type stories, however well sourced, for fear of falling foul of new laws on what information is and isn’t allowable under UK law.
This is before we get into the next CoVid related risk to free speech: the economic downturn will directly affect the newspaper trade, leading to what will likely be smaller budgets for investigative journalism. At at time when proper journalism might be more required than at any point in the last half a century, it could become economically unviable.
I’m speaking in hypotheticals because none of this has begun in the UK yet. Yet I worry that in a political world in which masses of people accept more restraints on freedom of speech as the supposed price of safety, we end up with a much less free society. We have already seen how much pressure the issue of freedom of speech can come under already; imagine it in a post-CoVid world where mass surveillance is taken for granted and speaking against that is seen as speaking against people’s safety?
What I’m saying is that protecting freedom of speech is about to become a whole lot more difficult and complicated – at a time when it was already difficult and complicated. We can never forget that freedom of speech is the most important freedom as it is the one from which all other freedoms flow. This doesn’t get said enough these days.
I have a new book out now. It’s called “Politics is Murder” and follows the tale of a woman named Charlotte working at a failing think tank who has got ahead in her career in a novel way – she is a serial killer. One day, the police turn up at her door and tell her she is a suspect in a murder – only thing is, it is one she had nothing to do with. The plot takes in Conservative Party conference, a plot against the Foreign Secretary and some gangsters while Charlotte tries to find out who is trying to frame her for a murder she didn’t commit.
Also: there is a subplot around the government trying to built a stupid bridge, which now seems a charming echo of a more innocent time!
It’s available here: