Independent: Free speech and censorship are not mutually exclusive

This article was first published in The Independent.

Eamonn Holmes has found himself in hot water over This Morning’s coverage of 5G conspiracy theories. The ITV programme gave airtime to the comprehensively-debunked idea – which has already resulted in arson and vandalism of wireless towers and telecoms equipment – that 5G infrastructure is linked to the spread of coronavirus. Holmes, wholly unnecessarily and wildly irresponsibly, appeared to give the theory credence by saying on air that dismissing it “suits the state narrative”.

This incident is emblematic of the “both sides” culture in British media, one that has allowed misinformation to gain legitimacy. Take, for example, the BBC’s infamous climate denial interview with Nigel Lawson. As a neoliberal, I believe in freedom above almost all else, but those defending the freedom to air these kinds of ideas are disingenuously weaponising the notion of freedom. This speech is dangerous; quite simply, spreading the 5G conspiracy theory is likely to lead to further damage to property.

Put plainly, censorship works. Now that climate denialism has been a taboo in mainstream media for some time, its public support is tumbling. Similarly, the decisions of social media companies to suspend the accounts of the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones and Tommy Robinson have collapsed their public profiles.

My belief in the importance of a small state goes hand-in-hand with allowing the private sector to act against harmful speech. Everyone should have the right to free speech, but no one has the right to a platform. Eamonn Holmes is free to quit his job at ITV and start an obscure livestream where he can ponder conspiracy theories to his heart’s content, but he has no right to do so on the This Morning sofa.

Arresting Eamonn Holmes for his questionable stance would be wrong, but sacking him would be justifiable, given the demonstrable harm of his words. The difference is that the state is not doing the censoring, so there is no centralised decision-making over what counts as harmful speech, nor unaccountable shutting down of individuals, which reeks of authoritarianism and would give rise to much more understandable objections from those concerned with the preservation of liberties.

Rather, under the types of censorship I seek to defend, private corporations independently censor the words of the public-facing employees, like ITV with Holmes, or deny their services to individuals who misuse their platforms, like Facebook with Yiannopoulos. That is why it is possible to believe in both freedom and censorship. Private censorship is perfectly compatible with pro-freedom ideologies.

Organic censorship of dangerous speech, free from government interference, such as restricting what morning TV presenters can blithely discuss on air or removing hate preachers from Facebook, is not a threat to free speech. Rather, it shows that the market of ideas is working well in filtering out bad ideas.

We can see the market at work when dangerous speech emerges. ITV has already suffered a huge amount of bad press over the 5G incident. Its brand has been dragged through the mud online. On Wednesday, Holmes engaged in a lengthy row-back in an attempt to erase his ill-considered comment, presumably following an angry phone call from upstairs.

This episode also serves as a self-sufficient warning against making similar mistakes in future. Other broadcasters are already treading very carefully. For instance, BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones was at pains to stress on the Radio 4 Today programme that the alleged link between 5G and coronavirus is a “particularly deranged theory”.

Similarly, when Facebook and Twitter removed Yiannopoulos et al from their platforms, the coverage they received was overwhelmingly positive and their brands’ images enjoyed a notable boost. People liked the fact that there has been a crackdown on the dissemination of hate speech. Only a tiny minority abandoned the mainstream social media sites in favour of niche uncensored ones like Gab and Telegram, where the exiled bigots had been forced to migrate.

Promoting conspiracies and serving as vehicle for hate, as well as being morally troubling, are bad for business. As is so often the case, the direction of market pressure aligns with the public good.

This is the market doing what it does best. Those who, like me, believe in the power of the free market ought to drop their fetishisation of individual liberty on this issue and recognise the censorship of harmful speech and the no-platforming of contrarian morons as the valid market forces they are.

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