It is not censorship to deny the BNP a platform

We expect Claire Fox’s views to be challenging. However, she does a great disservice to the defence of free speech from censorship by her muddled and inaccurate recent article about the BNP. Indeed Claire unwittingly is actually calling for censorship of those who oppose the BNP; and she is mistaking censorship with vigorous, democratic disagreement.

Claire describes action by West Country postal workers who refused to deliver BNP leaflets as, in her own words, “overt censorship”. However, what actually happened here is that a group of manual workers personally found the BNP leaflets offensive and sought to exercise a conscience clause in their contract to opt out of delivering them. In response, according to the CWU trade union, Royal Mail management quizzed individual postal workers about why they were opposed to the BNP, and pressurised them not to use their opt out.

This was not censorship by the trade unionists, this was the exercise of an individual contractual right by each postal workers to express their own personal opposition to the BNP. The chair of their trade union branch made it clear that they were not seeking to subvert the Representation of the People Act — their collective aspiration was to get Royal Mail to sub-contract out the BNP leaflet delivery. The postal workers wanted to collectively underline the pariah status that feel the BNP deserve, and individually to express their opposition by not delivering the leaflets.

Where Claire is mistaken is in confusing the concept of censorship with the entirely different process of robust disagreement with a political viewm to the extent of seeking to place it outside of the socially sanctioned mainstream of debate. Refusing to handle the mail was actually a means for the postal workers to express their own political judgement on the BNP.

The social construction of shared moral and political values is a dynamic process, that has, for example, changed over the last 50 years to create far greater tolerance of diversity; however, some viewpoints are regarded as abhorrent because we judge that promoting those views will lead to social harm. In extreme cases, the criminal law is invoked to prevent advocating certain forms of criminal behaviour; which is a form of censorship, although one with widespread social approval. But many of the behaviours that society disapproves of are not criminal –– for example verbal bullying, and rudeness. Most companies and institutions have codes of practice in place to prevent bullying and to demand courtesy in order to mark out the socially sanctioned limits of behaviour. More informally, individuals who are anti-social are shunned by their workmates and neighbours and find difficulty in making friends. This is not censorship, this is the collective process by which we socially construct the shared expectations of social interaction.

So when Claire Fox quotes Phil Woolas saying in the Daily Mail: “If you are not supporting Labour then … please go out and vote for one of the main parties. If you don’t, the UK will have Euro MPs from the far-Right BNP,” he is not seeking to censor the BNP, he is in fact promoting a perfectly legitimate contribution to democratic debate himself — that the BNP are beyond the pale. By criticising a government minister from seeking to delegitimise the BNP, Claire Fox is actually calling for people to self-censor our own sincere opposition to fascism; and to inhibit society from developing a collective consensus about the shared expectations of which views are compatible with the values by which, together, we define our society.

Claire argues that “to effectively Tipp-ex out one of the options by demonising ‘extremist’ views effectively denies the electorate their free speech”. But affording someone free speech does not mean that other people have an obligation to provide a platform for that free speech, or to hide their own opposition to the views they find abhorrent.

Claire is being disingenuous, because of course the BNP are actually strenuously afforded the same legal opportunities as any other political party. What Claire is arguing against is not censorship of the BNP, she is arguing that people have an obligation to provide the BNP with an opportunity to promote themselves, and that we shouldn’t point out the threat that the BNP represent to tolerant, liberal values.

If the organisers of an election hustings decline to put the BNP on the platform, that is not censorship, rather that is the exercise of the hustings organisers’ own political freedom. Claire Fox argues that there is a principle at stake that all parties in an election should be afforded equal rights to address the electorate; but this would actually censor an opponent of a particular party to express their own political views by excluding that party.

At root, Claire is making a philosophical error. John Stuart Mill argued that each individual should have a private sphere that should be as large as is compatible with the interests of society. Affording political parties that we find abhorrent the same legal status and privileges to free speech as mainstream parties satisfies this requirement that we respect the liberty of those we disagree with. The BNP are afforded that legal equality.

However, this liberty for a private sphere does not imply that it is virtuous for individuals to always exercise that liberty. The fallacy deriving from Hayek is that individuals not only have a right to a private sphere, but that they are morally obliged to remain private and not participate in the collective construction of civic morality. As Margaret Thatcher pithily expressed it, “there is no such thing as society”. This is effectively what Claire Fox is advocating by saying that we should not collectively construct a set of social values by which we judge whether the views of a political party make it a threat to our society.

