It’s often said that Americans do not truly understand nor appreciate their freedom of speech. But the Tommy Robinson uproar in the U.K. should provide a renewed appreciation of our way of life provided by the U.S. Constitution. For it is this lack of free expression coupled with an almost silenced British press that has exacerbated the Robinson situation and it is why protests for his release from prison are being held across the world today. When one recognizes the lack of free speech as well as outright oppression of the media in the United Kingdom, it becomes an ominous warning to us.
British citizens currently live under what’s known as a “negative right” to free speech under common law. But there are broad exceptions; when people like Robinson are thrown in the slammer, the English media is unable to report on it and must adhere to myriad rules and government regulations.
Alarmingly Low Freedom Rankings
Charlotte Tobitt of the Press Gazette notes that in 2018 the U.K., “was named one of the worst countries for press freedom in Western Europe.” This comes in the wake of an index published by Reporters without Borders, which shows the U.K. falling two places in the rankings. All told, Great Britain has dropped like a stone since 2002 in terms of a free media, due to its passage of the Snooper’s Charter and the Espionage Act.
Some in England are calling this sinking position of the U.K. press in the world rankings nothing less than embarrassing. Others are calling it pure tyranny. Indeed, it does seem that the government in Britain is overbearing to the point of despotic when it comes to journalistic freedom.
While most of Britain’s laws were put into place because of national security concerns, the inevitable silencing of the press has been twisted in such a way as to limit public knowledge of political events. Exhibit A of this is Great Britain’s DSMA-Notice system.
The DSMA-Notice (Defence and Security Media Advisory Notice) is a curious arrangement made between the media and the government that doesn’t seem to be helping matters. Instituted initially before World War I as the D-Notice, it was designed to keep the Germans from getting their hands on intelligence information. In 1993 it became known as a DA notice or “defense advisory” warning; in 2015, its powers expanded to become the DSMA. It is a form of journalistic self-censoring because it is voluntary. But has become more of a slippery slope into silence.
The British media’s acquiescence to the DSMA-Notice has let the genie out of the bottle to the point where they now face obstructionists coming at them from every direction. Case in point: former British Home Secretary Amber Rudd, “threatened to restrict encryption on messaging services such as WhatsApp,” according to the Independent, and planned “to criminalize the repeated viewing of extremist content.” Naturally, the question arises, who decides what is extremist content?
Moves such as this have U.K. editors and writers reeling. They now live under the heavy hand of oppression as they try to discern just what is and is not acceptable to put in their newspapers and daily broadcasts. And as those in power keep moving the bar and broadening the scope of what they determine is a perceived danger, the news media in the U.K. is finding itself thwarted and otherwise stymied from reporting on a variety of political issues that affect its citizenry at every turn.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is hardly a conservative organization and is viewed by many as far-left in its reportage. And yet, BBC News director James Harding has called upon journalists across Europe to “stand up for” the free press because, as he sees it, “state news has become more of a problem than fake news.”
What began as a friendly collaboration between the U.K. media and the British government has turned into a horror film written and directed by its journalists and government officials. It has become nothing less than a morass of constraint and confusion. And the U.S. would do well to heed the warning signs ahead.
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