Weekly News Round-up

Welcome to the Free Speech Union’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture.

Reasons to be cheerful about Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter

On Tuesday, Twitter’s board accepted the billionaire Elon Musk’s bid to buy the company. Predictably, according to Mick Hume in the Mail, “left-wing pundits, academics and right-on celebrities instantaneously declared themselves terrified that the richest man in the world might dare to do the unthinkable and allow those with even a slightly different opinion from their own to exercise freedom of expression online.”

Was it “terror,” though, or some other emotion? Writing about “the great Musk meltdown” for Spiked, Andrew Doyle pointed out that child psychologists have often observed “that when babies cry, what we assume is an expression of discomfort is in fact a form of rage”. The collective mindset of woke social justice warriors, he went on, “approximates a kind of arrested development, an inability to engage in reasoned discussion or to understand that, when it comes to persuading others of your point of view, tantrums have limited utility”.

Whatever the cause, it was all rather good fun – “almost worth the $45 billion purchase price in entertainment value alone”, as our General Secretary Toby Young put it in the Express.

Comedian Kathy Griffin Tweeted that Musk was a “media-thirsty, vindictive white supremacist”. Civil rights activist Shaun King deleted his account, fearing Musk’s “white power” and apparently fretful that “white nationalists” would now be free to roam the internet, targeting and harassing people. (Shaun himself is white, needless to say.) One preternaturally long-lived journalist – who, although never having won a Pulitzer, must surely have been a contemporary of the man himself – went so far as to warn that “today on Twitter feels like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany”.

Beyond all the histrionics, though, how will Twitter change under Musk’s ownership?  

Largely, if not entirely, for the worse, according to the BBC. In a remarkably gloomy piece, the reader has to endure academics declaring that an already bad situation will get worse if all the “decent people” (i.e., them) exit the platform, Amnesty International worrying that Musk will turn a blind eye to violent and abusive speech, Joe Biden expressing his “concern”, US Senator Elizabeth Warren warning of “dangers for democracy ahead”, celebrities panicking about an impending uptick in xenophobia, the EU querying whether Musk will adequately protect platform users… and so on.   

Of course, it’s right and proper for a public service broadcaster to allow those voices to be heard. But what about the voices of those on the other side of the argument; what about people who believe that things might, you know… actually get better?

After all, Twitter could hardly be said to have an unblemished record when it comes to free speech. Too often in the past, “harassment” has been conflated with relatively innocuous forms of behaviour in order to justify the deletion of accounts on political grounds. The same could be said of “mis-” or “dis-information”. Those of us who are cheering Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter would no doubt point to the suppression of the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story or the ban on former President Donald Trump as emblematic examples of Twitter’s violations of basic tenets of free speech. Many gender-critical feminists too – and even satirical website Babylon Bee – have been censored in the past simply for stating biological truths, or raising important questions about women-only spaces.

That’s why, unlike the BBC, the FSU is cautiously optimistic. Our press release (which you can read here) welcomed the news that Twitter had accepted Musk’s offer. Importantly, it “encouraged” Twitter’s new owner to:

Initiate a public discussion on the platform about how best to adhere to the principles of free speech while, at the same time, discourage political opponents from engaging in vicious personal attack or trying to cancel each other. As a crucial first step, Twitter needs to regain the trust of all sides across a range of contentious political issues.

Regaining the trust of all sides. That’s a key point for the FSU. People need to re-learn how to talk to their opponents, to be open to changing their minds, and not to dismiss alternative viewpoints as evidence of dishonesty or hatred. That wasn’t possible when the gatekeepers of the online public square silenced voices that didn’t parrot their own insular worldview. Now, at least, we have hope that in the near future it might be.

Free speech includes the right to be offensive, Mr Speaker

Last weekend, The Mail on Sunday ran a story in which anonymous Tory MPs accused Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, of deliberately crossing and uncrossing her legs to throw Boris Johnson “off his stride” during PMQs. Rayner’s “enchantment effect” (as the Mail described it) was, they claimed, reminiscent of Sharon Stone’s famous reveal in the film Basic Instinct.  

Was it a good idea for the Mail to rehabilitate what Joanna Williams described as “the kind of sexism best left buried with Benny Hill”? Who knows. What worried the FSU rather more was that in the storm of controversy that ensued, condemnations rained down with such hyperbolic ferocity that for a while it felt as if the principle of a free press might be washed away. Parliamentarians on both sides of the house were worryingly quick to render a perfectly legitimate newspaper article – one that they just didn’t happen to like – as evidence of some wider, structural malaise, namely, the sexism supposedly endured “routinely” by all women in Parliament.  

Rayner herself claimed that both sexism and classism were behind the Mail’s story. Labour’s Harriet Harmen described it as “creepy”, before breezily suggesting that changes to the parliamentary code of conduct were needed to render misogyny punishable by suspension from the House of Commons. Conservative Caroline Nokes went further, suggesting that the journalist responsible should lose his parliamentary pass and be subjected to a grilling from a committee of MPs. Surely, though, Nokes’s plan would amount to little more than “censorship dressed up as an attempt to protect women”? If carried through, it would also have the effect of making access to politicians dependent on ‘good behaviour’ – that is, only writing what MPs want to hear.

Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle waded into the debate too. It was, he thundered, “demeaning, offensive to women in Parliament” and would “deter women who might consider standing for election”. He then summoned David Dillon, the editor of the Mail on Sunday, and Glen Owen, the journalist who wrote the story, to meet with him to discuss the offending article and, presumably, attempt to ensure that no similar articles were published again.