In terms of political debate, the fact that we consider it virtuous that political parties can put forward whatever policies and social programmes they choose does not imply that there is a moral obligation to treat all political parties as equally worthy of a platform to espouse those views.

Andy Newman is editor of Socialist Unity

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10 Comments

  1. Posted 05Jun09 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
    James

    If a postal worker wishes to express their own personal opposition to the BNP they can do that via the ballot box route. It seems to me that this ‘conscience clause’ is on dodgy grounds; would the author consider it a rightful exercise for a Christian-Right bus driver to refuse entry to a homosexual passenger? What if the BNP started to put their leaflets in envelopes, would postal workers have a right to open them to make sure they weren’t delivering BNP propaganda? Clearly not.

    Juse because someone believes a certain view will lead to social harm doesn’t automatically make it so. I’m sure the BNP could make an argument that Britain’s lax immigration policy, promoted by the current Labour government, has led to social harm. The very same argument is being made, and seems to be winning, in other EU countries today.

    The author of the article seems to be of the view that anyone who reads/hears/sees BNP propaganda will be turned to their point of view… because they’re not as intelligent as him and it’s too dangerous to let them make their own minds up. If he wishes to let the public know about the true nature of BNP policy he should be welcoming the debate with the BNP. By forcing this censorship, and it is censorship, on the BNP he will allow the party to grow and become more popular.

    Not talking about it won’t make it go away. I fear actions like the postal workers took will only make the BNP and its supporters even more determined in their goal.

  2. Posted 05Jun09 at 9:22 pm | Permalink
    NMcC

    I have posted this comment in the comments section following Claire’s article, but feel it’s worth posting here too, with a short addition.

    Well said, Claire. If there is one thing we need to save ourselves from, it is those who would save us from the views of others – on the grounds that our self-appointed saviours don’t like such views. What an utter disgrace that the Labour Party thinks itself morally qualified to lecture us on why we should not vote for an anti-immigration party. The Labour Party! Just think about it; the most openly anti-immigrant party ever to constitute a British Government. The party that has, as Claire Fox points out, used all manner of legislation to stop people coming into Britain (unless they are rich, of course) and when they do, bashes them from every direction; a party which has set up the nearest thing to a police state that it’s possible to imagine so that, if the BNP ever, by some miracle, achieved national power and moved into Government, the only thing they would have to change would be the curtains at No. 10. This is the party that warns against voting for the BNP!

    And what a disgrace that the postal workers have nothing better to complain about. Incidentally, my postman is an imbecile. The thought of him self-electing himself as a member of the thought police is, well, more frightening than having a BNP leaflet stuck through my door.

    This tendency for holier than them hypocrisy has to be fought against. It is becoming more and more widespread. What a joke, for example, that Richard Dawkins is one of the signatories to the Simon Singh fight against censorship in the form of the alleged unfairness of the British libel laws. On Dawkins’ website, he has empowered a clique of acolytes that hang on his every word to stifle any dissenting voice. Say anything in disagreement to Dawkins, and a mere 5 of the High Priest’s disciples can, and will, silence you.

    The comment made above in regard to the ‘rights’ of the Christian bus driver is interesting. Of course, we’ve already had an example of how this policy of allowing self-appointed censors to decide who should have a democratic right of expression and who shouldn’t works in the recent case when a Christian bus driver refused to drive a bus bearing a slogan that suggested that there ‘probably is no God’. Has this bus driver the same ‘right’ to censor as the postal workers? Does Andy Newman of the risibly named ‘Socialist Unity’ think so? If not, why not? Indeed, does Mr Newman believe that other type of fascist organisation, the Leninist SWP, should be censored by the postal workers, the church and the Government. Again, if not, why not?

  3. Posted 05Jun09 at 10:10 pm | Permalink
    TheSpineyOne

    “If not, why not? Indeed, does Mr Newman believe that other type of fascist organisation, the Leninist SWP, should be censored by the postal workers, the church and the Government. Again, if not, why not?”

    Since when have the SWP been “fascists”. What a nonsensical, moronic statement. Do you even have any idea what fascism is? What its tenets are? Clearly not, otheriwse you would not make such an ill-informed statement. You, sir, are a moron.

