Opinion: Liberals must think of ways to incentivise free expression

 

The recent withdrawal of The Interview from general theatrical release (later followed by online publication and limited release at selected theatres), following threats from what is currently believed to be a North Korean hacking group, has generated an international debate on corporate censorship in western societies. As liberals who believe in free expression and a free society, it is vital that we take part in this conversation.

It would be incorrect and unfair to place all the blame for this fiasco on Sony, the parent company of the film’s distributors, Columbia Pictures. Their initial decision to pull the movie was partly driven by the fact that an increasing number of cinemas were refusing to screen the film, and their efforts to distribute it via video-on-demand providers had were initially met with a similar response.

The threats directed against those considering screening the film were serious. The hacking group that claimed responsibility sent an ominous message warning of attacks against any cinema that screened the movie. In the light of such threats, the initial decision to pull the film may be seen as understandable.

On the other hand, those who expound controversial viewpoints or produce controversial content have always faced threats and intimidation. Atheists such as Penn Jilette and Richard Dawkins, and religious commentators such as our own Maajid Nawaz have had to deal with them for years. Despite the fact that religious extremists have a far more frightening track record of murdering their critics than hacking groups, this has not deterred them from continuing to air their opinions. Crucially, it has also failed to prevent others from granting them platforms.

This is the sort of defiant response to intimidation that is crucial to maintaining a free society, and yet it seems depressingly absent in the initial action in the case of The Interview.

What I find more troubling, however, is the possibility that cinemas and digital distributors were less concerned by the threats (which sound very much like bluster) and more concerned by the prospect of reputational damage. After all, the hackers do not have a track record of violence – but they do have a track record of successfully embarrassing a multinational company.

Marina Hyde has written an excellent piece in the Guardian explaining how the hackers managed to do this. By leaking the most unsavoury internal emails from Sony, the hackers precipitated a storm of negative media coverage about the company – particularly damaging in an era when negative information about a brand is accessible at the click of a button. The message to other companies is clear: your reputation could be on the line next.

But as Hyde points out, this atmosphere of fear was not magically conjured by the hackers. It has been growing for some time, partly as a consequence of the frantic attempts of brands to manage their reputations (particularly their online reputations), and partly as a result of our collective failure to push back against the culture of outrage that makes them so paranoid in the first place.

Some argue that we should adopt a free market, laissez-faire approach to self-censorship. According to this argument, epitomised by this popular xcxd comic, companies like Sony are free to deny a platform to any kind of content they wish. As long as it isn’t the Government imposing censorship, all is well.

The problem with this approach is that it plays into the hands of social authoritarians who want to control what appears in the public sphere. Instead of appealing to the Government to impose their views, all they have to do is bully private companies and private institutions.

The result of this is a chilling effect, in which both private organisations and individuals self-censor to avoid public fallout. Controversial content is avoided for fear of the resulting fallout, and the demands of the censorious are pandered to. Those who are most successful at threatening the reputation of companies become the de facto arbiters of culture.

A society in which private institutions cave in to the whims of the noisy and the intimidating is an unfree, fearful, chilled society. Yet from cinemas to art galleries and even university campuses, that is what we are seeing.

If we want to roll back this trend, we must go beyond the laissez-faire approach, and make free expression more than just a legal instrument. If companies and institutions currently believe the most prudent course of action is to switch off the film reels and close the doors of the debating halls, we must look for ways to change their incentives.

This article was written and submitted to Liberal Democrat Voice on December 23rd. Its publication has been delayed by the festive period. A few minor edits have been inserted by the LDV team to bring the article up to date with the release of The Interview online and in selected cinemas, which were announced after the article was initially written.

* Allum Bokhari is a Lib Dem member and former intern for Stephen Williams MP, currently working as a communications consultant in London.

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52 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 31st Dec '14 - 5:45pm

    An interesting article, but I feel incomplete. Do you have any ideas for ways to incentivise free expression? As a rule of thumb I am generally against complicated incentives, but work around intangible property rights is often useful.

    When it comes to outrage culture: I don’t really understand getting outraged about something and not calling for it to be banned. The solution is not to call for everything to be banned, but to try to tone down the outrage and also get used to using the power of the state.