The Telegraph’s Sam Ashworth-Hayes described Hoyle’s attempt to “act as de facto press regulator” as indicative of “a startling naivety”. If he’d stuck to making a brief statement, he added, criticising the behaviour of the unnamed Tory MPs whose comments were reported, “then people on all sides of the political fray would have had little to criticise”. Instead, Hoyle turned it into a matter of press freedoms, “a fundamental issue which, as David Cameron before him quickly learnt, is best left untouched”.

The next day, the Mail led with news that neither the Mail on Sunday’s editor, nor the article’s author, would be keeping their appointment with Lindsay, and followed up with a robust defence of their story.

The FSU stands squarely behind the Mail’s defence.

“So what,” wrote Toby for ConHome, “if some female MPs and their male ‘allies’ found the article offensive?” Someone, he added:

Should draw Hoyle’s attention to the words of Lord Justice Sedley in Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions (1999): “Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”

It’s not that the Mail on Sunday’s article wasn’t contentious. It’s just that, as Toby pointed out, it was “so obviously within the bounds of protected speech, as set out in Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, that Hoyle shouldn’t need reminding that free speech includes the right to demean and offend”.

Thankfully, the Speaker has since backpedalled, stressing that he’s a “staunch believer and protector of press freedom”. But he’s stopped short of withdrawing his summons, which Toby believes is a mistake:

Even if he had no intention of removing Owen’s lobby pass on this occasion, he must be aware that that was the veiled threat he was making by demanding he and his editor come to his office. He should withdraw his summons, admit his error, and never try to interfere in the freedom of the press again.

Museums and the woke war on the past

First it was statues. Then it was street names, clocks, country homes, mathematics, Thatcher’s Cider company and even Shakespeare. Now, though, “left-wing radicals” appear to be eyeing up museums for a spot of decolonisation, reports the Mail.

The Imperial War Museum made headlines last November, staging a woke rap at the end of Remembrance Sunday’s traditional two-minute silence; a rap which the Mail described as “a vile attack on (among others) Churchill and a rant about race”. This week, we learnt that Ipswich Museum’s bosses are looking to hire a “social justice champion” who will be paid £35,000 to help “address the legacies of imperialism, patriarchal power structures and inherent biases in current displays”.

Also in the news this week was Arts Council England (ACE). According to the Telegraph, ACE are using millions in taxpayers’ money to encourage “decolonisation” at smaller English museums. The organisation wields quite a bit of power in the sector, principally because museums are required to obtain ACE’s official accreditation. That’s obviously a tricky task for smaller museums, so an advisory body, Museum Development England (MDE), was recently established to help them navigate the process. A recent MDE training programme offers us a clue as to the type of “help” they’ve been providing. The programme assists managers in laying “the foundations for equity and inclusion at [their] museum”, reminds them that the history they’ve been curating their whole careers has largely been written by “white, wealthy” men, and provides them with “inspirational” examples of best practice in decolonising museums. The need for museums to launch inclusion “action plans”, “champion social justice and equity” and unpick “racist narratives” is also emphasised.

Quite whether hard-pressed, under-resourced managers at institutions like Wigston Framework Knitters Museum, the National Glass Centre and the Isle of Wight Bus and Coach Museum need that type of help is a moot point.

Interestingly, the Telegraph describe the training as “voluntary”. But will those sessions look or feel “voluntary” to museum staff? The training is, after all, provided by an organisation that exists to help them navigate ACE’s accreditation process. And it must surely be common knowledge among practitioners that MDE receives £3 million in annual funding from ACE. Would museum bosses feel confident rejecting “voluntary” training offered by an advisory body with such close links to the sector’s accreditation body? The concern, surely, would be that non-attendance will render them incapable of swearing fealty to all things “inclusive” in the ACE’s accreditation documentation.

Mavericks, apostates, contrarians: all are welcome at Forum

Editors are “terrified of being accused of wrongthink if they allow a book to be published which is deemed to be out of bounds. I think it’s pathetic.” So says George Owers, boss of Forum, a new publishing imprint offering a home to cancelled authors.

There’s certainly enough of them about to make a good business case for a venture like Forum. Back in 2020, for instance, Kathleen Stock, then professor of philosophy at Sussex University and a gender-critical feminist, had a book on female philosophers abandoned by OUP because it was deemed “too controversial”. Kate Clanchy, a teacher of 30 years whose memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me won the Orwell Prize for political writing, saw her decade-long relationship with Picador aborted earlier this year following a cancel-culture maelstrom. And last year the Hachette Book Group dropped Julie Burchill’s Welcome to the Woke Trials: How Identity Killed Progressive Politics over her tweets about Islam. Reflecting on that cancellation for the Critic this week, Rosie Jenkinson remarked that “there’s more than a hint of irony that a book by a woman criticising the cancellation of women was cancelled”. (Reminder: We helped Julie get the rights back to her manuscript and found her another publisher.)

Owers says he won’t take on cancelled authors for the sake of it. “If what they’re arguing is of no merit, or is pure provocation with no real argument, I don’t want to publish it,” he said. He does, though, see the outfit as a first step in challenging the “stranglehold” the industry finds itself in. “In a year’s time,” he says, “we hope Penguin and Picador will be terrified of us.”

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Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer