Is free speech free, or isn’t it?

Note: Further enquiries reveal that “Bethan Jones” is in fact Beth Tichbourne, and that her offence was not only to hold up the placard mentioned, but also to attempt to scale a barrier. Her account, reproduced uncritically on various websites, does not reveal that detail.

This morning I saw a post on Facebook by a woman who had been arrested during a protest aimed at David Cameron during the switching-on of the Christmas lights in Witney, Oxfordshire (the chief, albeit small, town in his constituency) last November. Bethan Jones had held up a placard saying “David Cameron has blood on his hands”, for which she was charged, and yesterday convicted, for causing “harassment, alarm or distress”, the magistrate reasoning that “I can think of nothing more alarming than the statement that ‘Cameron has blood on his hands.’”. To any reasonable person, this would sound like the normal stuff of political protest, and fairly tame compared to the lurid and defamatory material published in the commercial press every day. Jones also wrote that she had been beaten up by the police while the “celebrations” were going on. (Beth’s statement also republished at Bright Green Scotland, Liberal Conspiracy.)

In last week’s New Statesman, Laurie Penny noted in her column that, while it was common to allege that you can’t criticise “politically correct” targets such as Muslims in public, in reality, it was rudeness towards right-wing or establishment targets that attract outrage from the popular press and the censure of politicians: Princess Kate and Margaret Thatcher being two recent high-profile examples. We have some of the most stringent libel laws in the world, such that wealthy people can prevent exposure of their corruption, so “freedom of speech” has become “freedom to attack the vulnerable” as groups are not protected by libel law. Their main targets were Muslims and, occasionally, Gypsies and Travellers during the Blair government, and so-called benefit scroungers under the current government.

Recently, as the press have faced censure for their intrusive behaviour since the revelations about phone hacking were made public, they have howled about the dangers of “censorship” and “press laws” while not lifting a finger to defend the right to protest and sticking the boot into ordinary people who have shown (as they see it) bad manners towards establishment figures they believe should be above reproach. This is hypocritical: free speech should be free for everyone, or the commercial press should be held to the same standards as the rest of us. Of course, the libel laws should be reformed so that we cease to be a magnet for crooked oligarchs looking to silence critics here and abroad, but it is highly unjust that the right to protest is under dire threat while the right to spew hateful propaganda against powerless people to sell papers is not in dispute. The bigger crime should not be to spoil the middle classes’ party by reminding them that their special guest for the night is tearing others’ lives apart.

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