It all started with a failed comedian. In 2014 Ed O’Reilly, known as Dapper Laughs, “joked” that a woman in the audience was “gagging for a rape”. ITV cancelled his TV show and promoters pulled out of his gigs. O’Reilly’s career ultimately stalled because he wasn’t very funny (his show had rock-bottom ratings). Rather than accept this, O’Reilly tried something that would become the go-to for privileged people faced with the consequences of
their actions. He played the victim. The strategy didn’t really work for O’Reilly. Lacking the connections and clout for a “cancel culture” tour, he quickly faded into Z-list obscurity.
But more powerful people saw an opportunity. A cadre of academics and journalists began to push a conspiracy theory that shadowy left-wing cabals were bent on attacking “freedom of speech”. The evidence relied on was often laughable. The Telegraph’s claim that left-wing students were cancelling white authors was based on no more than a letter from a student asking for more global majority writers to be included. Brendan O’Neill, writing in Spiked, compared the “war on offensiveness” in the UK with the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
It was, however, brilliant strategy for driving political change. The pseudo free-speech lobby took a fundamental principle of democratic states and turned it into a weapon for the “populist” (authoritarian) right. Central to the strategy was a deliberate conflation of “speech” with “platform”. Speech is a right. It means that, within certain boundaries, the state can’t punish you for what you say. Platform, by contrast, is a limited resource. Discernment about who gets a platform is inevitable. Arguing about whether someone is worthy of a particular platform is, itself, free speech. The pseudo free-speech lobby characterised any failure to give their political allies a platform as an assault on free speech. Ironically, they were successful precisely because they benefited from powerful and privileged platforms. National
newspapers and magazines ran “free speech under threat” stories on an almost weekly basis.
By 2020 the campaign was focussed around the Free Speech Union, a lobby group which purports to be a “non-partisan, mass membership public interest body”. Its work, however, seems limited to the “right kind” of cancelled opinion. I was not able to find an example on the website of the FSU supporting the free speech of left-wingers or marginalised communities in the last year.
Recently the mask has slipped further. The lobby has switched its focus, from complaining that people it likes are not given sufficiently privileged platforms, to actively trying to silence those with whom it disagrees.
Education has always been a primary battleground. In April Matthew Goodwin (an advisory council member of the FSU, who once claimed to have been discriminated against because a colleague called his work “problematic”), published a book claiming that left wing academics were part of a dangerous conspiracy. Katherine Birbalsingh (who claimed “if you believe in free speech you need to believe in it for everyone, even when you disagree with them”) supported a campaign against a book that taught children about structural racism.
The pseudo free-speech lobby has also embraced the SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation). Allison Pearson, who sits on the advisory council of the FSU, threatened political commentator Sam Freedman with defamation proceedings after he criticised her online. Lawrence Fox (who claims to be battling against “cancel culture”, while being platformed on a series of high-profile TV programmes), launched defamation claims against three people after they criticised him online.
Those at the forefront of defending the “free speech” (entitlement to privileged platform) of right-wingers tend to be the same people trying to silence prominent figures on the left. MP Jonathan Gullis, who came to prominence proposing a “plan to end cancel culture” led calls for Gary Lineker to be prohibited from expressing political opinions on his personal
social media. Lineker presents sports programmes for the BBC (on which he is never called to comment on politics). The same standards were not applied to Andrew Neil, who publicly expressed various political views and chaired the board of the (right-wing) Spectator magazine while presenting the BBC’s flagship politics programmes.
Successive governments have embraced the rhetoric of pseudo free-speech lobbyists while, at the same time, legislating to limit the speech of their opponents. The right to protest (an essential component of free speech) has been effectively abolished (protest is now only permitted at the sufferance of ministers or police). Unions and strikes (also political speech) have been restricted. Museums, schools and universities which fail to conform to the
government’s approved version of history have been threatened. While the government passed the Freedom of Speech Act (which actually limits the rights of students to protest against speakers or ideas with which they disagree) it was secretly blacklisting speakers who had disagreed with government policy in the past.
The pseudo free-speech lobby was never about freedom. It’s about allowing a small class of powerful individuals and ideas to dominate public discourse. Now it’s also about silencing anyone who disagrees.
Sam Fowles is a barrister, author, and columnist. He is on X @SamFowles