Why the right to say, write, listen to, read and watch what we want should be the big cause of '98
I believe in free speech, unconditionally.
There is no word that should be banned, no book that should be burned, no film that should be censored, no disc that should be blacklisted, no website that should be blocked, no opinion that should be outlawed, no joke that should go uncracked.
There can be no such thing as semi-free speech, free speech lite or free-speech-for-me-but-not-for-you. We either have free speech, warts and for all, or we do not. And I want the full Monty.
I am not an advocate of going soft on the views of racists, misogynists, or Liverpool supporters. I have no truck with the wallyish notion that everybody is entitled to have their opinions taken seriously.
In fact, one of the worst things about our uncertain age is that never has so much ignorant and superstitious nonsense been spouted by so many, about everything from alien abduction to the deification of Princess Di. It is especially ironic that the open, unregulated Internet, which we are compelled to defend in today's free speech wars, should be full of the execrable files.
So, yes, we all need a finely-tuned bull detector these days, and, once detected, we need a readiness to hammer, ridicule or simply ignore those responsible, as required. What we do not need are the bans, regulations or calls for 'restraint' that would deny us the right to judge what is right and wrong for ourselves.
Standing up for free speech really has little to do with the value (or lack of it) that we ascribe to particular words. It is ultimately, as James Heartfield explains at length elsewhere in this issue of LM, about the worth we attach to humanity. It is about how we see ourselves and others. And it is about who is to have control over what we can do or think.
The demand for unfettered free speech says that we should act, and expect to be treated, as rational, intelligent adults capable of thinking and deciding for ourselves - not as incompetent children who need substitute parents to protect us from rude words and naughty pictures.
It says that we are self-confident and relaxed enough to believe that issues can be settled through open debate and a clash of views, without the need for knee-jerk bans or over-sensitive codes of practice.
If we come across opinions we object to, let us trust ourselves to confront and puncture them before the court of public opinion, instead of recoiling in horror and squealing like Victorian virgins about being offended. If we are faced with lies about history, let us back our ability to gather the evidence and expose them in the open, rather than try to gag the liars with the law, as if we were the ones with something to hide.
The demand for freedom of speech, then, is about what we think of people rather than about mere words. The danger today is that free speech is under threat because of a significant shift in the way that we see ourselves and each other.
In the not-too-distant past, it was the case that most people felt they could rely on each other more than they could trust the state. That sense of solidarity, based less on naive idealism than on an understanding of real common interests, meant relatively few were inclined to call on the authorities to intervene in public affairs with bans and restrictions. Free speech held sway as an expression of public faith in the human potential.
Now things are quite different. The old communities and connections have broken down, society is fragmented, and people no longer tend to trust one another in the same way. As a consequence, many are much more likely to turn to a third party - the government, the courts, the council, the standards and complaints commissions - to step in and protect them from other people. The way in which the case for restricting free speech has gained ground reflects the badly tarnished self-image of humanity today.
The answer as to why so many battles are now being fought over free speech issues, on everything from privacy laws to Prodigy lyrics, cannot be found in the detail of these debates themselves. The answer lies in the wider mood of society, an atmosphere which Frank Furedi describes in this month's LM as one where 'stranger danger' and institutionalised mistrust shape many human relationships.
Against that background, the fight for free speech is about the kind of society in which we have to live. That is why the right to say, write, listen to, read and watch what we want should be the big cause of '98. The problem is that, in the unusual political climate of today, too few of us even recognise that our right to free speech is being undermined.
The attacks rarely come in the form of old-fashioned, easy-to-spot bans imposed by right-wing authorities. Instead, the threat to freedom more often comes from the 'left' - the radical/feminist wings of the New Labour establishment. Conservatives may once have associated freedom of speech with 'woolly minded liberals', but they are now about as rare as woolly-backed mammoths. The former liberals staffing the New Labour machine are among the foremost advocates of restricting free expression.
In Blair's New Britain, censorship is never an act of state repression. It is always something worthy, supported from the bottom upwards: say, a humane measure to protect society's victims from harassment and abuse; or a concession to the complaints of minorities (religious, racial, social or sexual) against 'offensive' material. The end result is the same as traditional censorship - the removal of the right to free speech - but the means mystify the ends.
These new calls for restraint and respect have also been widely internalised, so that self-censorship has become a habit. In which case, who needs the old banning orders and official secrets? Instead we are all operating under an informal regime of 'YOU cannot say THAT', where it is understood that anything which strays outside the narrow consensus of the main- stream is increasingly unlikely to get a hearing.
A new system of what might be called moral censorship is now in operation, built around a strict code of emotional correctness. On any issue, this code dictates that there is only one correct line to be toed in public debate - cry for Di, cheer for Louise, boo the smokers - and woe betide anybody who attempts to do otherwise by thinking for themselves.
Blaspheming against the creed of 'Thou shalt not say that' is an unforgivable sin in the late 1990s. In this quasi-religious atmosphere, dissenters can expect to be treated not as people with a different point of view to be debated, but as heretics to be witch-hunted.
That is what has happened to us at LM magazine, since we published an article in February 1997 criticising ITN's award-winning reports from a Bosnian camp. Instead of engaging in an open discussion about the facts, ITN sought to silence us with libel writs and gagging orders. ITN editor-in-chief Richard Tait has declared that the case is an issue of 'Good against Evil', while one of his main supporters, Ed Vulliamy of the Guardian/Observer, has accused LM of harbouring 'diabolical' motives.
It seems that those of us who stray from what is now considered the morally/emotionally correct line are no longer simply raising an alternative argument to be contested; we are doing the Devil's work, and must be burnt at the stake.
Witch-hunt or no, LM magazine remains committed to an uncompromising stand in support of free speech. We should be able to say 'that', whatever it may be, without the endorsement of any policemen of the public good. We are prepared to take responsibility for what we say, without the intervention of any ethical watchdogs. And we trust the independence and intelligence of our audience, without the need for third parties to protect their sensibilities.
It is because we attach such importance to these matters that we are co-hosting the Free Speech Wars festival at the ICA (27 February to 1 March), which will debate how far free speech should go on a wide range of issues (see p16 for details). It is also why, a year on, we are still fighting the libel case against a multi-million pound news corporation which is seeking to buy immunity from criticism through the courts.
The legal process has demonstrated that free speech can be an expensive business. But I trust you to put your money where our mouth is.
Reproduced from LM issue 107, February 1998