UK Labour govt shows no respect for free ‘net-Though Cowards Flinch

March 6, 2009

Left New Media and internet censorship
David Semple
Though Cowards Flinch: December 29th, 2008

An excellent article by Frank Fisher dissects some of Andy Burnham’s comments on the need to restrict access to certain parts of the web. In the resultant detritus, Fisher notes with alarm a prevailing ethos amongst Labour that disrespects individual freedoms. Fisher warns of impending censorship, such as plans to beef up the current IWF/Cleanfeed model and to make bloggers easier to sue, should they post libellous material.

Burnham suggested that ‘there is content that should just not be available to be viewed.’ Fisher, along with half the internet, reacted indignantly to such a suggestion. Although I agree by and large with the sentiments expressed – and particularly with the worry that the logic of the market will allow Google to continue censoring the internet access of whole nations – I also find them to be incomplete criticisms.

Firstly, on the subject of censorship, we need to put that in context. Censorship over British media has always existed – from D-notices to the more ‘cultural’ side which compelled Filmation to put morals at the end of every He-Man story, lest children be influenced by one cartoon character beating up another. It is just one more ideological battleground, certainly not the only ideological battleground.

Yet this is how many self-proclaimed libertarians tend to treat it.

Secondly, when considering British libel laws and their applications to bloggers (not to mention the mainstream media), we need to consider just how dangerous the very concept of unfettered speech is. Whilst I am more than happy for different political viewpoints to be heard, I am not happy to have individuals or groups write, print or speak outright lies in the furtherance of political ends.

We can do nothing to deal with the endless non-stories published by the mainstream media, but we can try to tidy up their endless hypocrisy. The Daily Mail is famous for targeting women, immigrants, homosexuals and other groups by fitting them into a preconceived narrative (regardless of the facts). Why shouldn’t we give teeth to the PCC to go after editors who approve stories despite full knowledge of facts that would radically alter the narrative of the story?

Dealing with the blogosphere is substantially more difficult – but equally, why should any author be permitted to publish ridiculous distortions of fact? Truth is not to be toyed with; when we know the facts, we should state them, and when we don’t, we should be prepared to admit as much but also to speculate on the basis of educated guess what those facts might be – provided when we do find out, we return to the subject if corrections are needed.

The political blogosphere should attempt to follow journalistic ethics – and not the atrophied kind beloved of Mr. Dacre and his motley crew – but the type that mean we are devoted to publication of truth. Our own ideologies can interpret the facts, but the mark of an honest writer is to make special mention of those facts which may contradict his own view – and to attempt to grapple with those facts.

Of course, this is not what the government seeks, judging by the comments of Andy Burnham, of Bridget Prentice (see the link to Iain Dale) or of Hazel Blears. However, it should be – and no doubt one method of enforcing it will be by re-writing the archaic British libel laws. Not necessarily to increase the grounds for litigation, but to modernise them and make it easier for those of lesser means to do so.

Facts are not in all cases provable, thus meaning that the establishment of truth becomes a social struggle. We should also be aware of the inherent bias in favour of the wealthy (not to mention the mainstream media) in getting away with whatever they like. In both cases, the wealth exists to back up extreme litigiousness, whereas for individuals no such wealth exists – and no legal aid exists for defamation cases.

We cannot merely rely on the willingness of a defamed individual or group to sue, of course. We need a more pro-active answer to this wealth bias, on which basis we can disseminate information rapidly and to a wide audience, to counterbalance prevailing narrative. Yet like any good General, we should not deny ourselves an extra weapon, but we should be able to show judgment as to its deployment.

This may not avoid unfortunate situations where one individual is trigger-happy, such as the lawsuits brought by Johanna Kaschke against Dave’s Part and Socialist Unity. On the whole, however, it may make bloggers more careful about what they write, making them more honest – and if while we’re at it, we can do the same for the mainstream media, then we’ll have scored a victory for free speech indeed.

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