    One final point: I would go further than criticising our “collective failure to push back against outrage culture” and say a significant number of Lib Dems are actually at the forefront of outrage culture.

  • There’s nothing wrong with getting outraged. It is after all as much a part of free speech as causing offence can be. The problem is that we’ve all become self censoring and easily offended to the point were it can restrict debate by limiting the ability of people or groups with unpopular and or controversial views to communicate.

  • Tsar Nicolas 31st Dec '14 - 8:37pm

    I agree with all the above posts, especially Glenn’s.

    However, I must say I have on this site experienced a great deal of censorship, espcially on posts relating to gender and sexuality. It seems that free speech only matters if you are using your right to it to express the correct view!

    On a final note, if a radical Muslim had produced a film about the death of a British politician, would he be in danger of a charge of encouraging/glorifying terrorism?

  • Paul Walter,

    “If someone takes a book to a publisher but that publisher doesn’t want to publish it, is that censorship? Are there not thousands of publishers where that person can also take their book to be published?”

    Well, are you arguing that censorship is just a totally mythical concept (other than when a totalitarian government suppresses all publications except its own), then?

    Suppose that LDV were to be taken over by someone who was determined to carry out effective censorship, what would they conceivably be able to do, that would actually qualify as “censorship”, in your view?

  • @ Paul Walker
    LDV censorship policy is to allow who I call the attack wolves to abuse anyone not taking the correct view. It began with the coalition and those of us begging LibDem members to help the sick and disabled from the idealogical measures in that first budget. Your MPs cheered it, remember? We thought that the membership would be appalled, how wrong we were then. I voted LibDem in 2010 but have been called a liar on that and of course a Labour Troll. Many were bullied and abused on this site and the perpetrators were/are allowed to carry on with impunity.

  • Liberals and those on the left only seem to believe in free expression when they agree with what the person is saying, or at the very least are not bothered by it. When someone says something they really don’t like they are usually the first to try and silence people by branding their comments ‘offensive’ or ‘unacceptable’.

    The days of I don’t agree with what you say but I’ll defend your right to say it are long gone, and you don’t even seem to know it.

  • It suggests nothing of the kind, Paul; if someone asks how many gills there are in a pint, and one person says two, and another says five, that doesn’t mean that the correct answer is three and a half. I have no serious problem with LDV’s moderation policy (just occasional exasperation with its sometimes peculiar automated filter); but it’s disturbing to see the notion that being critiqued from ‘both sides’ validates the policy. You can’t judge from two responses, and if it were the case that you were annoying a substantial segment of your readers by the policy, that would be evidence that something was wrong, even if their proposed fixes were all at odds with each other.

  • Mr Wallace
    So how come we have to put up with such sheer volume of your ruminations on this site, then?

  • Paul.
    I don’t know about encouraging new comments. But I’m constantly moderated for very few reasons even though I actually support the Lib Dems! I’ve got to admit I find it a bit annoying.

  • David-1
    ” it’s disturbing to see the notion that being critiqued from ‘both sides’ validates the policy”
    Well it’s obviously not just that. Add to that one comment the vast archive of explanations of and debate on this policy plus the fact that I and the team have spent literally days/weeks (when you compress the time) reading, moderating and debating comments.

  • Glenn
    Thank you for making the point that we don’t moderate comments based on whether we agree with them or not….

  • And apologies to Allum for hijacking his comments thread with this discussion about comments moderation…

    I think Allum’s article is very thought-provoking.

  • Paul Walter,
    How about a new feature in LDV entitled “Moderators Letting off Steam”?
    It could be a permanent rolling discussion in which those aggrieved by the decisions of moderators whinge on and in reponse you moderators point out the errors of their ways.

    Those of us who support the moderators in everything they do can chip in with supportive remarks.
    And paul barker can chip in with optimistic polling predictions – which will be irrelevant but then they usually are.

    This could be a very popular feature in LDV but would also enable those who are not completely fascinated by the exchange to quickly pass on to something else.

  • Jayne Mansfield 1st Jan '15 - 11:37am

    I think I agree with Alum Bokhari, but how does one incentivise freedom of expression?

    I only ‘think’ that I might agree because I am thinking in terms of theatres, art galleries and books, where individuals choose to see or read whatever they choose to see or read. In my opinion, too many things are being banned because of the outrage of a vociferous minority.

