Over the last few months, British broadcaster GB News, once considered the “home of free speech,” has seen one presenter resign, two sacked, and one suspended.
The first was Mark Steyn.
Back in February, he was found by Ofcom, the UK media regulator, to have broken its rules by pointing out the potential health dangers of COVID boosters. He was given hefty fines.
As GB News said in a statement at the time, “It was prescient to question whether the government was candid with all the facts. It is an important story in the public interest.”
As we know, whether governments around the world were candid about the facts surrounding COVID generally is, to put it mildly, a very open question.
Anyway, back to Mr. Steyn.
A couple of weeks ago, two other presenters, Laurence Fox, who is also head of the UK Reclaim Party, and Dan Wootton were taken off the air by GB News after Mr. Fox made crass and sexist comments about a female journalist on Mr. Wootton’s show.
They were comments, as columnist Brendan O’Neill wrote, you’d expect from a bunch of teenage boys, not a serious journalist.
This prompted calls from several politicians and other media outlets to take GB News off the air completely.
That is political censorship masquerading as a cry for social justice.
He had used his airtime to share traditional Christian values, particularly on abortion and marriage.
Ushering in the Age of ‘Online Safety’All of this seems to have emboldened the UK government, which has proposed giving even greater censorship powers to Ofcom.
The document urges the need to “protect audiences from harmful content.”
The Online Safety Bill itself has been subject to sustained criticism which resulted in the removal of the notorious “harmful but legal” clause.
Without this amendment—the result of a long campaign of protest—the bill would have permitted the censorship of any content that was not illegal, but which was deemed by the regulator to be a potential source of online “harm.”
This is precisely what is proposed in the Australian Labor government’s Misinformation and Disinformation Bill.
It gives a government body—the Australian Communications and Media Authority—the power to compel digital platforms to remove “misinformation” or “disinformation.”
These are representations that are false, misleading, or deceptive and which are reasonably likely to cause or contribute to serious harm.
Harm, in this context, is so wide it could include almost every type of unwanted outcome, including “harm to the integrity of democratic processes”; “harm to the health of Australians”; “harm to the Australian environment”; and damage to the “Australian economy.”
The bill completely ignores the fact that free speech, as a foundation of liberal democracies for over 200 years, has ensured the flourishing of those democracies precisely because of the free exchange of ideas and the ability within that free exchange to use arguments, supported by evidence, to demonstrate that an idea or a contention is false.
What Such Laws Mean for Society?Of course, people post utter nonsense and falsehoods online all the time.
However, what is the evidence of “harm” caused by such nonsense? And why does the bill exempt government statements from being categorised as misinformation?
What is more, there has never been a representation that has caused serious harm to democracy, the environment, or the economy in the history of this country.
This demonstrates that people are able to exercise a proper choice as to how they react to nonsense or falsehoods.
The greatest harm to society has often occurred when governments insist on controlling the narrative and thus, their citizens. This was supposed to have ended when the Berlin Wall was pulled down, block by block, by citizens freed from such tyranny.
Of course, Laurence Fox should not have said what he did. But events at GB News may well be a portent of things to come.
Two centuries of the hard-won right to free speech—the right that has done more than anything over that time to keep governments accountable to its citizens—will disappear for good if “Misinformation” and “Online Safety Bills” become law.