freedom of speech vs freedom to speech

David Cameron finds it easy to climb onto the barricades of free speech in this Telegraph report this afternoon:

David Cameron has appeared to criticised Sony Pictures for pulling a controversial film about the assassination of North Korea’s leader after cyberhackers threatened reprcussions if the movie was released.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Mr Cameron gave a “very high importance” to the principle of freedom of speech and said people should “never be shy” about defending it when asked about the announcement.

It’s good to hear: a lot of what his government has done over the past four years seems to have set the tone for a quite different nation-state to the one most British people were accustomed to living in.

For example, we now discover that it becomes the job of Scotland Yard to hold press conferences in order that the mainstream media might feel confident enough to report a story Exaro has been battling to get out for months.  This is hardly a sign that powerful journalists and media feel comfortable about defending Cameron’s supposed hobby horse as strongly as they might, and it should lead our Coalition to question the impact its policies have had long-term on the country’s journalism.

Cameron clearly likes the idea of supporting freedom of speech, especially in public.  Perhaps what really grates on his nerves is the freedom to speech, especially in private.  This would explain the government’s attitude to privacy: Belgacom/GCHQ being a classic example of what his security services can happily continue to engage in.

The Coalition’s position could also be explained by the fact that the passive-aggressive system of governance we now have implanted in our body politic prefers to encourage everyone to feel obliged to self-censor before external censorship is necessary, and certainly without direct reference to politicians: from porn and the web more generally to tweeted, posted and (admittedly incessantly) liked humour, satire and parody, it’s ultimately up to the private companies which run these things to act as firewalls to our ire.  “Woe betide any Parliament which passes restrictive legislation!” seems to be the rule of thumb.  Much better that an anonymous corporation carries any blame.

From #DRIP to the gagging law, where legislators do act, we see them acting to tie up our rights in a real-world web of far-too-clever obligations: obligations whose impact none of us non-lawyerly folk will be able to rightly appreciate.

Or maybe we will – just not in time.

Censorship without ownership: that’s the modern political goal.

Whilst we all eagerly mount the balustrades of revolting hordes in order to defend a freedom, that of public speech, which all politicians just love us to adhere to (being in public, they can watch us, inspect us and control us that much more easily!), we get distracted – as we will so frequently in the future, too, by the looks of it – from the real and far more significant need to defend our right to a private sphere.

This is why Cameron finds it so easy to defend “freedom of speech [ie in that public area I’ve mentioned]” in the Sony-hack story and so difficult to criticise GCHQ in the Belgacom case where millions of invasions of the “freedom to speech [ie in that far more private context]” took place at (I imagine) his government’s behest.

Mad, really.  So difficult to know where to get a hold of a government like this: certain kinds of porn consumed in private are wrong – so a non-elected quango decides; certain sorts of speech consumed in private are wrong – so a non-elected security service determines; but, where we need to support the right to insult people gaily in public, a man like our PM, who started out fairly liberal and still shows flecks of the selfsame instincts, expresses fulsome support.

The thing is, on freedom of speech (the public stuff, if you remember), he’s most likely right.  But he’s right for the wrong reasons.  So he couldn’t really be wronger.

It’s not right that you can contemplate encouraging people to be offensive in public in the name of such liberal freedoms – and not allow them, by the same token, to communicate as they might in the privacy of their own households.

What I ask myself is: how does he sleep at night with so many contradictions?

Maybe it’s a game they’re playing with us, eh?

Before, they deliberately confused privacy and secrecy.  Now we found them out, perhaps they think it’s time to promote only those freedoms we are able to exercise visibly.

Under their easy oversight, I mean.

And whilst we do, and whilst they do, they get us to forget (or ignore) all those other more hidden ones – freedoms which the humanity we once were actually, really, needed!


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