    I have recently been taught how to use Facebook and I read and contribute to Liberal Democrat Voice, so my lack of social media skills means that I am protected against what I am told is the vicious nastiness of much social media. When people like the labour MP Stella Creasey was bullied , there was recourse in law. Hopefully people like Maajid and others with views that cause offence to those who don’t like to hear a different viewpoint can do the same and if not, why not?

    People posting on here must of course abide by the rules, but I was disappointed when a video by one poster was not allowed because it was too close to the bone. If such censorship takes place, people can hide behind perfectly respectable arguments about immigration and the effect on resources. Allowing some unpleasantry to go ahead means that one can see behind the mask , the real values that determine the position a person takes in an argument. It is for these reasons that I prefer to hear overt racist or homophobic comments, because one can then argue against them. It is the awareness that racism or homophobia, or whatever is never given as the reason for discrimination that I find most damaging to progress, because it denies one the opportunity counter argument impossible.

    Happy new year to you Allum, I’m going to spend mine going round in circles on this!

  • David Allen 1st Jan '15 - 3:17pm

    Paul,

    You have made a very long post (a length which if it came from me would of course be a “rant”). You have thereby avoided answering my question.

    I conclude that you can’t answer it, and that there is actually no editorial policy that you could conceivably adopt which you would consider could validly be described as “censorship”.

  • David Allen 1st Jan '15 - 4:38pm

    Now let’s examine the Walter doctrine, to the effect that a blog such as LDV can never be accused of censorship, since anyone whose article is denied publication can freely choose to publish it elsewhere.

    It is to some extent a logical doctrine. Thus, no doubt a few people will have submitted cake recipes to LDV from time to time, and had their submissions rejected as simply being outside LDV’s scope. Similarly, no doubt LDV might choose from time to time to reject submissions such as historical articles, book reveiews and the like as being “out of scope”, without reasonably incurring a charge of censorship.

    However – Let’s suppose we faced a new Lib Dem leadership election between Bloggs and Moggs, and a Moggsite LDV editor decided to refuse most of the submissions put forward by Bloggsites. Would that be censorship? I would say yes. OK, no doubt the Bloggsites could offer their material to ConHome, if they wanted to commit political suicide. They could place it on an independent website, and attract a range of often irrelevant non-Lib-Dem comments. They would not effectively reach the critical audience they needed to reach. They would have been censored.

    LDV has a responsibility to the members of the Party it supports, to allow those members to read a balanced range of submitted views which are relevant to their membership of the Lib Dems. If it shirks that, it is carrying out censorship.

  • David Allen 1st Jan '15 - 5:12pm

    Paul Walter,

    Thanks for agreeing my comment that “LDV has a responsibility to the members of the Party it supports, to allow those members to read a balanced range of submitted views which are relevant to their membership of the Lib Dems.”

    As you know, I recently submitted an article which argued that the Liberal Democrats are no longer fit for their declared purpose as described in the Preamble to the Constitution, and that this was due to the capture of the Party’s inadequate organisational structure by an entrenched right-of-centre leadership group. You personally (no doubt acting for LDV as a whole) refused, on principle, to publish it. Was that a justifiable decision? Or was it censorship?

  • David Allen 1st Jan ’15 – 5:12pm
    “…..I recently submitted an article which argued that the Liberal Democrats are no longer fit for their declared purpose as described in the Preamble to the Constitution, and that this was due to the capture of the Party’s inadequate organisational structure by an entrenched right-of-centre leadership group.”

    I do not want to enter into the dialogue between David Allen and Paul Walter on freedom of expression, but I would have liked to have seen the article that David Allen describes.
    The time to start rebuilding the party is now and an article describing why the party is not fit for the purpose of achieving the aims of The Preamble would be useful.

  • @David Allen
    I look forward with breathless anticipation to Liberal Democrat Voice’s cake recipe thread.

  • David Allen 1st Jan '15 - 6:59pm

    Paul,

    “It was not only a justifiable decision but we justified it in writing to you.”

    Well, you began by stating that “As a matter of policy, we do not publish articles directly supporting other parties”. So I had to point out that “My article provides no support whatsoever, direct or indirect, for any other existing party.”

