Observations of an ex pat – Anglo Saxon Free Speech

The blizzard of alleged lies and tales of blackmail emanating from 10 Downing Street is truly disturbing. But they obscure even more alarming policy shifts which threaten longer-lasting effects than any fall-out from partygate.

Nearly the top of the list of the partially-buried problems are the threats to free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly and the freedom to protest.

Britain and America have led the way in establishing and protecting those rights. They insisted that they were written into the UN Charter and Germany’s post-war Basic Law and their example has inspired others around the world. Now both countries are heading the opposite direction. In the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Britain is ranked 33rd and the US is a dismal 44 out of 170 countries.

The blame for America’s poor ranking is laid almost exclusively at the door of ex-president Donald Trump and the Republican Party he has reshaped in his own image. Trump enabled and emboldened free press opponents by attacking the media as “enemies of the people” and branding criticism of his administration as “fake news.” With the Republicans likely to regain control of Congress in this year’s mid-term November elections, the media is preparing for a fresh onslaught.

In Britain, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have long-regarded the BBC as a hotbed of liberalism. They started their term in office by reducing the number of ministerial interviews on the world’s most respected news outlet. Then this week Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announced that she was freezing government funding for the BBC.

On top of that, the beleaguered Johnson government’s proposed Police, Sentencing and Courts Bill will effectively ban traditional rights of free speech, demonstrations and protests by giving police the right to shut down any gathering that causes “serious disruption.” The government decides what is a “serious disruption.”

Politicians around the world and of every political persuasion have a love-hate relationship with the media and protesters. Those in power seek to curb freedom of speech because it exposes nefarious activities undertaken to retain power. Those seeking power recognise it as an essential tool for gaining power, only to jettison their support once it has served its purpose. The result has been a perpetual struggle between media, the government and vested interests.

Recognition of both the power and danger of the press was immediate almost from the arrival of the first Gutenberg flatbed printing press on British shores. We know about Queen Elizabeth I’s stirring address to the troops at Tilbury because she ordered the publication of the speech in a pamphlet entitled “To the Troops at Tilbury.”

Pamphleteering became the main medium of news and comment through the English Civil Wars and most of the 17th and 18th century. And right from the start the government attempted to strangle—or at least control—the infant press. Their primary weapon was licensing laws which eventually succumbed to the tides of history and were allowed to lapse in 1695. Then there was the 1712 Stamp Act which imposed a tax on all printed papers, advertisements and newspapers. There was also the 1704 Sedition Law which ruled that any publications which maliciously undermined the affections of the people for the government were criminal. This included reporting parliamentary proceeding which were banned until 1774.

The Americans enshrined freedom of speech, press and assembly in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Almost immediately, they proceeded to ignore the much-vaunted amendment with the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts pushed through by the administration of John Adams. The section involving sedition severely curtailed free speech with 25 people—all from the opposing Republican Party—being arrested. One man, Luther Baldwin, was imprisoned because he drunkenly expressed the hope that a cannon salute to President Adams might find its way up the presidential backside.

The sedition half of the Alien Sedition Acts was repealed in 1804 but the half related to aliens, which authorised the President to imprison or deport aliens considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” remains in force today as the revised Alien Enemies Act.

Britain’s free press did not really emerge until after the Great Reform Act of 1832 opened the eyes of an expanded British Establishment to the value of a free press and its role in preserving a representative government to which it was now committed. However, it was not until the middle of the 19th century the last vestiges of the Stamp Act were repealed and the British national press took off.

Fleet Street became a political power house and money-making machine that attracted big money and bigger egos. The press barons that emerged could literally make or break a British government. Freedom of the press was guaranteed less by formal laws than by competition between these powerful men who demanded what has become a traditional British liberty in return for their support and membership of the British Establishment.

American geography dictated a different growth pattern and structure. The vast lands of the US meant that it was impossible until relatively recent times for national media coverage to develop. The result was thousands of newspapers, and later radio and television stations, whose first priority was reporting local news.

But that did not mean the end of the conflict between national government and the media. The First World War saw the introduction of the Espionage Acts which prohibited “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the flag or the uniform of the Army or Navy.” A slightly watered down version of the Act remains on the books and has been used against figures such as Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

It has been, is and will continue to be a struggle to maintain freedom of speech and press against vested interests and power-hungry politicians. In the meantime, the role of the media can be best summed by Wilbur Storey the publisher of the 19th century “Chicago Times”. The role of a newspaper publisher, he wrote “is to print the news and raise Hell.”

