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Observations of an Expat: Anglo-Saxon Free Speech

Observations of an Expat: Anglo-Saxon Free Speech

It has been, is and will continue to be a struggle to maintain freedom of speech and press against vested interests and power-hungry politicians.

By Tom Arms

The blizzard of alleged lies and tales of blackmail emanating from 10 Downing Street is truly disturbing. But they obscure even more alarming policy shifts which threaten longer-lasting effects than any fall-out from partygate.

Nearly the top of the list of the partially-buried problems are the threats to free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly and the freedom to protest.

Britain and America have led the way in establishing and protecting those rights. They insisted that they were written into the UN Charter and Germany’s post-war Basic Law and their example has inspired others around the world. Now both countries are heading the opposite direction. In the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Britain is ranked 33rd and the US is a dismal 44 out of 170 countries.

The blame for America’s poor ranking is laid almost exclusively at the door of ex-president Donald Trump and the Republican Party he has reshaped in his own image. Trump enabled and emboldened free press opponents by attacking the media as “enemies of the people” and branding criticism of his administration as “fake news.” With the Republicans likely to regain control of Congress in this year’s mid-term November elections, the media is preparing for a fresh onslaught.

In Britain, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have long-regarded the BBC as a hotbed of liberalism. They started their term in office by reducing the number of ministerial interviews on the world’s most respected news outlet. Then this week Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announced that she was freezing government funding for the BBC.

On top of that, the beleaguered Johnson government’s proposed Police, Sentencing and Courts Bill will effectively ban traditional rights of free speech, demonstrations and protests by giving police the right to shut down any gathering that causes “serious disruption.” The government decides what is the ‘serious disruption.’

Politicians around the world and of every political persuasion have a love-hate relationship with the media and protesters. Those in power seek to curb freedom of speech because it exposes nefarious activities undertaken to retain power. Those seeking power recognise it as an essential tool for gaining power, only to jettison their support once it has served its purpose. The result has been a perpetual struggle between media, the government and vested interests.

Recognition of both the power and danger of the press was immediate almost from the arrival of the first Gutenberg flatbed printing press on British shores. We know about Queen Elizabeth I’s stirring address to the troops at Tilbury  because she ordered the publication of the speech in a pamphlet entitled “To the Troops at Tilbury.”

Pamphleteering became the main medium of news and comment through the English Civil Wars and most of the 17th and 18th century.  And right from the start the government attempted to strangle—or at least control—the infant press. Their primary weapon was licensing laws which eventually succumbed to the tides of history and were allowed to lapse in 1695. Then there was the 1712 Stamp Act which imposed a tax on all printed papers, advertisements and newspapers. There was also the 1704 Sedition Law which ruled that any publications which maliciously undermined the affections of the people for the government were criminal. This included reporting parliamentary proceeding which were banned until 1774.

The Americans enshrined freedom of speech, press and assembly in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Almost immediately, they proceeded to ignore the much-vaunted amendment with the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts pushed through by the administration of John Adams. The section involving sedition severely curtailed free speech with 25 people—all from the opposing Republican Party—being arrested. One man, Luther Baldwin, was imprisoned because he drunkenly expressed the hope that a cannon salute to President Adams might find its way up the presidential backside.

The sedition half of the Alien Sedition Acts was repealed in 1804 but the half related to aliens, which authorized the President to imprison or deport aliens considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” remains in force today as the revised Alien Enemies Act.

Britain’s free press did not really emerge until after the Great Reform Act of 1832 opened the eyes of an expanded British Establishment to the value of a free press and its role in preserving a representative government to which it was now committed. However, it was not until the middle of the 19th century the last vestiges of the Stamp Act were repealed and the British national press took off.

Fleet Street became a political power house and money-making machine that attracted big money and bigger egos. The press barons that emerged could literally make or break a British government. Freedom of the press was guaranteed less by formal laws than by competition between these powerful men who demanded what has become a traditional British liberty in return for their support and membership of the British Establishment.

American geography dictated a different growth pattern and structure. The vast lands of the US meant that it was impossible until relatively recent times for national media coverage to develop. The result was thousands of newspapers, and later radio and television stations, whose first priority was reporting local news.

But that did not mean the end of the conflict between national government and the media. The First World War saw the introduction of the Espionage Acts which prohibited “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the flag or the uniform of the Army or Navy.” A slightly watered down version of the Act remains on the books and has been used against figures such as Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

It has been, is and will continue to be a struggle to maintain freedom of speech and press against vested interests and power-hungry politicians. In the meantime, the role of the media can be best summed by Wilbur Storey the publisher of the 19th century “Chicago Times”.  The role of a newspaper publisher, he wrote “is to print the news and raise Hell.”

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[author title=”Tom Arms ” image=”https://sindhcourier.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Tom-Arms-Journalist-Sindh-Courier.jpg”]Tom Arms is Foreign Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “America Made in Britain.”[/author]