    So then you wrote again, and tried a different tack. You then wrote to say “You advocate closing the Liberal Democrats after the next election and forming a new party. For that reason, and that reason alone, we will not be publishing your article.”

    In my generous and somewhat wimpish way, I then decided to edit my article, removing the final paragraph which presented those views, and simply concluding that the Lib Dems are no longer fit for their stated purpose. (That could of course equally imply a call for internal change, which I hope is not something that has now made it onto the proscribed list!). For what it’s worth, I had decided that you deserved the benefit of the doubt. You might reasonably have been scared that someone from Party HQ might have got angry with you for accepting an article directly advocating closure of the Party. So I decided to remove that element, and simply provide a criticism of the Party’s structure and operation.

    You then wrote a third time, to the effect that “that reason alone” was, let us say, a polite fiction on your part, and that you would still refuse the amended article, even with the supposedly crucial section removed. At that stage, you dredged up as your justification the accusation that my article included repetitions of points people had made previously (well, all political argument involves repetitions, of course!)

    I don’t think this puts LDV in a very good light. Badgering me to bin the material in some other dusty corner of the internet (no doubt the dustier the better) does not help. I understand that you are nervous of what awaits the Party at the election, but that doesn’t excuse suppressing critical views that you don’t like.

  • Good grief David Allen, LDV is not The Onion! (I am reminded of this) You are almost beyond satire. As a kind of experiment why not try penning articles on closing down the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, The SNP, The Guardian, The Economist etc and see if any of them would host your article. Don’t you think you might not get very far? Do have a go, then come back to tell us how you got on.

    Really, you seem out of touch with reality and certainly out of touch with how the Liberal Democrat is organised at national, regional and local levels; it is probably not so different for many others.

  • David Allen 1st Jan '15 - 8:15pm

    Martin,

    “As a kind of experiment”, why not try thinking about how to recover from the present disastrous situation.

    It really doesn’t need me to advocate the closure of the Liberal Democrats. The voters are about to do it, anyway.

    Instead of just waiting for the kick in the teeth, and then having to admit that thanks to Clegg and Co it was well merited, why don’t we try to get ahead of the game, and think about how to relaunch left-of-centre democratic politics in this country?

    There are parallels between the position of impotence that the Old Labour socialists found themselves in after the Blair coup, and the position that centre-left Lib Dems find themselves in after the Clegg coup. But there is also a crucial difference. Old-style socialism had been considerably discredited, which no doubt helps to explain why Old Labour found nowhere else to go. Traditional centre-left social liberal politics has not been discredited. It is the Orange Book philosophy that has been discredited.

    Why go down with a sinking ship, when the captain throws the charts away and steers for the rocks?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 1st Jan '15 - 8:26pm

    None of the conversation about this article of David’s is, of course, relevant to the original post. Can we please draw a line under it here. Everyone has had their say and things aren’t going to change.

  • Caron you are right, even though, from the article “Controversial content is avoided for fear of the resulting fallout” is a little relevant to the ding dong below the line. The question really is about the sensitivities involved and the degree of controversial content. The obvious problem is that anyone who publishes will want to select for quality and relevance of content and no publishing platform wants to make itself look stupid (though hilariously many do so inadvertently).

    The issue is particularly important in the public sphere, though coercion in the private sphere is as worrying. But again there are justifiable and spurious sensitivities. A concern about someone revealing that underhand business practices is vastly different to a concern that private confidential information of customers might be released.

    It is trite and a facile tactic when raising these questions to deflect the issue onto LDV, the platform that is airing the issue. I do not think anything in the previous discussion can remotely be considered as bullying.

  • David Allen 2nd Jan '15 - 12:06am

    Caron,

    All the conversation about my (not published) article is highly relevant to the original post, which said:

    “Some argue that we should adopt a free market, laissez-faire approach to self-censorship. According to this argument … companies like Sony are free to deny a platform to any kind of content they wish. As long as it isn’t the Government imposing censorship, all is well.

    The problem with this approach is that it plays into the hands of social authoritarians … If we want to roll back this trend, we must go beyond the laissez-faire approach, and make free expression more than just a legal instrument.”

    Amen to all that.

  • Sony and other platforms are perfectly entitled to not accept poor material. Of course they may produce all sorts of rubbish, but thy are not obliged to.

