|Freedom of speech is a bourgeois freedom, a proud hallmark of ‘British democracy’, fought for and defended since the rise of the capitalist class. Of course, under capitalism, freedom of speech is an illusory right for most of the population, as access to the mainstream press, television, radio and newspapers is tightly controlled by the ruling class. So long as the ruling class is able to saturate its ideas and ‘truth’ among the population, both at home and abroad, it is, generally speaking, not too bothered about the small voices of dissent raised by the pockets of independent press, ‘honest’ journalists and oppositional forces, including representatives of national liberation struggles and the rising proletariat, as long as the sphere of influence of the latter remains suitably small.
However, at times when events serve to remove the veil of ‘nice’ capitalism and imperialism, and when the insatiable thirst of capital for profits at the expense of the nations, communities and human life is exposed, freedom of speech – limited as it is – comes under attack as the ruling class fights to maintain its control over the working class.
In Britain, with exposure of the true motive for the invasion of Iraq being but one of many recent examples where people have begun to wake up and question the legitimacy of the imperialist system, such a time appears to be upon us. The Labour government, despite all its trumpeting about respect for human rights, is engaged in a concerted effort to censor or silence voices of opposition to its policies at home and abroad.
‘Glorification’ of terrorism
One such example is the newly created offence of ‘glorification’ of terrorism, which will finally pass into law after extensive debate between the two houses of parliament over many months. ‘Glorification’ is not defined – the question of whether a ‘glorification’ crime has occurred will be left to the discretion of the police and the courts.
The Prime Minister says the law would “allow action to be taken against people with placards glorifying the 7 July bombers – which were seen in London during protests against cartoons satirising the Prophet Muhammad”. (Quoted in ‘Lords back down on glorification’, BBC News Online, 22 March 2006)
Using such an emotive example, it is easy for the government to quell criticism and disquiet. In a situation where national Iraqi forces legitimately resisting imperialist invasion and occupation of their country are called ‘terrorist’, the law presents a clear opportunity for the state to crack down on those who oppose imperialism and support those who fight against it.
At a briefing with Tony Blair on 8 February 2006, confirmation was sought that the law would not apply retrospectively, and the example of murals in Belfast supporting the IRA and the aim of liberating Northern Ireland from British rule was highlighted. Someone asked from the floor: “If someone came in the middle of the night and painted an ‘Abu Hamza should be free’ type mural on a house, would that be glorifying terrorism?” The response was that it would be a “matter for the police to decide”. (www.downingstreetsays.org)
Much of the debate in the House of Lords on 22 March 2006 surrounding the meaning of the word ‘glorification’ revealed the wide potential for the law to be used to crack down on dissent on war in Iraq etc. Lord Thomas of Gresford, expressing concern at the vagueness of the phrase, commented: “I have made the point before that it refers to William Wallace in Scotland, to the Welsh nationalists in 1937 who blew up the bombing range in the Lleyn Peninsula, to the Easter Rebellion, and to any movement throughout the world – as I said, this applies to the whole world – where a movement or organisation takes up arms against the recognised government. We may support that movement, but in these terms we would still be glorifying it.” (Lords Hansard, www.publications.parliament.uk, 22 March)
‘Gagging’ the BBC
In 2005, the BBC found itself in the rare position of giving voice to concerns of a wide section of the population concerning the motives for war in Iraq, publishing the comments of an MoD insider to the effect that the dossier whose contents ostensibly formed the basis for Britain’s justification for war with Iraq in March 2003 was “sexed up”. This in turn led to the questioning of Dr David Kelly before a Members of Parliament Committee, his death in suspicious circumstances, the Hutton Enquiry whitewash and the resignation of the Chairman and then the Director General of the BBC. Since that time, it appears the leadership of the BBC has been more intent than ever on proving its loyalty to the government and the state.
The Labour government, not wishing to experience a repeat of these events, which led to harsh public criticism and scrutiny of leading members of the government, has decided to further clip the wings of the BBC. A government white paper concerning the future of the organisation includes newly defined ‘purposes’ for the BBC. Specifically, the white paper specifies that the corporation must work to “sustain citizenship and civil society” . As BBC writer Andrew Davies recognised, “it looks like the BBC will be doing the government’s propaganda. Part of the BBC’s function should be to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy”. (‘Charter will force BBC to back Britain’, The Sunday Times, 12 March 2006)
The role of the BBC, as of any mainstream communications medium in capitalist society, has always been to “do the government’s propaganda”. The skill is in the art of giving the appearance of independence while at the same time leaving unchallenged the fundamental principles of bourgeois democracy, including the permanency of the capitalist system. Occasionally, this requires the media to report news that undermines some of the ruling class’s propaganda. When the ruling class feels threatened – as it does now with the war in Iraq going so badly as to call into question the long-term sustainability of imperialism, and with extremely shaky domestic economic conditions – freedom of speech is no longer expedient.