Political passions have reached dangerously high temperatures during our pressure-cooker months in national lock-down. We might have lacked many things – contact with friends, travel, a pint in the pub – but one thing that was in plentiful supply was passionate controversy and to a casual observer it might seem that, at least, democratic debate in Britain is in rude health. Free speech flourishes, our observer might complacently note, in line with Britain’s long tradition of the right of an individual to speak their mind; free-speech and Britain: a hard-won, permanent union forged over the centuries from Magna Carta onwards.
BLM aside other matters of great import were handled by the BBC in a way calculated to exclude other viewpoints
But, the ‘debates’ of the past few weeks have been carefully managed affairs, curated by the broadcasters and significant mainly as a record of those voices which were not heard. If you take your news mainly from the BBC, for instance, the ‘debate’ around the upsurge of activism stemming from BLM has been lacking an essential ingredient: a cogently argued counter-view. The BBC decided that no challenge would be permitted to the BLM narrative of oppression, victimhood and righteous anger. There was no place, for instance, for anything as vulgar as ‘evidential data’, about murder rates in the US or the history of the slave trade which might have usefully balanced the story that was told.
BLM aside other matters of great import were handled by the BBC in a way calculated to exclude some viewpoints almost entirely. Lock-down itself was a case in point. Once the decision was made the BBC quickly bought-in to the government line that a national lock-down was justified; from that point onwards the arguments of those who profoundly disagreed were rigorously excluded. It is true that, occasionally, Jonathan Sumption, popped-up and was allowed to air his heretical views but in the generality of the news output – of which there was a prodigious amount – dissident voices were not heard.
I am not taking-sides in these individual controversies (I never bought-in to Sumption’s argument because, though logical, it seemed politically untenable) but that is not the point. What we should have regard to here is not the debates themselves – important and fascinating though they are – but the way in which these are corralled between boundaries tightly drawn by a cultural elite of which the media itself is an important pillar. The ‘national debate’ is carried on as though John Stuart Mill had never observed: “If any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility”.
The notion of freedom of speech lies at the very heart of democracy and yet it is a freedom imperilled by cultural developments in Britain over the past few decades. Britain is not alone in finding it difficult to maintain this most important of liberties; the respected organisation Reporters Without Borders keeps a tally on how countries fare, year-by-year. It should concern everyone that the UK now stands at 35th (out of 180) in the league table. We’ve been dropping places in recent years and now lie way behind some countries you might expect – the likes of New Zealand and Sweden – but also behind less expected competitors like Portugal and South Africa. The reality is that in recent decades the direction of travel in Britain has been away from untrammelled free speech and towards a more controlled environment where an increasing number of things cannot be said without fear of social, or even legal sanction.
How we arrived at this point is a complex story where many influences have been at work but the big-tent of ‘political correctness’ encompasses most of them and ‘Big-PC’ is now brashly triumphant having virtually silenced all opposition in the media, academia and politics. But still it has to be wondered at: what is the mechanism which prevents dissenting voices from being heard? There is a useful theory which helps us understand what has happened; the ‘Overton Window’, named after Joseph Overton a researcher at the Mackinac Centre in Michigan, a free-market think-tank. Overton (who died in 2003) postulated that the viability of any political idea depends on whether or not it falls within the range of opinion (‘the window’) deemed acceptable by the general public. However ‘acceptability’ is itself a conditioned response and it is the media which controls this process.
Because the BBC takes a solid left-liberal stance on every issue the arguments of the right start with a handicap when it comes to the court of public opinion
Other researchers, building on Overton’s original idea, came up a with a taxonomy of opinion ranging from ‘unthinkable’, through ‘radical’ via ‘acceptable’ all the way to ‘popular’. How an idea moves through this range is largely a function controlled by the broadcasters with other media in tow; so, in its determination that no ‘offence’ should be given to its audience the BBC takes upon itself the role of deciding where these boundaries lie. Any idea deemed ‘radical’ first has to be carefully scrutinised to see if it is ‘correct-think’ and then, if it passes the test, it might start to move through the categories. However this is a far from level playing-field: ideas which comes from left-field (a current example might be a ‘universal basic income’) can make good headway while ideas which comes from the right often never progress past the ‘unthinkable’ marker. And what is ‘unthinkable’ therefore becomes ‘unsay-able’.
Because the BBC takes a solid left-liberal stance on every issue the arguments of the right start with a heavy handicap when it comes to the court of public opinion. Look at immigration policy as an example: for decades opinion polls have shown that a majority would like tighter controls on the numbers coming in but, because this offends the BBC’s ideological stance the debate is stymied from the outset. The BBC, in its collective group-think, sorts out those ideas which it thinks fit to lay before the public; the ‘incorrect’ never makes it past the starting gate. Which is why the BLM ‘debate’ consisted of a procession of speakers all of whom were on the same side and also why there was never any proper debate over whether there should have been a lock-down.
The sickly state of public discourse in the UK and the erosion of the right to free-speech ought to be of major concern to the BBC itself – an organisation, after all, that exists to communicate. But the Corporation shows little interest in the subject; weirdly ‘free-speech’ has itself been labelled as a ‘right-wing’ issue and thus inherently suspect. The Guardian – that bellwether of BBC opinion – has run a series of stories about how anxiety about the erosion of ‘free-speech’ have been concocted by the right. While the BBC has enthusiastically collaborated with imposing restrictions on freedom of expression the fight-back has, necessarily, come from other actors like Toby Young’s Free Speech Union; launched in February it already has with more than 4,000 signed-up members.
The Left, of which the BBC is such an important pillar, is right to be concerned about the growing interest in free-speech; any change to the current dispensation – where the left holds all the cards – will be to its disadvantage. The ability to screen out unwelcome dissident voices suits it very nicely. But suppressing debate solves nothing in the long-run; discontents will continue to ferment in an unhealthy underground environment and these might eventually break-out in a way none of us would wish. Free-speech lets the daylight in, and sunlight, as we know, is a powerful disinfectant. We need a much more vigorous public debate; we should, all of us, be made to hear arguments we don’t like.
Noam Chomsky, the libertarian socialist who has spent a lifetime thinking critically about the US media once remarked:
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum, even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of debate”.
That pretty accurately sums up the picture in Britain and it should act as a call to arms for all those who believe that a vigorous reaffirmation of our right to free-speech is long overdue.
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