    I suppose dismissing something as poor because it is ignorant, facile or poorly put together is a form of censorship and I suppose that if someone had produced something that fitted into any or even all of these categories might feel aggrieved and that they had been censored, but however strongly anyone feels something does not make it true.

  • Paul Walter
    Perhaps it is important to explain the difference between editing and censorship. My view is as follows;_
    Editing involves assessing the text to make sure it is relevant to the article. Most blogs need editing.
    Censorship is excluding text because one dislikes the contents.
    A journal may exclude an article because the owners control the space. Censorship means a country banning the publication and stopping people reading the text. There is no reason why an author cannot create their own journal or website or print privately. Pamphlets from the early 17C were a way Britons would bring their views to the British public. The author would pay a printer to produce pamphlets which could be sold or given away for free.
    Libdemvoice is website owned by people who have editorial right to decide what is published.

  • geoffrey payne 2nd Jan '15 - 6:52am

    I would really prefer the discussion about moderation to be separated from the debate about how to enforce liberal values on countries that do not believe in them.

  • Allum Bokhari 2nd Jan '15 - 10:15am

    First of all, happy new year to all, and apologies for getting to the comments a little late!

    Geoff,
    That’s an interesting hypothetical, although I would hope that even North Korea would not risk a nuclear war over an offensive movie. Needless to say, using the threat of nuclear power to try and determine what can and cannot be said in another country would be pretty solid grounds for ostracization by the international community.

    Glenn,
    I agree. The focus shouldn’t be on how to prevent people becoming outraged (that would be another kind of censorship), but how to encourage everyone else to become more resilient in the face of outrage/mass criticism.

    Eddie & Jayne,
    You both raised the issue of how to incentivise free expression . It’s a difficult question indeed. One of the things that seems to work is “counter-outrage”, i.e, people becoming upset by the removal of controversial material in greater numbers than those who were upset by the material itself. Recently, Valve Corporation (a digital distributor of videogames) took the decision to pull a controversial, ultra-violent game from their platform – but they were forced to reinstate it less than 24 hours later after users of the platform kicked up an almighty hullabaloo. A similar thing happened in the case of The Interview – it looked as if Sony would have run into more trouble if they refused to screen the movie than if they went ahead. Ad hoc backlashes of this nature are quite haphazard and messy of course, but given the speed with which these events often occur, I can see why they are effective.

    In the case of Exhibit B (the art gallery example I linked to in my original post), it was safety fears that caused the event to be cancelled. The Barbican Centre, which hosted the event, had wanted to ahead but were forced to cancel due to safety fears. This is of course a different problem, which requires a different solution. Oliver Wiseman of Standpoint Magazine recently produced a report on free speech in the UK which noted that the police currently do not have an obligation to help controversial events remain open, and in fact often recommend that such events be closed when they face the threat of protest or disruption. Changing that policy (which Wiseman’s report recommends) would certainly be a step in the right direction.

  • Jayne Mansfield 2nd Jan '15 - 12:15pm

    Thank you Allum,
    It was Exhibition B that I had in mind when I posted.

    It was an example for me of how differently people perceive things, especially on matters of extreme sensitivity such as ‘race’. religion, etc.

    I saw preview pictures and for me, it was almost something that everyone should be forced to see, so deeply shaming was it of the past behaviour of white supremesists towards people with a different skin tone. I felt physically sick with shame and anger.

    I put the concept ‘race ‘ in quotation marks because I do not believe that there are such things as distinct ‘races’ and I would like to hear the arguments of any modern geneticist who says there are.

    I fear that most people are too busy getting on with their lives to concern themselves with creeping censorship unless they feel it directly affects them. It seems to be left to a few people who feel strongly to protest against specific acts of censorship. I don’t feel very optimistic about this.

  • I am reminded of this article that I was sent:
    http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9376232/free-speech-is-so-last-century-todays-students-want-the-right-to-be-comfortable/
    I think it is even better than the link in the article. Particularly as it rather nicely sums up the belief that appears to be developing as the “right to be comfortable” spouted by the “stepford students” even at one point advocating the concept of pre-crime.

    I find the idea that the LibDems who apparently support Levenson (a very dangerous first step) debating “promoting free expression” odd, perhaps the first step should be to stop trying to restrict it.

