Where the threat to free speech really lies

Guardian columnist Owen Jones is confronted by right-wing protesters after attending a demonstration in central London on January 12
Guardian columnist Owen Jones is confronted by right-wing protesters after attending a demonstration in central London on January 12.

Something nasty is happening on the grounds of London's Palace of Westminster. And I don't mean the latest horse-trading over Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit legislation.

No, the latest crisis to hit Britain's political culture manifests in a much more tangible form. In recent weeks, an upsurge of "anti-elitist" protest has seen the violent harassment of members of Parliament and commentators while they film interviews outside Parliament. The activity is focused on a public strip of park, known as "College Green," which lies just a few steps outside the main gates of the Houses of Parliament and is traditionally used for broadcast interviews.

The result: Freedom of expression in the heart of British democracy is under threat. And the question that faces the British people is how we censor political expression that seeks to deny other people that same right to political expression.

Last week, the anti-Brexit Conservative MP Anna Soubry was surrounded and jostled by men as she attempted to film a BBC interview. They then deliberately drowned out the interview with chants of "scum" and "Nazi." The left-wing activist Owen Jones, who is gay, has been subjected to similar attacks while broadcasting in public, with the addition of homophobic slurs like "rent boy" and even "tampon."

The protesters, who have named themselves Yellow Vests UK after the French "gilets jaunes" movement, appear to particularly target women, racial minorities and gay men. They attack not only politicians, but also journalists whom they perceive as part of an aloof elite. Kay Burley, the most prominent female anchor for Sky News, has tweeted that she now requires a security escort to do her job at Westminster. "These people are not pro-Brexit. They are pro-intimidation," she said.

Why should any of this matter to any of us? There are two reasons -- two ways in which this latest attack on democratic values echoes a global trend.

The first is that -- as in the White House, where President Donald Trump has tightened restrictions on the press corps, and as in much of the rest of the world -- populist attacks on "fake news" and journalistic "elites" are now directly restricting the capacity of journalists to do their jobs and report the news. In London, broadcasters are considering moving their political reports away from the public spaces around Westminster and into the security-fortified grounds of Parliament itself. It seems to be the only way to allow politicians to be interviewed without their words being drowned out -- and until then, a number of female MPs are known to be turning down interview requests due to fears for their safety. If that seems wimpish, bear in mind that their colleague Jo Cox was killed in broad daylight two years ago by an unstable far-right extremist, who shouted "Britain first" as he mowed her down.

But if the press corps retreats further into the physical confines of the Palace of Westminster, they'll no longer be as freely able to set up debate between politicians and ordinary members of the public. You need to have a hard-won security pass to access these areas -- younger, less established press outfits and civilian experts won't be able to enter with ease. No one is served if politicians refuse to engage outside the walls of Westminster. Ironically, the impact of these anti-elite protests may be to deepen the physical divide between political elites and the people -- not to bridge them.

The second problem is the way these British "yellow vests" have managed to frame this story as a threat to their own freedom of expression. Note the use of the word "Nazi" to attack Soubry, a centrist politician who couldn't be less like a Nazi if she tried. Perhaps this particular insult simply stems from many British people's long suspicion of the EU as a German expansionist project -- and therefore Soubry, a pro-EU politician, as some kind of Germanic stooge.

The London Times cartoonist Peter Brookes summed it up well this week when he published a cartoon showing a mob of swastika-clad, jackbooted brownshirts chanting "You Effing Nazi" while pointing at Soubry. But there's more to this than an ironic swap of political labels.

One Twitter account challenging Soubry this weekend read: "@Anna_Soubry those nasty words you deem arrestable offences work both ways, i object to being called a yob and far right for loving my country, those words hurt me ! #cutsbothways #patriotismnotracism." Whatever liberals like myself think of these people's politics, it's clear that they have come to hear the words "Nazi" or "racist" as terms elites use to exclude them from the bounds of legitimate civic discourse. Now, they're finally turning that term back on the elites, in the hope it will work as effectively.

Neither the British press nor American commentators have helped. MPs have asked Westminster's policing unit to be more proactive about policing their physical safety. And yet a headline from the Times simplified that situation as such: "Police stood by as protesters called me a Nazi, says Tory MP Anna Soubry."

In turn, the usually sharp authors of the US law-oriented blog Popehat tweeted their freedom of speech concerns: "Yeah, I think it's a good thing that you can call a politician a Nazi, and a good thing if police don't try to stop it." This is part of a larger trend, thoroughly at play in the USA: far-right activists persuading commentators to present themselves as the victimized party, even as they attempt to shut down their own opponents' speech rights.

So, how should we react? In the first place, we start by enforcing pre-existing laws against physical harassment and verbal incitement to violence. But we also need to ask questions about what views are acceptable to voice in the public sphere -- and what it means to enforce that. The philosopher Karl Popper described a "paradox of tolerance," where speech is free right up until citizens call for an end to that free speech. Or, as he put it in 1945, "in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance."

But even if we shun or refuse a platform to those who reject free speech themselves, no Western society is rightly going to criminalize any political expression that stops short of inciting violence. We do better to avoid patronizing those with anti-liberal views -- and to demonstrate that we apply Popper's approach evenhandedly.

The BBC's Asian Network has held debates for British Muslims such as "What is the right punishment for blasphemy?" This should be as unacceptable as it would be to debate the merits of violence against MPs. If Western liberals want to convert populists, we should be as quick to condemn anti-liberalism from minorities as we are from white nationalists. We should be clear about the limits of tolerance, without dehumanizing those who still think differently.

But when they start trying to interrupt live political programming, we can be clear about where the threat to freedom of expression really lies.

Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

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