A Litany of the Ways In Which Facebook Corrupts the Spirit of Free Speech

Following my short appearance in a BBC news report yesterday, I had hoped to publish a companion blog post here, making all the free speechy points that were edited out of my contribution. Instead, I strayed off piste and ended up with this litany of complaints about Facebook. A useful aide memoir for the future, with a couple of useful insights, maybe.


When it comes to free speech, even the most hardened advocates tend to draw the line at incitement to violence. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” wrote Zechariah Chafee. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and when people publish text or video that is likely to provoke violence, it is legitimate to censor that content.

Inciting violence and hate is what Britain First group appear to have been doing, so the Facebook decision to ban their page feels righteous. Good riddance? Nothing to see here? Move along?

Not quite. This development is still problematic and draws our attention to the unexpected role that social media plays in our politics. We have been discussing these problems for years without, in my opinion, coming any closer to solving them. Continue reading “A Litany of the Ways In Which Facebook Corrupts the Spirit of Free Speech”

Discussing Britain First and Facebook on BBC South East

The racist far right group Britain First have been banned from Facebook. BBC South East reported the story and interviewed yrstrly for English PEN. Here’s what I said:

We abhor what Britain First stands for, but nevertheless there are some unintended consequences with this move. Shutting down speech you don’t like is deeply problematic—It means that countries around the world can use it as an excuse to shut down speech they don’t like. And it also alienates certain sections of the British population, [with whom] we really need to have a dialogue…

Obviously this is just a small excerpt from a longer interview I gave to the news team. There is a lot more to say about this issue, in particular about how we appear to have ceded most of our political discourse to private companies running social media platforms. There is also a real issue surrounding the efficacy of counter-speech, and what both social media and the traditional broadcasters might do in order to give better, bigger platforms to the kind of options that can counter and neutralise the far right threat. I will post more on this soon.

In the meantime, the entire South East Today programme for 14th March is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.

Hard Borders in London and the Napoleon of Notting Hill

On Monday morning, the Foreign Secretary Rt. Hon. Boris Johnson MP was asked on BBC radio what the British Government’s vision of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would look like, should the UK leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union. In a garbled answer about the power of technology to facilitate frictionless trade, he put forward this analogy:

There is no border between Camden and Westminster, but when I was mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people travelling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks whatever.

He was presumbaly referring to London’s Congestion Charge. Journalists and social media users spent the rest of the morning mocking this wholly inappropriate analogy with the centuries old troubles in Ireland.

https://twitter.com/ianpatterson99/status/968494962341015552

All this made me think about one of my favourite books, The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesteron. In that story, written in 1904 but set in 1984, a whimsical king named Auberon Quin (appointed by lottery, the population having long since given up on both democracy and hereditary monarchy) decrees that each London Borough becomes its own city state. He sets about creating coats of arms and other heraldic items for each. Continue reading “Hard Borders in London and the Napoleon of Notting Hill”

Afua Hirsch on the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’

Afua Hirsch

Last year I wrote a blog post where I suggested that the marketplace of ideas probably doesn’t exist and asked what that meant for free speech.

A week later I wrote a follow-up in which I posited a Cartesian defence of the marketplace of ideas: I know that such a marketplace does exist because I have personally changed my mind about many things.

In Prospect, the author, barrister and broadcaster Afua Hirsch has written an interesting essay on the ‘fantasy’ of free speech and how we ignore power dynamics in our free speech debates. Within the piece, Hirsch makes this observation:

And here we reach the heart of the matter. In an ideal world, views from privileged people who want to keep things the same would—like all other views—be presented in a marketplace of ideas, competing fairly with the perspectives that challenge it. This is how free speech is meant to work.

But free speech doesn’t work like that. The marketplace of ideas, like many other markets, has monopolies, rackets and biases. Long-established “suppliers” of opinions with entrenched positions in “the sector” enjoy huge advantages. Marketplaces, inevitably, require merchants, arbiters and traders to work well. Why? Because the space in which they operate is rarely level.

Continue reading “Afua Hirsch on the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’”

Notes On A ‘Civilised’ Debate

Mary Beard
Historian Professor Mary Beard posted a picture of herself in tears after being accused of racism

Over the past few days a debate has erupted concerning a tweet posted by the historian Mary Beard. Here it is.