  • Paul Walter

    I think you will get in to a debate of semantics the definition could be read as the action of what moderators do (particularly in pre-moderated threads).

    an official who examines […], etc. [blog comments], for the purpose of suppressing [denying them access to being placed in context of the relevant article] parts deemed objectionable on […] other grounds [such as interpretation of a policy].”

    I would say you do “censor” what is on LDV but that is acceptable on a private site (which LDV is) you don’t prevent other expression elsewhere. This issue is that there is a balance, no censoring has things over run by those who dominate other sites comments sections; too much and the site becomes a boring echo chamber.

    I have issues with some interpretations some of the moderators have on here but can’t be bothered to take it up, but it is basically a bias (not total but noticeable) towards certain orthodoxies on different issues. This is entirely understandable with a small group of volunteers. So I think you are taking some people criticism on here too hard (they are also expressing it overly harshly).

    You basically do censor – because it makes the site better, that is fine on a private site which LDV is. You don’t always get it right but that is what being human is.

  • Allum Bokhari

    “how to encourage everyone else to become more resilient in the face of outrage/mass criticism.”

    Getting people used to hearing people disagreeing normally would be a start. But also getting the criticism in context would be. There are groups/individuals who are permanently outraged. Perhaps the media should attach a health warning when they report someone’s outrage:
    “The finding were met with outrage by the [insert relevant rent-a-quote pressure group]: who have been out raged by 100% of stories they have been contacted about this year.”

  • David Allen 4th Jan '15 - 9:07pm

    Paul,

    Thanks for replying. Well, you’ve actually rejected a few other articles of mine over the years, as well as the two that you have remembered – a “Clegg Must Go” type of article last summer, and then the recent “Start a New Party” article you have just rejected.

    The reason you’ve forgotten the other articles is that they weren’t terribly controversial, it’s just that you (or your colleagues) didn’t think they were terribly good. For example, I wrote one on tuition fees, which you turned down because you felt you’d published too much on tuition fees already. Well, I do remember trying to point out that I had a new line on that subject, but, I don’t think I said anything about “censorship”, on that occasion. I recognised that you had just made an editorial decision, for the kinds of reasons why editors normally make such decisions.

    The reason you haven’t forgotten the “Clegg Must Go” article last summer is because you made a different sort of decision. To be fair, you had published an article by Jonathan Pile a few weeks earlier, which had attracted an unprecented amount of interest and comment. So, as you point out, you do give some space to critical comment. You don’t, however, give it as much space as you give to approving comment. Whether it is a fair balance – to be biased but not horribly biased – is a question of judgment I suppose.

    Well, I read Jonathan’s excellent article, saw the surge of approval for what it said, and saw comments eventually die away again, as is normal with individual threads. The “yesterday’s-chip-paper” brigade were beginning to pipe up and trying to stir up apathy again. It was obvious we needed a new approach, and I wrote one – the article you rejected is still on the Web at:

    http://libdemfightback.yolasite.com/liberal-free-voice/why-a-lame-duck-leader-won%E2%80%99t-save-us-in-2015

    As you’ll see, it picked on one of the commonest comments amongst pro-Clegg writers – than dear old Nick would be a great temporary leader who could take the flak on behalf of all of us and then make way for a new leader immediately after May 2015. I attempted to pull that argument apart, pointing out that standing as a lame duck leader would be a quite implausible electoral stance, and that those who wanted Clegg to stay should realise that Clegg and Cleggism are determined to be around for the long term. You didn’t let LDV readers see that message. I think you thought a lot harder about the pros and cons of that decision than the one about tuition fees. What has happened since then? Is Clegg presenting himself as the “lame duck” leader his supporters then suggested that he would be?

    Never mind. Let’s not worry too much about the semantics, about whether we can say what you are doing is “censorship” or “inconsistent occasional censorship” or “bias” or “editorial judgment we are entitled to make”. It’s somewhere between all of these, isn’t it? But, there are too many voices now for the case to be hidden. The cat is out of the bag. Realising that should make both of us lighten up a little!

