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Our fight for free speech: At first it was political correctness but now it’s the new McCarthyism

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by Evgeny Lebedev

Let me take you back to 2006. An Oxford student named Sam Brown has just asked a mounted police officer a question. “Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?” There, among the dreaming spires, he is arrested for making homophobic remarks.

It’s a funny old story, and while I’m glad Britain takes equine offence so seriously, I take greater pleasure in imagining the kind of person who is so sensitive, or in love with power, as to see jovial behaviour as a pretext to get someone into handcuffs.

In 2006 this was an oddity; something incredulous; a plot right out of Monty Python. Brown refused to pay the fine and the prosecution dropped the case. Fast forward nearly 20 years, and absurd stories of the same kind seem to litter our newsfeeds like parakeets in Battersea Park.

Unfortunately, they are no longer so light-hearted. Nor do they end so neatly. When, in 2020, a man was filmed cracking his knuckles outside the window of his car on a US motorway, he was dismissed from San Diego Gas and Electric after the video went viral on Twitter. According to commentators, he had positioned his fingers into a gesture of white supremacy.

We get cancelled for all manner of things nowadays. And, it seems, by all manner of people. The banks can do it, as we now all know (thank you, Nigel), or rabbis taking out adverts in the New York Times to claim that Dua Lipa’s support for Palestinians makes her anti-Semitic.

This is taking place in societies that pride themselves on upholding free expression. There is no end to it, and I haven’t even mentioned author JK Rowling.

Today, the UK finds itself ranked 34th in the world for freedom of expression by Article 19, a British NGO. You read that right. 34th. That’s lower than Ireland (8), Germany (9) and France (23). More chilling is the finding, in its new Global Expression Report, that more than six billion people have less freedom of expression than they had back in 2000. That’s 80 per cent of the world’s population.

Growing up in the Soviet Union means I have never taken free speech for granted. The reason my family invested in newspapers in Britain was because we were admirers of a free press, and with that, freedom to express ourselves. These were values to be upheld, regardless of the cost.

Of course, free speech is also about responsible speech — and those whose liberties know no bounds play a dangerous game. Too often, the media has been found guilty of peddling unsubstantiated stories, putting targets on people’s backs simply because it sells. This imperils our profession — as we saw 12 years ago with Leveson — and compromises freedom itself.





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