In an ideal world, the Cabinet minister with responsibility for defending freedom of speech would have some idea of how it works, but Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden clearly needs help on the point.
“I will not let a small, vocal minority undermine our freedom of expression,” he has declared in the Telegraph. This threat, he warned, came from pressure group Stop Funding Hate, which was “piling the pressure on advertisers” to boycott Andrew Neil’s new television channel GB News.
This was a Bad Thing. “We shouldn’t be blocking people from the conversation simply because we disagree with them,” he wrote. If you don’t like what you hear, then the correct approach, according to Dowden, is “switch over – don’t silence”.
This man is 42 years old. He apparently has a law degree. Has he not thought this through at all? His ramblings are so crude and brutish that it is easy to picture the people who taught him at school cringing in embarrassment.
Let’s take it gently.
Has it occurred to you that the people at Stop Funding Hate may also enjoy a right to express their views? That being the case, isn’t there a problem with your headline threat (“I will not let a small, vocal minority undermine our freedom of expression”)? Can you not see something, well, inconsistent about that?
What Stop Funding Hate does (with some success) is this. It identifies companies that advertise with media organisations which, in the freely-formed view of Stop Funding Hate, encourage hatred. It then (politely) encourage customers of those organisations to express (politely) to those companies their views on the matter. These are views which the customers are free to form themselves; Stop Funding Hate does not dictate to them. And what the companies do in response is up to them too.
Which part of this do you, as Secretary of State, plan to forbid? Will you ban Stop Funding Hate (and by extension anyone else) from listing companies that advertise with particular media? Will you ban it from describing what some media publish as hate speech? Will you ban it from telling customers of those companies that they may write letters? Will you ban the customers from writing those letters? Or will you ban the advertisers from withdrawing their ads?
I am hoping that you are beginning to see the problems with your position. It is not just that it would be hard for your civil servants to draft legislation that would achieve what you think is your objective; it’s that you would very obviously be attacking what you say you are defending: freedom of expression.
But, but, you may be thinking, Stop Funding Hate is bullying; it is “piling on the pressure on advertisers”. Companies are not acting from choice; they are being forced to bow to threats from people who say they will withdraw their custom.
I know it’s hard Oliver, but think. Customers have a right to choose with whom they do business. That’s actually a Conservative thing. You really won’t be able to change that. And companies in turn are supposed to be responsive to their markets. That’s Conservative too. What’s more, some companies reject the calls from customers and carry on as before, so the forcing? Not so much.
Another notion you need to get your head around is the role of money in freedom of expression, because it works overwhelmingly to the advantage of you and your party. Look around: billionaires own the newspapers that prop up your Government, don’t they? And you and the Prime Minister both like it that way.
In a similar fashion, it is money that underpins GB News. The channel was only possible because hedge-fund billionaires put up cash to get it started, and it can only survive if (a) they go on pouring in money, or (b) it attracts advertisers. That’s the way it works.
But – importantly – just because it has an opinion to express it doesn’t have a right to advertisers, does it? Because that would mean lots of people with opinions you don’t like would also have a right to advertisers. Can you imagine? Black Lives Matter television? Trade union television? Bad things in history television?
Now let’s be clear. Many people would think that such channels would be a great improvement on GB News, but they are not in the Conservative Party. And I doubt if there would be much enthusiasm among advertisers for a ‘right to advertising revenue’ because it would effectively be a new tax on them – again, hardly a Conservative thing.
Finally, Oliver, there is the question of scale. GB News claims to be a £60 million enterprise which, since it is actually a licensed television channel, has ready-made access to the public to express its opinions and justify its existence. I don’t know what the annual funding of Stop Funding Hate is but I would be astonished if it came near to £1 million. And it does not have a television channel.
In the realm of freedom of expression, therefore, GB News has bought itself vastly more freedom of expression than Stop Funding Hate can dream of. If it can’t win its own arguments when it has such an enormous market advantage, then surely, on Conservative principles if no others, it deserves to fail.
Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)
This post originally appeared in the Byline Times and is reproduced with permission and thanks
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