This Tweet provoked a furious backlash from people accusing her of a kind of veiled colonialism. Professor Beard wrote a follow-up blog to clarify her remarks and posted a photo of herself in tears. One of her Cambridge University colleagues, Priyamvada Gopal, posted a scathing critique of Beard’s tweet and clarification, writing

I’m afraid that your good intentions notwithstanding, it is precisely this genteel patrician racist manner and this context of entrenched denial in which your tweet on Haiti, ‘civilised’ values (scare quotes noted but not enough, I’m afraid) and disaster zones was received. … Your subsequent blog post, to not put too fine a point on it, did little to help your cause and is regarded by many as a ‘no-pology’, a stubborn refusal to see what was wrong with your original post and taking refuge instead in the familiar posture of wounded white innocence.

Continue reading “Notes On A ‘Civilised’ Debate”

Discussing Free Speech and Richard Littlejohn on BBC Radio London

On Sunday morning, I was delighted to be invited on to Jamoké Fashola’s BBC Radio London Breakfast show, to discuss free speech.

This week, the Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn caused outrage with a typically controversial column. Olympic diver Tom Daly had shared an ultrasound image on social media – he and his partner Dustin Lance Black are expecting a baby via a surrogate mother.

HAPPY VALENTINES DAY! ❤️👨‍👨‍👦❤️

A post shared by Tom Daley (@tomdaley) on

“Pass the sick bag, Alice” wrote Littlejohn. “I still cling to the belief that children benefit most from being brought up by a man and a woman.”

Continue reading “Discussing Free Speech and Richard Littlejohn on BBC Radio London”

The Heady Life of an NUWSS Organiser in 1909

Votes for Women, you say? Today is the perfect time for me to share some extracts from The World of an Insignificant Woman by Catherine Thackray, which is a biography of my great-grandmother Hilda Marjory Sharp (nee Ingle).

Marjory (as she was known) was born in 1882 and was a teacher and social worker. In 1909, when she was 27,  she secured work as a paid organiser for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, organising meetings, rallies and petitions. Her activities are detailed in Chapter 4 of the book. The excerpt below is taken from pages 78 to 81.

What is fascinating and slightly depressing about this account is how many of the free speech challenges faced by the NUWSS and Suffragettes remain today. The problem of people shouting down political speakers with whom they disagree still persists one hundred years later. And the comment from the Men’s League that they never suffered the same level of abuse as the women is echoed by our contemporary experience of female politicians receiving far more abuse on social media than their male counterparts.

You can buy The World of an Insignificant Womanonline as hardback or paperback, or download a free eBook in EPUB, Kindle, or PDF format.

Continue reading “The Heady Life of an NUWSS Organiser in 1909”

Quoted in the Observer, Discussing Artistic Freedom

Last week, the award-winning Indian playwright Abhishek Majumdar posted a disconcerting message on Facebook, regarding his play Pah-la.

My dear Tibetan Friends, in Tibet and in exile, who have contributed extensively to the writing of Pah-la, I regret to inform you that the play has hit a roadblock again.

It was supposed to open on 4th October 2017, at the Royal Court Theatre, in London, with its poster printed and rehearsals fixed, when the British Council China pressurised the theatre to withdraw it from opening because of a program in China that they were running together.

Continue reading “Quoted in the Observer, Discussing Artistic Freedom”

Big Little Lies, Of Its Time In Three Different Ways

BIG LITTLE LIES (HBO)

Big Little Lies is an HBO TV show, based on the Liane Moriarty novel of the same name. It stars Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, and follows the woven lives of several families living in Monterrey, California.

It was first broadcast in the spring of 2017. Following huge recognition the Golden Globe Awards in January, I decided it was time for me to watch the box set.

Each family has a child attending the local Elementary School, and there’s a murder at a school fundraising gala. A death is announced in the very first scene of the very first episode, but neither the victim, the killer or their motive are revealed until the finale.

The show strikes me as being very much Of Its Time, an emblematic cultural artefact of Western culture at the end of the 2010s. I think it does this three different ways.

Continue reading “Big Little Lies, Of Its Time In Three Different Ways”