Yes we can hate GB News

It’s not Oliver Dowden’s business to tell us whom we may boycott

Artillery Row

The GB News advertising boycott has turned out to be a damp squib. The channel is still broadcasting. Nobody has even been sacked. By the end of last week, more companies declared that they would not boycott than said that they would join the effort.

Many purported boycotters had no intention of ever advertising. They just wanted to virtue signal on Twitter. The companies that did withdraw, like Nivea and Octopus Energy, will likely be replaced by other advertisers with limited impact on GB News’ bottom line.

If anything, this failed attempt at cancellation likely furnished further attention and sympathy for the fledgling network. It also showed how a backlash can provide the reverse pressure, with the likes of Vodafone and IKEA suspending their boycott plans after public outrage at the idea of censorious woke capitalism.

The successful outcome for GB News did not stop forthright responses to the boycotters. Chairman Andrew Neil labelled them “agitators and cranks”. Nigel Farage declared it “cancel culture at its very, very worst”. The most intriguing response, however, came from the man who is responsible for regulating television channels.

Culture [Wars] Secretary Oliver Dowden decided that this might just be the hill he would be willing to die on. “I will not let a small, vocal minority undermine our freedom of expression,” Dowden declared in the Sunday Telegraph, by the time the affair was practically already over.

Dowden’s next steps are interesting to ponder. Would the Secretary of State like to ban the group behind the boycott, Stop Funding Hate, from being able to publish a list of companies that advertise with GB News? Should customers be unable to complain about the activities of a company (either in favour or against the boycott)? These interventions would hardly be a victory for freedom of expression.

GB News should have been better prepared for this boycott campaign

The boycott was narrow-minded, bigoted and presumptuous, particularly since it began before even a single minute of GB News had been broadcast. There are questions for the companies that backed the boycott, in particular, as to whether it really is in the interest of their shareholders to alienate millions by taking partisan political positions. And GB News, for the sake of their survivability, should have been better prepared for this campaign.

But how calling for an advertising boycott undermines freedom of expression is unclear. The act of calling for a boycott is precisely the type of controversial expression that should be protected. Furthermore, how private companies in a free society spend their advertising budgets is their choice, not yours or mine. Just like the rest of us have the right to criticise their behaviour and boycott the boycotters’ products in response. All is fair in love, war and boycotts.

Conservatives should be forthright in their support of the right of individuals and companies to decide how they spend money. The alternative is dystopic: the state compelling speech. A Jewish printing business forced to produce neo-Nazi Holocaust denial pamphlets. An LGBT online forum unable to delete the comments of a religious homophobe. If we applied the censors’ logically consistently, this is where would end up. But this of course is not what we do. Inconsistency is the order of day, and not just on the cancelling left.

This is not the first time Dowden has sought to weaponise woke. He came out against suspending Ollie Robinson from the Test cricket team, opposed removing statues in London, and demanded the BBC keep Land of Hope and Glory lyrics at the Last Night of the Proms. This represents a big role switch. Dowden was originally a Remainer. Before entering Parliament he was the mild-mannered No 10 deputy chief of staff to David Cameron.

That history perhaps explains why Dowden’s interventions often come across as shallow, inauthentic and manipulative. He’s a phoney. It is doubtful that Dowden believes a single world he is spurting. He treats the public like fools: hungry for the fight against “the left” but ignorant of actual policy.

The biggest threat to GB News is the state and Ofcom

Dowden declared the GB News boycott a threat to a “free and diverse media” and the “right to dissent”. But, were one to take his Sunday Telegraph ravings seriously, he’s happy enough to use the levers of the state to take away our freedoms when we’re using them inappropriately by his lights. By, for example, privately and voluntarily organising a campaign as to what people or companies might do with their own money in relation to GB News.

In truth, the biggest threat to GB News doesn’t come from woke capital or lefties with spam lists. It comes where most such threats usually most effectively come from: the state. In this case, Ofcom micromanaging their content and instigating costly investigations in response to complaints.

This regulator sits within Dowden’s portfolio. If the channel is to survive in the long-run the biggest gift would be to limit Ofcom’s powers. Instead, Dowden plans to extend Ofcom’s reach into online streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+, extending the grubby fingers of the state into even more areas.

Then there is Dowden’s flagship Online Safety Bill. This represents the gravest threat to freedom of expression in the democratic world. I do not exaggerate. You really should sit up and pay attention before there are no longer such effusions to ignore. Dowden’s dreadful bill would empower Ofcom to regulate “legal but harmful” speech on social media sites and search engines. That means the power to censor otherwise legal speech. On, immediately, regulators’ say-so, but ultimately upon ministerial say-so. I don’t trust Dowden with this power, and there are worse politicians still than him.

Ofcom will be empowered — under the threat of gigantic fines — to instruct the likes of Facebook and Twitter to remove any content that could directly or indirectly have a serious adverse “psychological” impact. This must be done while considering how speech impacts people with certain characteristics such as gender reassignment, religion and race — or even “personal appearance”.

Most worryingly, it was recently clarified that the definition of psychological harm will not need to have a clinical basis — with the bar set as low as feeling fearful. It’s truly a snowflakes’ charter. Taken together, this legislation rules out difficult discussions about contemporary issues, from trans rights to colonialism, that can be claimed to cause “offence” in the mind of the offended.

Dowden does not need to instruct private companies how to operate

Dowden — in his Sunday Telegraph piece — tried to make it out that the Online Safety Bill would defend freedom of expression. This is garbage: I am going to keep on saying that while there is still no legal impediment to me saying it. The mandate to protect freedom of expression is overwritten by the duties in relation to protecting people from psychological harm. The “democratic content” protection would just empower the state to decide what they think is important and worthwhile being protected. The shallow journalism protections will mean free speech for them, but not for us.

We are facing serious threats to freedom of expression. To find these threats, Dowden does not need to instruct private companies how to operate. He just needs to look in the mirror.

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