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The Right-Wing Blind Spot Over Free Speech

A new report by the Institute of Economic Affairs think tank describes the emergence of the ‘culture control left’ – conveniently looking the other way when it comes to the right of politics

Evgeny Lebedev at the offices of The Independent newspaper in 2010. Photo: Dylan Martinez/PA Images/Alamy

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Evening Standard owner Evgeny Lebedev used a speech in the House of Lords this week to praise the UK’s “great tradition of free speech” and warned against it being given up so easily.

Baron Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond on Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation told his peers in the upper chamber that he was alarmed with the pace at which “the erosion of free speech that is taking place here”.

The Russian-British businessman – who also co-owns The Independent newspaper – has sat in the House of Lords as a crossbench life peer since November 2020, after being nominated by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson for philanthropy and services to the media.

It was a move that drew much criticism, with Byline Times being one of few media outlets to report extensively on Lebedev’s relationship with Johnson. As recently as last month it was revealed that Johnson held two unminuted meetings with Lebedev at the height of the build-up to the first Coronavirus lockdown, according to the COVID Inquiry hearings.

Lebedev’s evidence that free speech is under attack highlighted author JK Rowling’s views on gender “that are probably the views of the quiet majority”, before describing his shock that “Coutts Bank decided that Nigel Farage was no longer suitable to be a customer”.

A 2021 investigation by Byline Times revealed how some on the right are using ‘gender critical’ arguments to further their anti-LGBTIQ agenda, while Farage’s “serious political persecution” earlier this year appears to have been based on what were, at the very least, highly questionable claims.

In an attempt to head off the assertion from any of his peers that he might be considered a reactionary, or a conservative, Lebedev said he “equally supports the right of Jeremy Corbyn to air “his views on Hamas”.

He eventually raised some concerns about the provisions in the Online Safety Act that he felt could give further legal basis for a process of censorship and self-censorship “that is already under way”. Lebedev said: “It is not just the left that is guilty of cancel culture.”


Boris Johnson is Trying to ‘Silence’ Questions About Evgeny Lebedev

A Labour MP says the Prime Minister and his friend tried to stop him from asking questions about lavish parties held at the newspaper proprietor’s Italian villa, reports Adam Bienkov

‘Culture Control Left

The idea that the left is corroding democratic freedoms by policing language use is something the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) think tank made the point of a recent report that took aim at what it described as the emergence of the ‘Culture Control Left’.

The IEA has been widely credited as a driving force behind Trussonomics, the thinking that underpinned Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous mini budget last year. Under this ideology, you can read here why it believes it is impossible to reduce inequality because characteristics such as race, gender and class that cause disparities are fixed.

In the IEA’s latest 56-page paper – ‘Dictating Words: The Culture-Control Left and the War Against Free Speech’ – the word ‘protest’ can be found just six times. In fact, there is no mention at all of legislation passed by this Government, such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, or the Lobbying Act 2014.

It is a significant omission as many rights groups have raised concerns on the impact of these laws on the right to protest, at the same time as having a ‘gagging’ effect on anyone that might criticise Government policy.

The IEA asserts that it is the approximately 120,000 non-crime hate incidents entered on police databases that are an example of the left’s weaponising of concepts such as ‘hate speech’ and ‘harm’ to push legislation that silences their political opponents. 

“Being accused of hate speech is the contemporary equivalent of being charged with blasphemy or seditious libel,” the author of the report states.

The paper also argues that hate speech laws are enforced in a politically partial and inconsistent manner.

For Marc Glendening, head of cultural affairs at the IEA and the report’s author, censorship of some views based on the alleged harm is incompatible with liberal democracy. 

“Britain’s liberal political culture presently faces a threat greater than any it has encountered since our country emerged as a representative democracy in the early 20th Century. 

“This is the result of the emergence of a ‘culture control left’ ideology that sees state regulation of language as the principal way to enforce greater social equality.

“This necessarily involves violating the speech rights of individuals who wish to express views considered transgressive. Defenders of political pluralism now need to wage a counter-attack based upon a foundational, natural rights-based defence of free speech.”

The solution, the paper concludes, is to restate the case for each individual’s inherent right to think and peacefully express themselves.


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‘Blatant Hypocrisy’

It would appear, then, that the right of an individual to express themselves does not extend to concern about what one campaign group told the Byline Times are “authoritarian anti-protest laws”.

Morag Livingstone, co-author of Charged: How the Police Try to Suppress Protest, said: “There is a blatant hypocrisy of those who apparently promote the right of hate speech as free speech, whilst remaining silent about a Government that is limiting our ability to protest at all. 

“Under the Police Act 2022, the police have been provided vast discretionary powers to restrict noisy protest that may cause ‘serious disruption’ and limit the length of protest. We may be left with a quiet, short protest that doesn’t annoy anyone. That’s not protest but obsequiousness”.

In response to the IEA’s latest paper, Green peer Natalie Bennett said that “the threats to democratic free speech and expression of views are many, but none of them are covered in this paper”.

“Charities are left fearful of speaking up for the purposes they serve by the Lobbying Act, which has been labelled the ‘gagging law’,” she added. “Repressive trade union laws – kept under Labour after being brought in by the Tories – prevent freedom of expression for workers.

“And under this Government, we’ve seen multiple Acts deliberately targeting peaceful protests, the monitoring of the social media accounts such as by the Department for Education of teaching assistants and librarians, and special advisors monitoring Freedom of Information requests from journalists.”

Indigo Rumbelow, founder of Just Stop Oil, asked: “Where were these free speech warriors when I was arrested at my home for giving a speech about the climate crisis? Where were the free speech warriors while our Government brought in a sweep of authoritarian anti-protest laws?” 

“They are only interested in inflaming division in our society in order to distract us from the utter failure of politics to find a route out of this mess,” Rumbelow added.

Compass director Neal Lawson told Byline Times he believes the right chooses to ignore the fact that the right to protest is a crucial component of free speech – because protests threaten the establishment and vested interests they represent.

“Given inevitable protests as the effects of climate change kick in and the inequality gap widens, the right wants to clamp down now,” he added. “This builds a pressure cooker of frustration as there is no outlet for people’s discontent – neither democracy nor protest let them be heard.”

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