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At a price

In February this year, Peter Oborne, the chief political commentator for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, dropped a bombshell: announcing his resignation from the paper, Oborne claimed that its owners and senior staff had systematically suppressed negative coverage of the banking conglomerate HSBC in order to attract its advertising. Oborne’s convincing account, backed up by his own experiences and multiple interviews with Telegraph writers, was a shocking reminder of the power of corporate interests and of the very real threats to free speech.

If you have been following mainstream political commentary at any point in the last decade, you could be forgiven for thinking that the most menacing encroachments on free speech have been the work of minority groups and chattering-class elites. So-called political correctness and attempts to shield minorities from offence have, or so the argument runs, dangerously limited our ability to speak out and argue the toss with each other. The Charlie Hebdo killings earlier this year provoked another wave of articles pushing this line of thought. It’s a strange contention, one that tries to attribute the greatest influence to those in society who generally have the least. It also obscures an important battlefield. While laws against hate speech and legal battles over free speech do matter, it is not just in the courts that free speech is won or lost. Free speech functions only as long as people can be heard. And even in the internet age, being heard means the ability to get your voice into mainstream platforms. That often requires money, and in a period of growing inequality, some people and companies have far more money – and therefore opportunities for free speech – than others. As New Internationalist points out, ‘Over three quarters of the British press is now in the hands of five billionaires – all of whom are men.’ In seeking to protect free speech in practice, we need to focus on the economics as much as anything else.


The primary reason why the self-proclaimed defenders of free speech are on the wrong side of the debate is because their idea of free speech is misleading and disingenuous. It tends to draw heavily, and uncritically, on two foundational texts: John Milton’s Areopagitica, published in 1644, and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, from 1859. Milton’s most famous passage argues that truth and falsehood should be allowed to battle it out: ‘Who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?’ He envisaged a rational society in which every person had a responsibility to examine, discuss and dissect ideas. In that process, good ideas would be accepted, bad ones rejected, and the correct decisions arrived at. Constraints on free speech would therefore strike at the very heart of a good society. In addition, any authority set up to place curbs on free speech would likely be subject to bias or error.

Similarly, Mill argued strongly against the assumption that it was easy to identify ‘wrong’ opinions that should be banned. ‘If any opinion is compelled to silence,’ he wrote, ‘that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.’ For Mill, freedom of thought and emotion, which included freedom of speech, was the single most important basic liberty.

These ideas have proved enormously influential. But, as the American academic Stanley Fish argues in his controversial but compelling essay ‘There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech … And It’s a Good Thing Too’, these foundational texts contain within them the seeds of their own contradiction. Milton may have celebrated toleration and unregulated publication ‘in passages that find their way into every discussion on free speech’, but he certainly didn’t extend that privilege to Catholics. Having defended freedom of speech, Milton goes on to say:

I mean not tolerated popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpates all religious and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate … that also which is impious or evil absolutely against faith or manners no law can possibly permit that intends not to unlaw itself.

All affirmations of freedom of speech are like this, Fish argues, because freedom of speech is not in fact a virtue in its own right, or an end for society to aim at. Rather, it is always used as a means to an end, because it helps advance something else – that is, whatever vision of society someone happens to hold. Milton sought a society in which faith and manners were exalted and Catholics cast down, and he shaped his vision of free speech accordingly. Everyone else does likewise. Therefore, in Fish’s view, any belief in free speech has to divide it up into the types that are supported and those that are not; neither category makes any sense without the other. The exception – the speech that is banned – ‘carves out the space in which expression can then emerge’. For Fish, then, freedom of speech is just another battleground on which politics is fought.

This insight helps us see how disingenuous the arguments are of those who label themselves the supposed defenders of free speech. If every kind of argument about what should and should not be said is inherently political, then those who attack what they call ‘political correctness’ have in fact their own political agenda for what kinds of speech they see as ‘correct’ (which typically includes material that belittles or attacks minorities) and ‘incorrect’ (child pornography, defamatory statements and so on). Everyone is politically correct.

With free speech exposed as an inherently political construct, we can then ask: is there anything to the argument that we have the wrong kind of political correctness, that some kinds of speech are wrongly being barred out of a concern to protect minority interests?

The answer is a resounding no. It is extremely difficult to find genuine examples of legitimate utterances being censored. To take just one standard category of complaint: the instances of local councils (typically in Britain or in America) holding ‘Winterval’ festivities are not, as is often alleged, a type of ‘ban’ on Christmas in order to avoid offending Muslims. Winterval, as it is actually practiced, is just the name for a wider festival that offers something to people of all religions – while also maintaining a standard Christian Christmas at its heart.

It is also often claimed, more generally, that hate speech laws are removing the right to say important things about minority groups. Almost all western democracies (the US being a glaring exception) have prohibitions on hate speech, generally on the basis that this kind of speech is an incitement to action – as in the case of the Kentucky Ku Klux Klan, who were described as holding meetings in which speakers repeatedly said, ‘Kill the Jews. But, before you kill them, torture them first’.