  • @Paul Walter

    ‘you have been allowed full rein’

    I have to say that I find that an unhelpful construction – and comparisons to the Guardian are irrelevant. Regardless of viewpoint, I’d have thought that LDV would embody, of necessity, an extraordinary commitment to allowing free and open comment in a manner that testifies to the best ideals of the political party it embodies. And not to remark about that freedom in a manner that makes it sound as if allowing free and open comment is somehow a favour that has been bestowed upon a commentator.

    If he’d said something offensive on grounds of race, or gender, etc, etc, then by all means I’d agree to censure. But to make it sound as if the editors go beyond duty by graciously ‘allowing’ someone to state an opinion they personally disagree with sounds most illiberal to my ears – although I’m prepared to learn why I’m wrong here, or somewhat out of date.

    Congratulating yourselves on allowing free speech doesn’t sound very liberal to me.

  • Paul Walter wrote regarding David Allen:
    “our website. . . . is “by and for Lib Dem supporters”. . . . . Judging from your previous comments, you don’t believe in this”

    If that were the case, I could understand the editorial viewpoint (though personally, I’d be interested in reading articles from both those outside the Party who are sympathetic to it or interested in joining, as well as those inside the Party who are having doubts or thinking of changing their support — it’s important to know not just how the Party is changing, but also why). But it’s not clear to me that this is in fact the case. Has David Allen left the Lib Dems? Is he really against the Party as a whole? Or is he just expressing his views as a supporter for a change in the Party’s leadership and direction?

    Those are questions, of course, which only he can answer, and I don’t pretend to know the answers and won’t presume to answer for him. But in general, I think it would be an unfortunate precedent to confuse dissent within the Party with opposition to the Party, or to equate frustration to subversion.

  • David Allen 5th Jan '15 - 12:01pm

    David-1,

    Since you ask (thanks!), here’s a bit about me. I have been a Lib Dem (previously SDP) member since 1981, and I still am. Until 2008 I was a loyalist foot-slogger and local councillor who would have characterised things like LDV as armchair politics for those too lazy to get on with the work. Then Clegg came out with his first “big permanent tax cuts” policy, and I realised that my party had fundamentally changed course in a way I could not agree with. I stopped the foot-slogging and started to make the argument against Cleggism.

    Over the last five years I have seen the gradual growth of internal opposition within the Lib Dems to the point it has reached today. We have won – or seem to have won – the battle of ideas on several important occasions. And yet we have won nothing. I am reminded of an analogous situation with Murdoch. At one time, these pages were full of triumphal glee, when it appeared that the hacking scandal had brought Murdoch to his knees. But what really happened? When the hurricane struck, Murdoch bent low with the wind. He noisily shut down his flagship paper and quietly restarted with a new name. Now the tall Murdoch poppy once again waves triumphantly in the breeze and it is his critics who have lost. It seems to me that Clegg is on course to emulate Murdoch.

    I have thus come to realise that we can win any number of Pyrrhic victories within the Party, but we are up against a general and a High Command who know how to retain power, in much the same way that Murdoch retained power, or the Russians defeated Napoleon. The Lib Dem power structure has been captured by the interests of a right-wing alliance. It has survived intellectual defeat and it will survive electoral defeat. If we are to restore something like the old Lib Dem ideal – a party under the control of its individual membership which fights and does not ally with powerful vested interest – then it will have to be a new party.

    Why bother? Well, personally I think that Labour aren’t good enough and that the Greens are too much stuck in a restricted political niche, so I think a new party is still needed. Would that party just look like Charles Kennedy, David Steel, Shirley Williams or Roy Jenkins reincarnated? Of course not, ideas and events have not stood still, and a new party should also be open to some of the broader ambitions of the anti-austerity movements within Europe. But if I had to sum it up with a one-word rationale, that word would be – FDP.

    The tiny FDP has set the course for German politics since the last war. Its alliance with Brandt and Schmidt of the SDP established the German moderate social democratic state. Then in 1982 the FDP switched sides, and since then the right-wing CDU have been dominant. So a small, often derided “swing” party has exerted enormous power. Here in Britain, the Lib Dems can similarly be of great importance as a “swing” party, even if they are much disliked, even if their vote shrinks. The Tories have noticed. Labour have rather stupidly kept their noses in the air. Swing party politics matters!

  • As if to ilustrate the threats to free expression only a week later:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-30710883

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