Members of the board were asked to write a blog discussing one free speech issue in their country. The resulting posts exhibit a range of challenges to freedom of expression globally, from UK crackdowns on speakers in universities, to Indian criminal defamation law, to the South African Film Board’s newly published guidelines.
Tom Carter is a member of the Index youth advisory board. Learn more
Universities are meant to be institutions that embody the spirit of free expression. They are places where new ideas are formulated and environments where students are exposed to a range of viewpoints. However, whilst freedom of expression in universities is under threat from government intervention, another threat to freedom of expression on UK campuses is originating from the students themselves.
In October 2014, UKIP’s Nigel Farage was invited by the University of Cambridge’s politics department to give an address on an undisclosed topic. This prompted two independent Facebook campaigns, one of which was from the Cambridge University Students’ Union Women’s Campaign imploring Cambridge to rescind the invitation, which it eventually was.
This is indicative of an increasing hostility among UK students towards the expression of ideas deemed unacceptable. Whether or not you agree or disagree with UKIP’s policies, they are the UK’s third largest party by vote share and very much constitute part of the political mainstream.
The fact that students are now willing to influence the speaker choices of universities is a worrying trend. Only by hearing views different to your own can your ideas be refined and fine-tuned and hearing policies expressed in public discussion is the only way to scrutinise them effectively.
Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, arrives at a protest in June 2013 in Westminster. (Photo: Paul Smyth / Demotix)
BBC Radio Five Live’s Breakfast yesterday dutifully carried out its public service remit by interviewing Nick Griffin, the world’s most tedious Nazi demagogue, ahead of the European elections. Griffin’s British National Party does have some seats in the European Parliament, so is entitled to some airtime.
It was a dull interview. They always are. The BBC interviewers–in this case, Nicky Campbell–want to pick away at the BNP facade, but always somehow miss out on the really strange stuff. Long ago, I vowed that I would never write about Griffin without pointing out that he had written a pamphlet called “Who Are The Mindbenders?”, which is a catalogue of Jewish and Jewish people who work in the media. Griffin believes that these evil Jews (sorry, “Zionists”) are involved in an enormous plot to keep him–the saviour of the white race–out of the press and off the airwaves.
The conspiracist aspect of BNP policies is often overlooked, with the straightforward racism critiqued more heavily. So it was here. Campbell asked Griffin if he had a problem with black and mixed-race players representing England in the upcoming World Cup. Griffin, barely missing a beat, started complaining about BBC liberals smearing him and worse, denying him airtime.
“The BBC owes me 12 Question Times,” he declared, bemoaning his lack of invitations to appear on the BBC’s Thursday night festival of shouting from and at the telly.
It might have been interesting to delve into why Griffin felt he was being kept off Question Time, to see how long he would be able to maintain a line before going full Doctor Strangelove. As it was, we got only the superficial whine. The whine of the martyr-bully.
It is the background sound of our time. There is absolutely no one engaged in modern public life at any level at all who has not complained that they’ve been silenced, denied a platform, bullied into submission by a cruel cabal of agents of reaction or “the liberal agenda”, take your pick.
That is not to say people are not censored, even in the lovely modern 21st Century. It happens, quite a bit. People get locked up for saying stupid things on the internet that affront public sentiment. For years the libel laws restrained reporters, reviewers and the man on the Clapham Omnibus from saying what they really knew, or thought, or thought they knew. And no reader of this site needs to be told what happens in the less than democratic countries all over the world.
But there is actual censorship, and there is the claim to being censored, which are often two separate things. The BNP’s Griffin, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, and every Blimp all the way to Westminster delights in telling us, at length, the things that nobody, least of all them, is allowed to talk about anymore.
Meanwhile, on the left and the pseudo-left, there is an obsession with “platforms”; who has one, who deserves one, who is denied one. Editors and writers who do their best to represent as many diverse views as possible are denounced routinely for the articles they haven’t published rather than the ones they have. Every oversight is evidence of a conspiracy rather than a cock-up. The right people are always being excluded by the wrong people. If only, if only everyone shut up and let me speak, we think, then I could sort everything out.
It’s ironic that many of those who argue most vehemently that they are being censored are the exact ones who demand everyone else shut up. Intersectional feminists who insist they are being excluded from debate demand that radical feminists be “no platformed”. Ukipers who claim they’re not allowed talk about immigration want the police to arrest their opponents in anti-racist movements. All of them, simultaneously, noisily, will end up invoking Niermoller’s “First they came for…” (with the possible exception of the BNP, who, stopping short of displaying sympathy with Communists or Jews, instead content themselves with calling their opponents “the real fascists”, as I once heard Griffin do at Oxford Union).
Why is this? Why does everyone want to be censored?
It’s possible that the simple reason is that we are constantly improving as a society. Triumphalism and privilege are pretty much taboo for many. On the face of it, most of the people reading this, and certainly the person writing it, are probably the luckiest sons of bitches to ever have walked the earth. But a combination of our still-relevant horror at the great wars of the last century, plus a greater ability to learn about the ideas and experiences of others, make most of us wary of revelling in our role as the victor. Instead, we prefer to be the underdog, because underdogs are more virtuous–victims rather than perpetrators. Martyrs, even.
The Nazis and Communists of the 20th century also believed they were more sinned against than sinning, but the difference was that they were certain they would show the world who was really boss. Now, no one outside the most extreme movements – Al Qaeda; or North Korean Juche – really wants to state that aim openly. We want to remain oppressed. Censorship is considered almost universally as a bad thing, so people on whom it is inflicted are good.
The background whine of censorship, emanating even from the powerful may just be the tiny price we pay for a world that is generally better and kinder.