Why we should speak out against moves to curtail the UK’s freedom of speech

Padraig Reidy
DAWN raids by police on the homes of reporters are not something we expect to happen in the UK. But that’s what happened last weekend, when the Metropolitan police sent teams of up to 10 officers to the homes of senior Sun journalists.

Reactions were mixed. Brian Cathcart of the Hacked Off campaign, which has worked tirelessly for victims of phone hacking, wrote that the police were simply doing their job. Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun saw it differently, describing the move as a “witch hunt” against journalists and pointing out that the UK was now rated behind several former Soviet countries in press freedom.

My organisation Index on Censorship is well placed to look at this claim. This year, we celebrate 40 years of fighting for free expression, having been founded in 1972 to provide a voice for censored writers behind the Iron Curtain. Today we campaign for free speech in former Warsaw Pact countries such as Azerbaijan, Belarus and Hungary, but also for the right to speak freely at home in the UK.

That right does, sadly, not seem as certain as we might hope. While the average British person does not labour under the eyes of the secret police, we do struggle with archaic laws, insensitive apparatchiks, and politicians who all are all too ready to say: “I’m all in favour of free speech, but...”

That “but” comes in different guises. A supposed right to a good reputation means that cardiologist Peter Wilmshurt could be threatened with absurdly expensive libel cases by multinational corporations for criticising their medical products. The right to privacy meant that RBS’s Fred Goodwin was allowed to cover up an affair with a colleague, at a time when the running of the almost-ruined bank was surely in the public interest. A bureaucratic obsession with procedure, rather than common sense, means that the career of trainee accountant Paul Chambers has been ruined by one tweet in which he joked that he would blow an airport “sky high” if its closure due to bad weather meant he would miss a romantic rendezvous in Belfast. Chambers is currently awaiting a judgment in his appeal against a conviction for “menacing communications”, despite the fact not one person involved in the prosecution seems to believe his communication was actually menacing.

There is concern among journalists that the same rigidity of thinking may emerge in the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal and the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the media.

Let’s look at phone hacking as an example. Everyone condemns the hacking of the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, but what if, for example, a journalist hacked the phone of a politician he suspected of dodgy business deals? Technically, the same crime has been committed, but this time with an undeniable public interest. Yet if we are to stick to the absolute letter of the law, as many advocate, then that journalist would end up in jail.

The late writer and free speech “fundamentalist” Christopher Hitchens once wrote of censorship that “there is an all out confrontation between the ironic and the literal mind”. Censors love certainty, but human society is about interaction and context. The only way we have ever been able to progress is to be able to debate, to argue, to object to the status quo and to freely express our view that there may be different, better ways of doing things.

Businesses, in particular, need to learn this lesson. Businesses depend on the whistleblower to expose corruption and bad practice that can destroy a once thriving company. But too often silence pervades the workplace.

One report puts the median cost of a fraudulent action at $160,000 (£102,000) and according to whistleblowing charity Public Concern At Work, the best way of countering fraud is to put in place a system in which employees feel safe reporting dubious practices.

Britain is not Burma, or Saudi Arabia. People generally do not face prison or execution for speaking their minds. But this country should not be content to be merely better than a dictatorship. In business, in culture and in society we should be actively promoting free speech, and not allowing our leaders to find excuses to censor and control the national conversation.

Padraig Reidy is news editor of <a href="http://www.indexoncensorship.org/"; target="_blank">Index on Censorship</a>.