It isn’t often that Britain is the target of organisations like Human Rights Watch, just as it isn’t often that the U.K. comes under the spotlight. It is, after all, a functioning democracy, the (very much alleged) home to parliamentary politics and a nation of free men. Except it isn’t. Creeping control, the world’s highest penetration rate of surveillance and over-weening bureaucratic rule make it anything but free.
That’s why HRW’s report is so refreshing. This is a serious organisation, not one, like Amnesty International, that gets overly-excited or follows liberal pretension.
So when HRW says that the U.K. has “lost its way,” what we have is a statement of fact that should be taken seriously.
“It should be well-established that freedom of expression includes the freedom to shock, offend, or disturb. Yet with the amplifying effect and legal novelty of social media, that basic truth is too often overlooked” the HRW report reads.
Europe’s attitude to free speech has always been skewed. It works on the assumption that the freedom can be one of degree – but this is like saying a woman can be “a little bit pregnant.” Speech is either free or it isn’t, there’s no degree. If a degree exists, it exists in how limited the freedom is. Does Europe guarantee the right? No, it does not. Is Europe’s lack of freedom comparable to, say, North Korea’s? No, Europe doesn’t guarantee free speech, but it isn’t as stringent as North Korea.
In other words, there are degrees of obstruction to freedom – but something is either free or it is not. Are those woman pregnant? Yes, they are; one is eight months pregnant, the other is two months pregnant. Or, no, neither are pregnant.
It has to be one or the other, because free speech has tangible effects on society. We know this is true because the police in Britain have been arresting people, and the courts have been sentencing people, for expressing an opinion. Those opinions expressed were insulting – to some. They may have been crude, vulgar, obnoxious and unkind, too – to some. What is very clear, though, is that they were words – and words cannot be illegal.
The argument that words spread further and faster because of the Internet and cell phones is foolish. Words have always spread. The world is filled with libraries that prove this as a fundamental, unchangeable fact.
No one would single out Britain, or Europe, for its crimes against civil liberties but for one reason: the U.K. and Europe are notoriously noisy in their condemnation of limits to liberties elsewhere on the planet. They scoff at the use of capital punishment in some U.S. states, at the subjugation of women in some Muslim nations, at the treatment of children in China. And all this is fine, because they’re free to do so. That’s them exercising free speech, as it were – but they must also concede that a civil right curtailed is a civil right curtailed, whether it happens in London or Lagos. Whether you’re in Britain or Burma, your right to freedom of expression is limited by authoritarian and, yes, criminal, state action.