TOBY YOUNG: Free speech is the most vital battle yet against the hard Left trolls who want to kill democracy
Fifteen months ago, when I launched the Free Speech Union in the pages of this newspaper, I said that our right to speak openly and freely was in greater peril than at any time since the Second World War.
In its brief life, the organisation has fought many important battles.
We came to the defence of Conservative politician Amber Rudd after she was no-platformed by students at Oxford University.
We helped Nick Buckley, the founder of a homelessness charity in Manchester, get his job back after he was sacked for criticising the Black Lives Matter organisation.
And we helped Lisa Keogh, a law student who was placed under investigation by Abertay University for challenging woke dogma in a class on feminism, gender and the law. We made sure she wasn’t punished.
But no battle has been more important than the one we’re currently fighting – against a censorious, anti-democratic organisation called Stop Funding Hate (SFH).
Richard Wilson (pictured), who is the Corbyn-supporting director of the group, announced a full three months ago that GB News aims to be a British version of Fox News, the US television channel which he went on to say is ‘notorious for racism’
At the beginning of last week, this notorious group of activists managed to persuade a slew of advertisers to stop advertising on GB News, the television channel newly launched by Andrew Neil.
SFH had falsely branded the new channel a platform for toxic, far-Right views and then encouraged its supporters to contact the advertisers via social media and repeat this smear.
The companies that initially withdrew their ads included Moneysupermarket, Vodafone, Bosch, Ikea, Grolsch, Nivea, the Open University and Kopparberg, the Swedish cider maker – all apparently under the impression that GB News doesn’t share their values of basic decency. The Free Speech Union is writing to all of these companies urging them to reconsider.
If they don’t want to advertise on GB News, that is their right, but they should base that decision on an informed understanding of what the channel is all about and not on misinformation being disseminated by a shadowy, hard-Left organisation with a covert political agenda.
Needless to say, SFH started smearing GB News as an outlet for hatred and prejudice long before it had broadcast a single programme.
Richard Wilson, the Corbyn-supporting director of the group, announced a full three months ago that GB News aims to be a British version of Fox News, the US television channel which he went on to say is ‘notorious for racism’.
Not only is that a calumny on Fox News – it might be right-of-centre but there’s nothing racist about it – it’s also a grotesquely false characterisation of the new British channel. Neil, the chairman of GB News, has repeatedly made it clear that he doesn’t want it to be a British version of Fox.
The group managed to persuade a slew of advertisers to stop advertising on GB News, the television channel newly launched by Andrew Neil (GB News team pictured)
Moreover, nothing on GB News has been remotely racist or misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, or anything else.
Like the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News, the channel is regulated by Ofcom, which has strict rules against broadcasting any content that spreads hatred against minorities. What Neil has said is that the new channel will ‘puncture the pomposity of our elites in politics, business, media and academia and expose their growing promotion of cancel culture for the threat to free speech and democracy that it is’.
Perhaps that’s why Wilson wants to take it down.
Not that accuracy has ever been a priority for the activists behind SFH or the basement-dwelling trolls who spread its poison.
It claims to campaign against media companies that traffic in bigotry and prejudice, but in reality it targets mainstream publications and broadcasters whose political views it dislikes.
TOBY YOUNG: ‘No battle has been more important than the one we’re currently fighting – against a censorious, anti-democratic organisation called Stop Funding Hate’
For instance, in 2018 SFH briefly persuaded West Coast Trains to stop selling the Daily Mail on its services because it supposedly demonised immigrants. By which it meant, of course, that the paper supported Brexit.
As the trade unionist Paul Embery has written, the true ambition of SFH is to snuff out any opinions it disapproves of by publicly naming and shaming companies which advertise in media it opposes.
The aim is to frighten these companies into believing that large numbers of their customers are on the cusp of deserting them unless they pull their advertising.
Even though these campaigns involve just a handful of hashtag activists, the effect is to panic low-level employees – such as the person operating the company’s social media account – into issuing an apology and announcing they’ll never advertise with the ‘toxic’ publication or broadcaster again. It banks on the fact that once these decisions are a matter of public record, the chief executive and the board will then stick to them to avoid further embarrassment.
SFH wants to win people round to its hard-Left ideology by making sure they never hear any alternative points of view – and to do that under the cover of trying to ‘cleanse’ the media of poisonous opinions. That’s a profoundly dishonest and undemocratic approach to winning political battles.
If Richard Wilson thinks all newspapers and television channels should have a progressive, Left-wing editorial policy, and any that don’t should be driven into bankruptcy, he should have the courage to set out that argument in the public square, not hide behind an organisation that pretends to campaign for decency.
We’ve seen the same tactics employed by Hacked Off, the organisation fronted by Hugh Grant and supported by Steve Coogan, which campaigned for State regulation of the press.
Under the guise of ‘cleaning up’ a supposedly unhealthy media landscape, Grant, Coogan and a host of rich and powerful supporters, such as the late Max Mosley, sought to fetter the freedom of newspapers to investigate the behaviour of high-profile individuals – however seedy – and expose their hypocrisy.
Trying to silence your political opponents by mobilising a mob of internet bullies is a hallmark of the intolerant Left. Such underhand tactics are a dangerous assault on free speech and threaten to undermine our democracy.
Again and again we’ve seen non-woke opinions being demonised as ‘hateful’ and the people who subscribe to them being condemned as ‘bigots’, even though they’re often mainstream views that the vast majority of people share.
Hard-Left trolls have launched wave after wave of vile attacks on the author J. K. Rowling because she has had the temerity to challenge trans orthodoxy. Defending people’s right to express a range of views on controversial issues without being branded ‘bigots’ or ‘phobes’ is part of the reason I set up the Free Speech Union.
Hacked Off was a dismal failure and, thankfully, there are signs that SFH’s vilification of GB News is beginning to backfire, too.
Moneysupermarket, Vodafone, Bosch and Ikea have all distanced themselves from the boycott campaign after initially withdrawing their ads, saying they’re going to review the content of the new channel and will then make a decision about whether to advertise.
A Vodafone spokesman said: ‘We firmly believe in free speech, while also standing firmly against hateful and harmful content. We are not involved in any boycotting.’
Let’s hope Grolsch, Nivea and Kopparberg, which are still participating in the boycott against GB News, also come to their senses.
It cannot be said too often that free speech is the bedrock on which our democracy rests. Robust debate – appealing to reason, evidence and our shared values – is the best way to resolve disagreements about issues without descending to violence or intimidation.
And free speech is the most effective bulwark against abuses of power by politicians, with history demonstrating again and again that its denial is both the aim of tyrants, because it stops people criticising them, and an ominous precursor to the removal of other freedoms.
The attempt by hard-Left activists to bankrupt a politically independent TV channel before it has got off the ground is a battle we have to win for the sake of our democracy.
- Toby Young is General Secretary of the Free Speech Union.
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