The British law on racial hate speech recognises that hate speech leads directly to harm, and stipulates that ‘a person who uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting, is guilty of an offence if (a) he intends thereby to stir up racial hatred, or (b) having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby.’

So these exceptions – carving out the space in which expression makes sense, to paraphrase Fish – certainly exist. But are they a problem? Hardly. Jeremy Waldron, a New Zealander and one of the world’s most eminent legal philosophers, makes a very good case for their usefulness in his 2012 book The Harm in Hate Speech. Firstly, Waldron argues, a safe, open and respectful public realm, where all feel comfortable and able to contribute, is a kind of ‘public good’, a piece of infrastructure (as it were) from which all will benefit, and which we are therefore justified in legislating to protect.

Secondly, groups of people have a certain ‘dignity’ – that is, the right to be able to participate without fear in our democracies and know that they do so as an equal. They have the right to an assurance that they will be treated with justice; in other words, they are ‘entitled to the same liberties, protections, and powers that everyone else has’. Harmful, bigoted speech – such as white supremacist pamphlets denigrating the black community – destroys or at least undermines that assurance. Therefore, the law is right to protect any group against harmful speech that might be targeted by it – not just racial or ethnic groups, but also religious groups. It does not protect the ideas of any group (for example, religious beliefs) from criticism, attack or ridicule, but it does ensure that members of that group cannot be demeaned or denigrated simply because they belong to that group.

It is important to note that, although the law rightfully tries to prevent speech that is harmful, it does not attempt to ban speech simply on the basis that an individual finds it offensive. Whether something is offensive is a notoriously subjective judgement; in any case, being offended, in the sense of having one’s feelings hurt or deeply wounded, is something that people have to put up with, if reasonably free debate is to be preserved. Legislating to protect people’s hurt feelings really would be the danger to free speech that some commentators suggest, incorrectly, is caused by banning harmful speech.

Some do still claim that minority groups are increasingly demanding ‘the right not to be offended’ and must therefore be opposed. This claim is laid with great force in the recent book On Offence by the Australian author Richard King, who argues that a widespread ‘culture of offence-taking’ is ‘very bad for democracy’. Although King is right that people do have to put up with being offended, the problem with this argument is that it quickly shades into attacking minority groups who are rightly trying to protect their members from harmful speech.

This attempt at protection, King argues, ‘seems to me to run the risk of infantilising those citizens, of undermining their dignity, by assuming that they can’t stick up for themselves’. This implies that activists in minority groups – people who have often experienced significant discrimination and are fighting for the rights of others facing similar discrimination – have nonetheless a poorer understanding of what would help their communities than King does. It’s an exceptionally patronising position. As Fish points out, it also falls into the trap of thinking that ‘the effects of [harmful] speech could be cancelled out by additional speech … [that] the pain and humiliation caused by racial or religious epithets could be ameliorated by saying something like “So’s your old man.”’ Even more worryingly, King’s arguments appear to endorse the view that if people feel harmed by a certain kind of speech, then that is simply their problem. In Fish’s words, this is ‘blaming the victim’ – arguing, quite falsely, that ‘the fault lies with a failure of resolve; self-respect was just not strong enough to rise to the occasion in a positive way’.

So it seems that, when it comes to hate speech, the law has the balance about right when it comes to protecting and banning speech. But there are other areas where important speech is being impeded – and in ways that have little to do with the letter of the law, and a lot to do with economic power.

Let us return to the Oborne versus HSBC argument. Writing on the openDemocracy site, Oborne set out how the Telegraph’s senior management had pulled an unfavourable story about HSBC from its website, despite receiving no complaints about it; relegated stories about HSBC’s currency-rigging activities to the farthest outposts of its business section; discouraged journalists from writing critical stories about the bank; and interfered ‘on an industrial scale’ with day-to-day coverage in the paper to win back the bank’s advertising. Nor was this interference limited to the HSBC case; Oborne details other reporting that appears to have been shaped by advertisers’ demands.

Oborne is undoubtedly right about the influence that HSBC exerts on journalists. The Guardian confirmed, just after Oborne’s announcement, that the banking giant had ‘paused’ its advertising contract with the paper after its sensational exposé of tax evasion and other illegal practices at the bank’s Swiss arm. But such revelations come as little surprise: advertisers have always exerted pressure on media outlets; companies know that publications depend on their advertising money for continued existence. In my own working life, I have had editors refuse to run pieces for fear of offending potential advertisers, or ask that they be rewritten in certain ways to keep existing advertisers happy. Of course, all this was articulated back in the 1980s by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent, a work that, among other things, pointed out that the influence of corporate power reaches its peak when it is internalised by the journalist, and when its threats no longer have to be made explicit – the journalist already knows not to challenge them.

