Photo by Tolga Akmen

Barricading the bully pulpit

The Online Harms Bill promises safety for children but protects the very elites who corrupt and harm the young

Artillery Row

When we talk about “British values” or sometimes in wilder flight of intellectual fancy, “Western values”, we’re generally directed to such fine notions as democracy, liberty, toleration and the rule of law. But when it comes to the primary purpose of the modern state, and when any kind of challenge or crisis looms, Hobbes rears his head and the great god “safety” removes liberty from her throne. Whilst security from attack or natural disaster has always been a primary purpose for any sort of political community, the ideal of “safety” goes well beyond the traditional understandings of what temporal authorities might be responsible for.

‘Safetyism’ offers a comforting illusion

Nation states are increasingly technocratic bureaucracies rather than systems for communal self-organisation, and the expectation of what they might keep us safe from now extends not only to crime, disease, poverty and terrorism, but also now encompasses protecting us from the consequences of our own actions in relation to issues like drug addiction, mental health, unhealthy lifestyles, racial prejudice, and bullying and harassment online. This last is the subject of legislation shortly coming before parliament, known as the Online Safety Bill,

This legislation is the latest example of “safetyism” in action, offering the comforting illusion that imposing new legal duties on big tech to combat alleged “harassment” and empowering the police to devote yet further powers to investigate speech online will somehow change the toxic and radicalising nature of online discourse, and keep children safe from harm. The old canard of “liberty versus security” misses the point; what’s at work here is the bleeding away of authority from civil society, communities and families as we look to the central state to enforce our shrinking collection of social and moral norms.

Behind the technocratic platitudes and the ineffective but intrusive bobbies lurks the old reality of entrenched class power and the churn of real, ideological politics. Who, after all, is this bill really for? We hear a lot about online “harassment” but the victims (or at least the victims in the spotlight) are generally celebrities, politicians and journalists.

This bill is an aristocrat’s charter pinned to a church door

As deplorable as online threats, insults and slurs are, if you have tens of thousands or even millions of followers on a platform like twitter, is it really a surprise if a handful of them are deeply unpleasant people looking to lash out at someone more fortunate than themselves? Many MPs understandably feel under threat given that two of their colleagues have been murdered in recent years, but the oft-claimed link between online anger and real world violence has never been established or proved, merely asserted. We may find it all too easy to frame legitimate criticism or simple rudeness as something more sinister, thus silencing debate, and subtly empowering those with the largest platforms.

This bill is an aristocrat’s charter, reminiscent of some baroque law pinned to a church door in a renaissance city, explicating the rights and dignities of the nobility and threatening dire consequences to those who offend them. When someone is extremely rude to a footballer, a cabinet minister or a BBC journalist, it becomes “harassment” or even “abuse” and requires not just an entire news cycle of moralistic soul searching, but also a thorough investigation by the gendarmerie.

These same privileged individuals regularly bring misery down on the heads of ordinary people without consequence. MPs can abuse parliamentary privilege to malign individuals or prejudice court proceedings. Celebrities can “call out” ordinary people on social media, encouraging their vast armies of followers to rain hatred on their unlucky victim. Social media has likewise seen a growing trend of “journalism” that involves taking the allegedly “offensive” remarks of ordinary people and dragging them through the headlines, ruining lives and reputations in the process.

Celebrity status allowed Savile to act with impunity

The bitter irony of a bill that constantly talks of the safety of children is that it reinforces the untouchability of the very elites who corrupt and harm the young. Social media has led to the bullying and immiseration of many young people, but not for the reasons that many claim. The Instagram and TikTok stars (not to mention the pop stars, actors and reality TV b-listers) who share the #BeKind hashtag and witter on about wellbeing spend the rest of their time promoting pornographic beauty standards, relentless materialism and self-absorbed narcissism, with predictable effects on their youthful audiences.

The creepy reverence that we have for entertainers saw its most extreme example in the case of Jimmy Savile, the world’s most obvious child-molester, whose celebrity status allowed him to act with utter impunity. For decades his paedophilia was an open secret, with allegations going back to the 1960s, but none of this stood in the way of his being embraced by the British establishment, including a knighthood in 1990.

Although the old British aristocracy is long in its grave (along with any remaining attachment of the upper classes to the old ideals of noblesse oblige and public service) many of its worst aspects have been inherited by a new elite that now includes wealthy businessmen, entertainers, celebrities, media and cultural elites, and of course politicians themselves. A deep contempt for accountability, and a belief that criticism represents an assault on their person, reflects a distorted inheritance of ideas of aristocratic honour. We see this at work in our libel laws (from which MPs are conveniently exempted, whilst enjoying their protection), which are so unusually strong by international standards that elites from all over the world come to British courts to silence their critics. This dynamic is all too visible in the government’s Online Safety Bill.  The next time a politician promises safety, ask yourself: safe for whom?

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