This article by Guardian columnist Owen Jones is a statement of the new credo.
Owen is up in arms because Sky News has interviewed Tommy Robinson (founder of the English Defence League). Owen says that “The far right is not a legitimate political perspective”. Its spokespeople should not be heard. Giving them a “platform” i.e. interviewing them, legitimises their bigotry and hatred. Owen argues that if we allow the principle that people with irrational beliefs and “any old idea” can legitimately be interviewed by the media then “why aren’t we holding prime-time debates about how the earth is flat”? It appears that Owen Jones would also like to ban interviews about whether the earth is flat.
The problem with this is simple and obvious. Who decides what is “irrational” and “any old idea”? The whole idea of a rational democracy is that the people, who are assumed to be capable of making their own rational assessments, make these decisions. And they can only make these decisions if they can hear the views. Despite his (strategic and transparent) attempts to distance himself from the ‘liberal media’ Owen Jones is simply re-iterating one of its core beliefs; a self-appointed elite should decide what goes and what does not go in terms of what is considered acceptable debate. By defining what can and cannot be debated they hope to short-circuit debate and simply force their views through. (Another example of this was how in the run-up to a parliamentary vote on gay marriage the then Equalities Minister announced that there would be a period of public debate and then, a few days later, said that anyone who disagreed with the proposal was a bigot and their views could not even be countenanced).
The only solid argument that Owen Jones offers to support his banning call is that the Finsbury Park mosque bomber had seen online videos by Tommy Robinson. However; the problem with this argument is that publishing material which incites racial or religious-based hatred are already arrestable offences in the UK. If the Finsbury Park bomber really was ‘radicalised’ by Tommy Robinson’s videos (as Jones quotes a senior police officer as saying) then the question is – why had the police not arrested Robinson (and required ISPs to remove the videos?). The law already provides precisely the protection which Owen is now seeking to obtain through a banning of media interviews. Not only does it provide this protection but – just because it is the law – and not the arbitrary legislation of self-appointed guardians of the airwaves – it provides a rational mechanism for determining what is hate-speech and what is legitimate debate. There may well be a serious set of questions to ask concerning why the police had not arrested Robinson for publishing material “stirring-up” hatred of religious groups (if that is what he is doing) – but the call for a media ban is something else. A media ban is a blanket ban on a person or organisation – once enforced the banned people cannot say anything at all. It is characteristic of the new progressives (or modern liberals – despite Jones’s attempt to distance himself from the tag ‘liberal’ he is indeed a representative of modern liberalism) that they like, where possible, to bypass the due process and considered judgements of the courts in favour of blanket bans which they control. While no doubt Jone’s cause is in many ways a worthwhile one (tolerance is a better value than intolerance) he is closer to Nazi book-burnings than he might think.
The other problem with the idea of a media ban is that it will probably not, as Jones appears to believe, somehow make intolerance and racism go away. The bigotry which Jones is concerned about is rooted in the real experience of hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, in the UK. Guardian journalists probably do not feel the heat of economic competition from immigrants. But many do. Owen Jones himself might not mind his children being forced to eat cruelly slaughtered halal meat at school because the local authority has a policy that all meat is halal – but does this mean that those who object are bigots? The only valid crucible in which what is a reasonable (but different) point of view and what is simply a hate-crime can be tested is the crucible of public debate – and, when a conclusion is reached, though the process of legislation and judgement in a court.
Owen’s piece, linked to above, is a clear example of the credo of modern progressives (liberals) that seeks to bypass the ‘old’ approach of rational debate and legislation and replace it with a new approach where a very narrow metropolitan elite of political and media figures decide for everyone else what is right and wrong.