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From stake to spin doctor

Freedom of speech in Britain

by Michael Newland

We in Britain like to speak of our proud tradition of freedom of speech, which continues to be eroded by the cult of political correctness.

In reality, a degree of freedom of speech which has been the envy of people in other countries is something of comparatively recent origin - and short-lived as the grip of terror in the form of political correctness has intensified. Over the centuries there have been considerable ups and downs in the battle for freedom of expression, and we are now in one of the more depressing phases - but there is some light at the end of the tunnel in the form of European human rights law, and the growth of the Internet.

One can distinguish three quite distinct phases in the state's attempts to prevent people speaking their minds. Historically, the sheer effort put into suppressing freedom of speech is astonishing, but also an indicator of the power of ideas.

The first phase, beginning a century after the Norman Conquest, concerned preventing dissent from the dogmas of the official church. Burnings at the stake began in 1210, and the draconian Statute of Heretics lasted until the reign of Charles II. A early safety valve was allowed to a degree in the curious manifestation of the travelling entertainers known as Fools, whose humorous attacks on orthodoxy were grudgingly permitted. By Tudor times, the Fools had been neutered by becoming state employees. The same sort of process is at work today in the form of highly-paid newspaper columnists, who specialise in putting on a show of robustly attacking the state, while knowing exactly on which side their bread is buttered when it comes to receipt of a pay cheque.

The second phase began in the middle of the 18th century. Most people did not have the vote, and in the new mood of the period began to complain about it, and also to demand the right to meet together and criticise the government. The French Revolution fuelled discontent, and, in its aftermath, British governments, in holy terror of the revolutionary mood spreading from France, passed a succession of acts of parliament, the 'Six Acts', introducing such swingeing restrictions on public meetings that it was almost impossible to hold them without fear of arrest, or being cut down by the military. Eleven died and hundreds were injured during the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, when a mass meeting in Birmingham was attacked by cavalry. The leading figures were tried and imprisoned.

Even more sinister was the government's role as agent provocateur in the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820. A state agent named Edwards set out to provoke a group of disgruntled simpletons into a plot to murder the Cabinet - something which suited the government well in the face of an imminent General Election. The conspirators were arrested, hung and beheaded, outside Newgate. The lesson of Cato Street is not to dismiss as necessarily fanciful rumours of state involvement in terrorist atrocities, or their contrivance, when the state wishes to discredit and suppress dissent.

Much of the worst of the legislation was allowed to lapse in the decades following the defeat of Napoleon, and mass meetings and marches by the Chartist movement for greater democracy, were reluctantly permitted until government became frightened and largely succeeded in driving the meetings off the streets in the 1840s. After pitched battles with the police in Hyde Park in the 1860s, the government accepted a right of free speech in the portion of the park now known as Speaker's Corner, and a tradition of open air meetings throughout the country became part of national life, only becoming eroded in the television and radio age.

A generation ago, politicians were accustomed to public meetings and dealing with rumbustious heckling. That has become a largely lost art in a time of the television interview, during which official interviewers try to give the impression of being independent critics of government - a sort of pretend public heckling. Even The Archers is now a vehicle for government propaganda, as the BBC was forced to admit recently. Yet those familiar with dealing with the BBC are well-acquainted with the air of injured innocence it usually exudes at any suggestion of a lack of independence from its paymasters in Downing Street.

The present phase of increasing erosion of the right to criticise is far more serious even than the earlier attempts to prevent religious debate, or block verbal tearing at the authority of the state - although those remain to a degree objectives.

What is now being attempted in Britain is the complete destruction of the British people and their society under the cover stories 'anti-racism', 'the fight against discrimination', and 'equality policy'. We are supposed to give ourselves up to our own eradication without a murmur of protest.

The huge and surprisingly open debates about the shape of a post-war society, organised by the government within the armed forces towards the end of World War Two - over 60,000 lectures were given to the troops by civilians in 1943 alone - appeared to presage a far more democratic post-war world than the one which eventually emerged. The writer recalls an unforgettable occasion during the late 1950s when, one dark night, the Metropolitan Police threatened to beat him up for carrying about the streets a novel by DH Lawrence! It is fair to say that most state activity is less heavy-handed, but all the more sinister in its attempts not to make itself too widely known.

The better part of state attempts to block debate about the dismantling of Britain is being directed towards setting up a false facade of democratic discussion in the form of the mass media. The method is a neat one. An illusion is created of open debate between all sides of the argument, represented by 'experts'. Since the participants are carefully selected solely to represent a narrow range of approved opinion, the entire affair is little more than a racket designed to deceive the public. The public is expected to believe that they are genuine participants by proxy in a democratic debate on the state of the nation, and what they would like to see for the country in the future.

Talk radio was originally billed as offering open access to everyone - an electronic version of the soap box meeting - but try telephoning to say anything outside the narrowly permitted limits. The usual media procedure is the promise of a taped interview. If nothing damaging to the pro-British cause is said then, as a rule, the interview will never see the light of day. "If you want to be heard, make a fool of yourself" is the unspoken instruction!

The printed media, in so far as they have retained any independence at all compared with the total subjugation of television, is now being brought under full control. New Labour's totalitarians have spent years quietly making sure that the national newspapers are packed out with pliant placemen. Stray too far from supporting the big agenda - our destruction - and the sturdy placeman can forget about being fed stories by the Government, let alone the prospect of a knighthood or peerage.

One newspaper, the Daily Mail, has been claimed to remain reasonably independent. Certainly, it is very critical of Labour. The game is given away, however, by what it omits to say. The Mail bemoans the destruction of Britain - the usual facade of free debate is maintained - but will never support any movement genuinely opposed to it. The Tories are allowed to bluster their pretence of opposition, but anyone who still believes their intentions are any different from Labour's had better wake up!

No wonder the view of the man in the street is that nothing can be done about anything - precisely the demoralising conclusion he is intended to draw. Complain and he will be told about the vast and growing media, everyone catered for somewhere, and so on. The semblance of a genuine debate is supposed to be taken for the substance of one, and it is difficult to argue if you have not seen the real workings of the media at first hand.

The task of the freedom movement is to persuade supporters that something can be done - and that it is not really that difficult. Get into the free speech communication business. The Internet is a Trojan Horse which can defeat censorship. Who cares that universities, for example, have blocked out all views but those of the left for nearly forty years, by banning meetings? Anyone who wants to read the message of liberation is now spoiled for choice. New web sites open every day. It has been said that European communism was brought down by the uncontrollable use of photocopiers. The Internet is much the same.

The European Convention on Human Rights has now become part of British law. The High Court has already anticipated its effects in favour of a far wider right to freedom of speech. What the law will shortly say is that everyone can express their opinions, even if other people claim to be offended, provided one is polite and does not call for violence. We will also have a specific right to freedom of assembly in order to express our opinions. We may not like the intrusion of European law into our country, but political movements must use every weapon afforded them.

There are periods when Britain and its people reach a watershed of discontent about the view of the world put to them by the state and the media. There is an eruption of interest in new ideas, and an uncontrollable appetite for discussion. It happened in the 1640s during the Civil War, during the nineteenth century as a result of the massive misery and discontent with the system of government which arose from the Industrial Revolution, and during the last war.

The same is likely to happen in the next decades. The need for a recognisable community to live in will be the focus of  the exercise of freedom of speech. It will not be easy for the state, much as it would wish it, to control the ferment. The main means will not, as in the past, be marches and public meetings, but the Internet and cheap printing.

References: From Soapbox to Soundbite by Stephen Coleman - Porcupine Press, The Prince of Pleasure by JB Priestley - Heinemann

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