By Paul Gerrard
Rishi Sunak’s government is agitated about free speech in universities! The Tories recently passed a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, allowing students or academics to sue a university or a student union for “infringement of the right to free speech”. They have even appointed a Free Speech Tsar, Arif Ahmed, a Cambridge philosophy professor, to the Office for Students (OFS), whose job is ostensibly to defend free speech.
The government claims all this is in response to a number of no-platforming incidents in UK universities. But according to the Office for National Statistics just 0.9% of speaking events at UK higher education institutions were cancelled in 2020-21. Over a four-year period from 2018 to 2022 the OFS received only 60 complaints about free speech issues.
Whose free speech?
This ‘freedom of speech’ campaign reeks of hypocrisy when it comes from a government which seeks to silence opposition views and restricts the right to protest through the Public Order Act and anti-strike legislation. The UK has seen – and is still seeing – a massive strike wave with hundreds and thousands involved in strike action. However, the voices of striking workers, for instance, are absent in the mainstream media.
Those millionaire press owners try, unsuccessfully for the most part, to stir up antagonism to strikers with fictitious stories suggesting rail workers are all earning £60,000 a year and of patients at risk. Likewise, there has been a ramping up of the so-called ‘debate’ on trans rights on the TV and capitalist papers, with hand-picked panelists and columnists stirring up a moral panic over children being exposed to ‘gender ideology’ (with clear parallels to the anti-gay fearmongering of the 20th century). The bosses, the Tories and the capitalist press are only too happy to restrict free speech and distort reality when it suits them, i.e. when profits and class interests are at stake.
In a university a couple of hundred people might attend a lecture but through the press, television and social media millions of people are exposed to lies, distortions and poison every day. Where is the bigger problem? The 2011 Leveson inquiry into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the press reported on harmful invasions of privacy and sensationalist reporting by the press, recommending measures to curb abuses by media companies. Tory thenPrime Minister Cameron announced that he would not be acting on its recommendations. Part two of the inquiry, investigating links between the press and the police, which might have lifted the lid on police corruption, was cancelled.
The BBC is currently mired in controversy over links between its Chair and the Tory Party. Meta (the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, among others), and its rivals, appear untameable and continue to pump out hate speech online. The only real restraint on the media is action from their own employees, such as BBC journalists striking against cuts or Facebook employees walking out over #MeToo.
Why are the Tories so worked up about free speech?
The Tories’ real problem is that many young people, and especially students, broadly reject the right-wing ideology which the government pushes and are quick to react to discriminatory statements and actions, specifically misogynist, transphobic and xenophobic views. Meanwhile, the Tories are headed for a crushing defeat at the next general elections. Desperately trying to hold on to their support, they have built a ‘culture war’ campaign taking aim at oppressed people – and raising the spectre of ‘cancel culture’.
But will the appointment of Arif Ahmed mean anything for LGBTQ+ youth looking to express themselves freely in school, or to make their voices heard on topics like the climate crisis? Almost certainly not. Indeed, guidance from the government’s counter-terrorism authorities suggests that school students who “participate in planned school walkouts” against the climate should be referred to the Prevent ‘anti-extremist’ scheme. The silence on this from the ‘defenders of free speech’ is deafening. In reality, this appointment is nothing to do with free speech, but about furthering the Tories’ ‘war on woke’.
Socialist approach needed
Socialists defend the right to free speech. Our movement is democratic and thrives on the expression of different views and debates about the demands we should make and the tactics we should pursue. We fight for openness and transparency whereas the capitalist class, and their agents in government and the state, hide the truth behind ‘state security’ and ‘commercial confidentiality’.
On the other hand, we defend the rights of people to protest bigoted views, especially because these lead to violent attacks on minorities, and we have no sympathy for the bigots when counter-protests turn out to be strong enough to ban the bigot from speaking. We applaud workers who take action and withdraw their labour, such as those at the comedy club in Edinburgh who refused to work at an event featuring the transphobic Scottish National Party politician Joanna Cherry.
Under capitalism, workers have almost no control over the views which are given a platform in society. Collective action like this points toward the fact that workers would have little time for many of the reactionary ideas pushed by the ruling class, if we had the power to democratically decide how the resources in society – including the media – are used.
In a socialist society, the media empires would be broken up and printing presses, television studios and media servers would all be in public hands. Workers and communities would have access to the press and media as never before, and resources would be allocated democratically. Only then could we really talk about a press free from the interests of profiteers and purveyors of hatred.