Part 1 of 3 – How Free is Britain?

‘And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose upon the earth, so truth be in the field [and] we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter…’ [Milton – Areogapitica].

Milton’s words perhaps contain more significance than he realised, for a society only becomes wholeheartedly tyrannical when censorship allows no effective opposition. To take a most dramatic instance, if the Nazis had been forced by frequently expressed contrary public opinion to explain their policy of genocide to the German people, it is highly improbable that the whole grisly business would have been mooted, for we know that even without any serious public opposition the Nazis went to considerable lengths, in the midst of a most tremendous war, to persuade the mass of Germans that Jews were simply being resettled or, at worst, used as forced labour.

Without free expression, democracy cannot function because the whole purpose of democracy is to allow any view to be put forward for public acceptance or rejection.

But although free expression is a golden prize, it is also one of the hardest things for men (of all political stamps) to practise, there being the most magnetic temptation for anyone to engage in the self-serving delusion that the suppression of contrary opinion is not an abrogation of free expression but the legitimate exclusion of dangerous ideas. Milton himself fell prey to this temptation once his political “side” gained the ascendancy during the Commonwealth and Protectorate.

The idea that free expression can exist whilst restrictions on what may be said are in force is a literal nonsense because free expression is indivisible. Its essence is that it is not a negotiable quality; you either have free speech or a range of permitted opinion, which may be altered at any point by the ruling elite, the mass media, unelected pressure groups, terrorists and the Mob.

Britain a free country?

It is often claimed – perhaps never more frequently than at present by our political elite – that Britain is a free country where a man may say what he wants. This has always been less than the truth and the limits of free expression are growing ever narrower both through pernicious effect of political correctness, which insists, like all totalitarian creeds, that the only permissible view is that of political correctness, and the ever expanding legal limitations through legislation and the rulings of judges especially in privacy cases.

A surprising number of laws restricting free speech now exist in Britain. It is presently circumscribed by the laws relating to libel, slander, confidence, blasphemy, obscenity, official secrets, equal opportunities and race/ethnic relations. Government departments and agencies, local municipalities, private corporate bodies and private citizens may also obtain injunctions to prevent both the expression of views and physical demonstrations. In addition, the police have practically unlimited powers to prevent a man speaking if it is judged that the words uttered are ‘likely to cause a breach of the peace’ and may limit public demonstrations almost at will.

There are laws that are not immediately obvious to the public as being restrictive of free expression. The Race Relations Amendment Act (2000) forces all taxpayer funded bodies to prove they are not engaged in discrimination even unwittingly. The Prevention of Harassment Act (1997) makes contact with someone potentially illegal if they do it more than once after someone has said they do not want contact with you (this covers disputes with companies and officialdom as well as individuals). The Public Order Act (1986) reiterates and strengthens the provisions against inciting racial hatred in the Race Relations Act (1976, but also has a very broad definition of harassment in a public place, which gives immense power for the police to intervene.

The other Acts which indirectly restrict free expression because they provide for increased police powers of arrest and powers of search include:

  • Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984
  • Criminal Justice Act 1987
  • Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
  • The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000
  • Terrorism Act 2000
  • The Police Reform Act 2002
  • Serious and Organised Crime Act 2005
  • Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006

The full text of these Acts can be found here. Just put the title of the Act you want into the search facility.

To these legal barriers must be added the voluntary code of practice, which is policed by the Press Complaints Commission. This contains such widely drawn and imprecise restrictions as:

“The Press should avoid prejudicial or pejorative references to a person’s race, colour, religion, sex or sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or handicap.”

and

“It should avoid publishing details of a person’s race, colour, religion, sex or sexual orientation, unless these are directly relevant to the story.”

Nor is free expression guaranteed more securely by international treaty. The 1951 European Convention on Human Rights states in Article 10 (now incorporated directly into English law in the Human Rights Act) that:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers….

All fine and dandy. But this is followed by:

…The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

Which caveats allow the state to do virtually anything by way of censorship.

human rights actThe Human Rights Act (HRA) has also had a directly pernicious effect on free expression because of clause 8, which runs:

“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

“There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

This has been used by British judges to create extremely powerful restraints dubbed “super injunctions” which outdo Kafka by making it a contempt of court to reveal the existence of the injunction. Amidst a raft of footballers, TV presenters and actors, there are those who have or have had a serious public role, for example, Sir Fred Goodwin who was chief executive while the good ship Royal Bank of Scotland crashed into the financial rocks, and the BBC’s then political editor Andrew Marr .

Goodwin had an affair with a subordinate at RBS who was twice promoted after the affair began; Marr laid himself open to a charge of gross hypocrisy on two counts: he spends his working life quizzing politicians and other public figures about their private lives and misdemeanours, and the fact that he is a journalist means he should defend free expression not engage in censorship.

Such injunctions are obnoxious both because of the censorship and because they are only available, as with libel and slander actions, to the rich. Happily their potential for mischief has been much reduced by the impossibility of preventing the information protected by the injunctions being put on the Web in one way or another – Twitter was the main agency used in recent months. However, there will be injunctions whose details are known only to a few that will never appear in public because those who know either have vested interest in keeping quiet or do so out of fear.

Below the super-injunctions come ordinary injunctions and under them the use of confidentiality clauses in contracts and agreements to settle disputes between two or more parties. Confidentiality clauses keep a great deal of important information of genuine public interest from the public. Take the case of Andrea Hill, the chief executive of Suffolk County Council. She has sanctioned payouts for 13 employees which cost the authority £405,665.90” with confidentiality clauses allegedly to keep silent employees with complaints about the council. Such clauses may hide more matters of public interest than super-injunctions.

Part 2 will appear tomorrow

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