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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9 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 22nd Jan '22 - 11:38am

    An interesting article. My only comment is that it appears that much of the media interprets ‘Freedom of the Press’ to mean ‘Freedom to deliberately lie, distort and fabricate in order to push an agenda’. Taken to that extreme, that degree of press freedom actually undermines the working of democratic systems. You mention the BBC so let me suggest that, though not so extreme, the BBC is certainly not beyond criticism for its own pushing of agendas, and lack of impartiality in many areas.

  • @brad You will never eliminate bias in the media. It is a reflection of human nature. The issue should be how to either control it or at least channel it into constructive channels. In the case of Britain, each newspaper appears to have a particular bent which is based partly on the prejudices of its publisher and partly on economics. People usually buy the paper (or read the website) with which they agree and over the course of time a symbiotic relationship develops. The supporting advertisements reflect the interests of the readership and the paper–to attract and keep the readers it needs for commercial survival– is increasingly influenced by the readership it is attempt to influence. As for the BBC, my friends on the right complain that the BBC is too far on the left and my friends on the left say it is too far on the right. I myself find much to criticise about the output of Broadcasting House. As auntie appears to annoy politicos every stripe they must be doing something right. Certainly, the job of a free press is not to please those in power or those who want to be in power. It is to constantly badger, criticise and annoy. Or, as I quoted Wilbur Storey in the article above: “To report the news and raise Hell.” Mr Storey, by the way, died friendless.

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Jan '22 - 6:10pm

    @Tom Arms
    “As auntie appears to annoy politicos every stripe they must be doing something right. Certainly, the job of a free press is not to please those in power or those who want to be in power. It is to constantly badger, criticise and annoy. ”
    Seconded wholeheartedly

  • Antony Watts 23rd Jan '22 - 9:19am

    You stopped half way. A new medium of free speech has opened up in recent times: the internet. Virtually no one has prevented the connection of computers to a network which spans the globe (China is one of the biggest to maintain some control).

    Moreover this free speech has opened up another channel – not only do we have frre publication of views (twitter etc) but also free discourse protected by encryption.

    We need to fundamentally review our laws to enshrine this new freedom and protect it.

  • David Goble 23rd Jan '22 - 9:29am

    It is interesting, is it not, that Boris Johnson has always been seen as a “liberal” Conservative, yet he is presiding over the most illiberal Cabinet.

    Free speech, even that which some may see as offensive, must be maintained and we should always remember Voltaire, “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Would it be unreasonable to say that the only opinions which should not be expressed are those which promote actions which are illegal?

  • Nigel Jones 23rd Jan '22 - 9:49am

    Press freedom is no simple matter; one of the biggest issues is freedom often turns out to be greater for those who have the most money. That is one of the key issues in relation to the BBC and hence this government’s moves to restrict its financing while still trying to say they are not opposed to its existence. We need to make sure overall that everyone can have access to information that helps them judge what is true and what is false; that means ensuring that all organisations can be challenged when they lie, distort the truth or hide relevant information, that opportunity for challenge being available not only to those with big money. It is worrying that with already a media biassed to the right wing, this government wants to have even more right wing influence. Over periods of time that means most people will never see the views and information that is critical of the right wingers and hence will think democracy is fine even though the right wing is always in power.

  • Nonconformistradical 23rd Jan '22 - 10:02am

    ” one of the biggest issues is freedom often turns out to be greater for those who have the most money. That is one of the key issues in relation to the BBC and hence this government’s moves to restrict its financing while still trying to say they are not opposed to its existence. ”

    Agree absolutely.

    “We need to make sure overall that everyone can have access to information that helps them judge what is true and what is false”

    And without sacrificing their personal data.

  • Peter Hirst 23rd Jan '22 - 5:21pm

    The struggle would be much easier if had a codified constitution that defined the powers, responsibilities and accountability of the free press that you refer to. This tension between politicians using the media and it being a free agent means that, unless trust is gained on both sides a set of rules is necessary interpreted by a legal system that is independent of both. In this country trust has broken down so we need this set of rules as a priority.

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