The last couple of weeks a few things have made me seriously consider the state of free speech in the UK. One was that a man (Michael Abberton, right) who had posted some innocuous anti-UKIP material (that didn’t call for people to riot, or assassinate UKIP politicians, or in any other way commit acts of violence) received a visit at home from the police, who “politely” suggested that he remove the material even though, as they said, it was perfectly legal. Someone else got a prison sentence for posting an offensive message about a teacher who was murdered in Liverpool a couple of weeks ago. Newspapers printed stories alleging that meat on sale in commercial restaurants is halal, as if that was a bad thing. And I have been reading yet another few sorry tales of people trapped in learning disability units whose families are trying desperately to get them out, or prevent them being transferred hundreds of miles away, and their only way of doing this is to use the press and social media to raise public awareness, something many professionals would like to see banned (and which is already banned in the case of children and people under the Court of Protection).
There is no constitutional guarantee of free speech in the UK (there is no constitution as such, just law). In the USA, it would be quite legal for someone to post on social media that they were glad someone had died, even if it was an entirely innocent person or a national hero. Futhermore, the reasons given for imposing prison sentences, that the remarks made (and shared by other people that they did not ask to do so) caused “public outrage” are plainly invalid; the remarks caused passing annoyance to a couple of hundred people spread thinly across the country. “The public” did not find out until the matter was reported in the news after their arrest. People have been prosecuted for even more ridiculously trivial offensive behaviour in the recent past, including someone who mocked the dead of the 1958 Munich air crash, in which a number of Manchester United players were killed, in a video made by the football team he supported (he got a suspended sentence). While I do not dispute that the law should punish people who harass grieving relatives or threaten violence (and this includes sending rape threats to women who run prominent feminist campaigns, for example), there should be no penalty in a democracy for merely offensive speech, the sort that children are routinely told off for saying in the playground. Adults do not have a right to have their feelings protected more than children do, or to not see things they find offensive.
While ordinary people are punished for inconsequential but distasteful speech, and we have libel laws that stifle what people can say about specific wealthy individuals (but not about anyone else), the corporate media can do what they like in terms of selling sensationalised nonsense and material that attacks sections of society in order to make money, and ultimately to advance the personal interests or pet causes of their owners. They have no obligation to report matters truthfully; they are allowed to lie (as long as it is not about an individual), to massage statistics, to portray minorities as demanding or getting special treatment, to stir up hostility to or injure the interests of one group in society or another with their reporting. The ownership of a press and control of a major newspaper gives unelected individuals power, and makes politicians fear them to the extent that they base policies on the reception they could get from them, yet there is no serious movement at present to change that, and no questioning of whether this concentration of power, the ability to fabricate public opinion, in the hands of unelected rich men, is for the general good.
There are situations where free speech is vital for ordinary people. It is vital to have free speech to fight injustice, and this includes situations where the people perpetrating it think (or pretend) they are acting in the “best interests” of the person they oppress. I am talking particularly about mental health care, learning disability care and (to a lesser extent) child care. This past week there was a story reported in the local papers in Yorkshire about a young man with Down’s syndrome and autism, named Thomas, who was being held in an inadequate Assessment and Treatment Centre (if that’s not a tautology) who was being threatened with removal to a secure hospital in Peterborough, about 150 miles away. This, of course, sounds a lot like the case of Claire Dyer, which I have written about at length here previously (although his condition appears to be more severe than hers), and a lot like the case of Stephen Neary, whose father Mark won a court battle to get him out of a unit where he was being held against his will in west London in 2010. The decisions to move both Claire and Thomas away from their home areas have now been chnaged, and both are still in their situations but placements are being looked at locally. These things would not have happened had their families been able to raise publicity through the local press, blogs and petitions and to talk openly about their situations on social media.
I have in the past agreed with specific situations where families were prevented from talking about their children by name when they were in care, but to prevent families talking openly about vulnerable relatives puts all the power in the hands of professionals, which includes some with a vested interest in keeping someone disempowered, some charged with making economies for a local authority’s or health board’s budget, and others who are bad at their job or unable to think outside their particular set of pet ideas. Publicity is not an ideal means of changing individuals’ situations, because it relies on being first (because later campaigns will get less public attention) and on having easy access to social media (not everyone can afford home internet or a smartphone), but when the official processes are often so slow and unreliable (tribunals adjourned multiple times, for example), there is often no other choice. However, even when there is clear wrongdoing, court orders are often made to prevent the names of the people affected or the institution or even the local area being mentioned, in one case explicitly to maintain confidence in social services! Mark Neary has recently published numerous reports of outright abuse against his son Steven while he was being held in an ATU, yet a court order bans identification of both the unit itself and any of the staff. The campaign to get justice for Connor Sparrowhawk’s death last year, and get the facts into the public domain, could not have even begun if the unit where he died (Slade House in Oxford), where staff negligently left him alone in the bath when he was known to have epilepsy, let alone the health trust that ran it (Southern Health) could not have been named.
So, free speech as it exists in the UK now needs to be rebalanced in favour of ordinary people and against the large corporate media entities. I do not believe opinion or ideas should be censored, as long as opinion is presented as opinion. Bad or wrong ideas can be challenged; propaganda presented as fact in a prominent position, as a front-page story on a news-stand, is a lot more difficult as those who challenge it often do not have access to a news-stand, only a website or blog, or at most a magazine, with a much smaller readership. We will never escape the march to the reactionary, inward-looking Right as long as these corporate giants dictate what is held to be public opinion. For ordinary people, free speech is vital. We must be able to talk about poitics and how this country is run without fearing a visit from the police. We must reform the libel laws so that the onus is on the plaintiff to prove libel, not on the defence to prove truth with one hand tied behind their back. We must not protect those with power over individuals’ lives from scrutiny, and we must allow those affected by their decisions to challenge them publicly.
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