    It seems to me that it is en-vogue at the moment to call anyone who disagrees with your views a fascist. I have also, on more occasions that I’d like to count, had to counter the claim the fascism is a left wing ideology! just as the word democracy has lost all objective meaning, so too will the word fascism (if it hasn’t already, I mean, left wing fascism?) We should take great care to avoid this. If this becomes more widespread it will affect our ability to counter fascism. When we point out that the BNP are fascists people will say, “yes, but you told us the SWP/Labour/Respect, etc. were fascists and there was nothing to fear there.” Fascism needs to remain a dirty word, for use against FASCISTS. In most parts of the world communism and, to a slightly lesser degree, socialism are now seen as dirty words (though this has meen deliberately manufactured by the right wing press) so why not just call the SWP socialists or communists? Socialism and communism are about workers control of the means of production for the benefit of ordinary people. Fascism is about the state controling the workers for the benefit of the ruling class; with it will always come the most brutal forms of opression and exploitation. This is a MASSIVE difference, one that should NEVER be ignored. It is the reason why our own royal family were supporters of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco prior to (and, in the case of EdwardVIII, during) the second world war.
    You are either being deliberately obtuse or are in desperate need of an education, which is it?

  4. Posted 05Jun09 at 11:22 pm | Permalink
    NMcC

    “Since when have the SWP been “fascists”.”

    Since their formation as a Leninist offshoot of a Leninist offshoot.

    “Do you even have any idea what fascism is? What its tenets are? Clearly not, otheriwse you would not make such an ill-informed statement. You, sir, are a moron.”

    Yes, I have a pretty good idea what fascism is. It’s the policies advocated by Leninist organizations like the loathsome SWP. It’s the dictatorial policies of their hero, Lenin, when in power: the formation of the Cheka, the secret police, whose reason for existence was to arrest and murder anyone who opposed Lenin; it’s the policy of shutting down those working class organizations and publications that disagree with the Leninist party in power; it’s the policy of murdering other ‘left-wing’ people who disagree with you; it’s the policy of creating concentration camps like those that existed in Lenin’s day; it’s the policy of creating a climate of fear and oppression so that only the ruling Leninist power is heard; it’s the policy of the state taking over the productive forces (and thereby instituting a useless state-capitalism) whilst pretending that it is really ‘the people’ that has taken them over in the name of Socialism (National, or otherwise); it’s the policy of pretending that everyone has equal rights whilst those at the top share out the swag and the Dachas under cover of state-secrecy; it’s the policy of claiming that a one-party Leninist state is really the most ‘democratic’ of states; it’s the policy of banning discussion within your own party as Lenin did; it’s the policy of permitting trade unions, as long as they were controlled by and did the bidding of the Leninist state; it’s the policy of fermenting civil war through carrying out an undemocratic, minority-led coup, then demanding the unconditional ‘support’ of the majority whilst holding the non-business end of a gun. Did I leave anything out?

    Fascism is, in short, the policies of the SWP and if you think otherwise, you, sir, are an even bigger moron.

    The rest of your statement is just a jumble of nonsense strung together by nothing other than sheer ignorance.

    For example, the idea that communism and socialism are now seen as ‘dirty words’ as a result of the deliberate manufacture of falsehoods by the ‘right-wing press’ is too stupid for contemplation. The reason why these two terms are seen as dirty words by workers today is because, under Labourites and Leninists alike, they were and are dirty words. It’s the very failures of the reforms and the atrocities of these two state-capitalism supporting groups that has turned the vast majority of the working class throughout the world against socialism (or communism, the two words mean the same thing). How on earth could a right-wing press achieve any such thing if the reality for workers under Leninists and Labourites told them different. Are they all thick perhaps and unable to recognize their own interests? Fascists – of whatever hue – sure think so. Do you?

    Please learn something about the subject before you spout off your emotional rubbish in future.

  5. Posted 05Jun09 at 11:27 pm | Permalink
    NMcC

    The word ‘fermenting’ in my post above should read ‘fomenting’ – though both, I suppose, in the context, serve the same purpose.

  6. Posted 08Jun09 at 11:30 am | Permalink
    James

    To paraphrase Peter Hain just now on the radio: “Thousands of people have voted for the BNP without realising their fascist, Nazi agenda”

    Had they received those flyers perhaps they would have found out for themselves who they were voting for, instead of relying on the other, honest, political parties for their information.

  7. Posted 08Jun09 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
    NMcC

    Yes, just like millions of people voting for the Labour Party without realising that they are a crowd of self-serving, lying, hypocritical bastards.

  8. Posted 03Nov10 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    The self righteous are the most deadly fascists. Socialist Unity Andy Newman is an excellent example. Ruthless, illogical self censorship is a pernicious psychological disorder and extremely destructive.

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