Journalists do continue to challenge individual companies and to report on them negatively; the picture here is not simple, nor entirely bleak. But the most damaging effect is that while mainstream journalists can take on individual companies, safe in the knowledge that their employer can cope with losing one advertiser, they cannot take on the world of large companies as a whole, since no mainstream outlet can afford to lose all its advertisers. This effect does not appear to have lessened in the modern world of online journalism and ‘disrupted’ media; if anything, it has grown stronger. As media outlets derive ever decreasing amounts from subscribers and the ‘rivers of gold’ classified advertising that has been diverted to TradeMe and elsewhere, they become ever more reliant on corporate advertisers. For the many outlets that are also seeing advertising revenue fall, most notably newspapers, their remaining advertisers become increasingly precious. Across the board, fewer journalists are being employed by mainstream media houses in order to cut costs, and those left are so severely stretched that they rely heavily on press releases and other manufactured stories – thus further enhancing the power of wealthy corporations.

These trends are exacerbated by growing income inequality in developed countries. Since the 1980s, a shift in the distribution of economic power has channelled the proceeds of the economy away from ordinary workers and towards highly paid executives and the owners of capital – investors, banks, shareholders and so on. Corporate profits have risen sharply (when measured as a percentage of overall GDP) and the gap between rich and poor has in some countries widened to its highest level since the Gilded Age 1920s, the era of the Great Gatsby and uninhibited extravagance. In New Zealand, the share of national income going to workers (as opposed to capital owners) has fallen from 60 per cent in the 1980s to a little over 50 per cent today, even though those workers are the people actively applying their effort to the creation of value, as opposed to merely providing passive capital. The rich–poor gap, meanwhile, has widened dramatically: in the 1980s, someone in the richest 10 per cent earned five to six times as much as someone in the poorest 10 per cent – now they earn eight to nine times as much. And while some parts of the Australian story are different, its level of inequality is almost identical to that of its smaller neighbour.

What does this mean for free speech? Writing in Jacobin, Nathan Robinson cites a landmark American Supreme Court decision in 1976, which argued:

Virtually every means of communicating ideas in today’s mass society requires the expenditure of money. The distribution of the humblest handbill or leaflet entails printing, paper, and circulation costs. Speeches and rallies generally necessitate hiring a hall and publicising the event. The electorate’s increasing dependence on television, radio, and other mass media for news and information has made these expensive modes of communication indispensable instruments of effective political speech.

A sceptic would immediately object that this no longer applies: in today’s world, you don’t have to print handbills to be heard. You can simply set up a blog at virtually no cost. But even assuming that people can set up blogs (the technical skills, contacts, money for hosting and so on are in fact beyond the reach of many), that hardly answers the charge. The dependence on ‘television, radio and other mass media’ is still strong. Just look at, say, the readership of major newspapers, and their websites, as compared to that of the average political blog. Or think about what it takes to get a story onto the evening news. It is possible to do this with no money but a really strong news angle; some campaigners with relatively few resources do manage this. But your chances of getting on the news – and thus exercising your free speech in a far greater way than the average person can normally manage – are significantly higher if you can employ teams of researchers to dig out facts and PR consultants to schmooze journalists, and if you yourself have the time and leisure to direct all these operations.

Not only do people on high incomes have a greater chance of getting their voices heard in mainstream media, but they also have a greater chance of exercising their free speech directly towards politicians. Modern political campaigns require large sums of money to run – for much the same reasons outlined in the Supreme Court judgement above – and politicians are consequently dependent on funding from people with deep pockets. This is seen most strikingly in the United States, where the academic Martin Gilens has found that the way American politicians vote bears no relationship to the way that their poorer constituents want them to vote. Over 90 per cent of a senator’s low-income voters can want a certain law to be passed and it won’t noticeably influence the senator’s vote. Their political positions are, however, closely linked to what their wealthier constituents want.

As Gilens notes, this finding calls into question ‘the very democratic character of our society’. It also suggests, once again, that inequality of income allows some people to be heard more than others. This brings to mind Anatole France’s famous observation: ‘In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.’

Rich and poor alike may be notionally free to speak, but if one of those groups has the resources to dominate the arenas in which speech is actually heard, then it is hard to think that speech is equally ‘free’ for all. Robinson reaches a similar conclusion, arguing that free speech cannot exist ‘until economic resources are distributed equally’. One need not go quite that far: there are presumably levels of inequality in which the difference between incomes is so slight that it makes no material difference to how much genuinely free speech people can exercise. But the basic insight – that without money, people struggle to be heard – is valid. Not long ago, the Western press was full of stories about the danger to free speech posed by Muslim extremists. But Peter Oborne’s experience reminds us that, as ever, one must follow the money in order to know what’s going on. HSBC, and the thousands of corporations like them, are a greater threat to free speech than the Charlie Hebdo killers ever could be.



Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Max Rashbrooke is a journalist and author based in Wellington, New Zealand. He was the editor of Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis (2013) and the author of The Inequality Debate: An Introduction (2014). His work has appeared in the Guardian, the New Zealand Herald and elsewhere.

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