By Paul Bernal
Freedom of expression and power…
Freedom of expression is enshrined in pretty much every important human rights document. That should make us ask a number of questions. What do we mean by freedom of expression and why does it matter so much? What are the threats to it, and what do we need to do to protect it? These questions are not really separate – they’re linked together because they have an underlying theme: freedom of speech is about power. It’s about finding a way to redress the imbalances in power that exist in our world. It’s about holding the powerful to account – and doing what can be done to prevent the powerful from using that power to their own ends, and to the detriment of the less powerful. The primary threats to freedom of speech come from those trying to hold onto their power – and to prevent those who are less powerful from finding ways to be more powerful.
Freedom of expression, the press and the UK government…
Investigative journalism at its best challenges this – as Watergate bore out so dramatically. That’s where the Guardian’s publishing of the information leaked by Edward Snowden comes in. It’s the epitome of ‘old style’ freedom of expression: finding out where governments have been overstepping their authority, misleading the public, becoming more controlling and authoritarian – and then making this known. The Guardian has shaken the most powerful institution on the planet – the US government – and opened up a huge debate that needed to be opened up.
The way that the UK government – and David Cameron in particular – has threatened the Guardian over these stories should be taken very seriously. Grant Shapps’ recent attacks on the BBC are part of the same agenda: trying to stifle expression and to use their power to control the agenda. Anyone who supports the idea of freedom of speech, or who understand that idea in anything more than a perfunctory and selfish way, should be defending and supporting the Guardian in particular to the hilt. The lack of that support seems to me to be indicative of a failure in the UK to really grasp the point of freedom of expression – and its importance.
Though I am distinctly ambivalent about the Royal Charter for press regulation, and see that many of those fighting against it are doing so for purely selfish reasons, without any feeling for or real belief in freedom of expression (witness the supine role of so much of Fleet Street over the attacks on the Guardian) it is entirely right to be concerned about any direct governmental role in regulating the press. Whether the Royal Charter really represents this is a matter of debate – and appropriate passion.
Freedom of expression and surveillance…
The surveillance, as its advocates pronounce, may be ostensibly to protect national security, to fight terrorists and track down paedophiles, in practice as the many abuses of RIPA in the past has shown, it ends up being used for much more pragmatic and sinister purposes. Internet surveillance has two direct impacts on freedom of expression. Where covert, it allows those with opinions (or those seeking out opinions) that are deemed ‘unacceptable’ to be tracked down and silenced. Where overt, it chills speech, and scares people into submission. Headlines like that in the BBC earlier this year ‘Whitehall chiefs scan Twitter to head off badger protests’ make the point: ‘don’t even think about tweeting about your protests, we’ll find you and stop you’.
That is another reason that the Guardian’s leaking of the Snowden stories are particularly significant if you’re an advocate of freedom of expression. Internet surveillance may be the biggest threat to freedom of expression of all – because the internet is where the biggest opportunities for freedom of expression now exist.
Freedom of expression and the internet…
Over the past decade or so, the internet has provided more and greater opportunities for freedom of expression than anyone could have imagined. The ability to blog and tweet gives a voice to millions who would otherwise not have had any opportunity to speak. It allows people to find information that they would otherwise have had no chance to find. It allows a sharing of views, a level of criticism and analysis that is wonderful for many, many people – but is deeply threatening to some of those in power.
That’s why there are so many moves to try to control and corral the internet – and why those moves should be resisted very carefully. The ongoing suggestions to build ‘default-on’ porn-filters is part of this – not only will the filters actually filter out far more than porn (indeed, one of my own blogs discussing porn filters was automatically porn blocked!) but they establish the idea that filtering and censorship is not just acceptable but actually something good and worth promoting. The powerful want to control the internet. They want to retain their power – and that, in practice, means restricting freedom of speech.
Whenever we see freedom of speech under attack, we need to think very carefully about it. Not just the specific attack, or the specific opinion being attacked, but the part that it plays in the bigger picture. The rise of the internet should mean that we are in a golden age of free speech – but for many reasons, we’re not. We should be feeling empowered and emboldened to take on the powerful and make the world a better, more liberated, more enlightened place. We’re in danger of making it exactly the opposite.
Lecturer UEA Law School