||There has been considerable commentary sparked by the Home Secretary’s announcements in TV interviews last week of proposals being considered by Government which would ‘pre-emptively ban’ the circulation of extremist material online and in broadcasting.
Theresa May’s reactions came on the back of criticism aimed at the BBC and Channel 4 for allowing airtime to Anjem Choudary in the hours and days following the murder for Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich. While many would contend that Choudary’s views are obnoxious, do they deserve to be censored in the name of national security? Is it desirable, as Timothy Garton-Ash puts it, to ‘erod[e] our freedom in the name of defending it’?
Kirsty Hughes, of Index on Censorship, rightly points to the failed attempts at censorship in the past, when in the 1980s then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, sought to deny the IRA the ‘oxygen of publicity’ by compelling voiceovers in TV broadcasts. Hughes said, “It did not make sense when we had actors speaking the words of IRA people in the past, and it doesn’t now."
Former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, appearing at the Hay Festival this week, declared the past measures "a great recruiting sergeant” for the IRA, reinforcing the counter-productive nature of measures designed to silence extremists.
The Government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, David Anderson QC, in an interview with BBC Radio 4's PM programme, spoke of the need to ‘drive out’ bad ideas by openly challenging them in the free ‘marketplace of ideas’.
The need to keep the marketplace of ideas free and open is also the subject of a comment by former Communities Secretary, John Denham, who in The Guardian, spells out pitfalls of curtailing the parameters of free exchange writing that “If you set the wrong boundaries of acceptability there's always the danger of alienating potential support and actually feeding the seditious claims that "they want to silence you".
From evidence given by Charles Farr, Director of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT), to the Home Affairs select committee inquiry into the Roots of Violent Radicalisation, the ability to ‘drive out’ bad ideas is not as robust as the Government would desire. Farr told the inquiry:
“We are concerned about the activities of such people [non-violent extremists], not because they are illegal—they are not—but because they appear to go unchallenged. They are set up in a particularly systematic way and they appear very deliberately, and in a very well organised way, to target universities with significant numbers of Muslim students. We are not asking for that activity to be banned but we are asking it to be challenged and for there to be a degree of balance, which at present in certain areas seems to us to be lacking.”
Demos in its report in 2010, on the power of conspiracy theories too noted the importance of openly challenging those viewpoints that thrive on conspiracies. But if the actions of organizations like Student Rights and the newspapers that give their biased analysis news space are anything to go by, the paucity of counter-arguments in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ is perhaps to be expected.
Of a project undertaken during Denham’s time leading the Department for Communities and Local Government, ‘Connecting Communities’, he writes:
“We knew this would include racist views but reasoned that the drive to extremism was only fostered by the sense that these views were being suppressed. The risk worked. Instead of consolidating racist ideas, it became the first step to winning trust and challenging extreme ideologies. Connecting Communities was dumped by the coalition along with the Prevent community programme, but its model of engaging community concerns may be more useful than Prevent's attempts to suppress them.”
Denham raises an interesting point about the type of individual attracted to extremist, anti-systemic positions, arguing that what is ‘crucial’ is the “need to give stake, voice and status to the vulnerable and alienated”.
It is a point which is noted in the Home Affairs select committee report mentioned above but one which has yet to be adequately addressed.
Timothy Garton-Ash meanwhile asks the very sensible question, “Who is an extremist? Is it just a political view you disagree with?”
Perhaps there is no better indication of the perils of subjective assessment on “Who is an extremist?” than the debacle of the cases fought by the Home Office against Sheikh Raed Salah and Dr Zakir Naik. Both cases demonstrate the dangerous potential for politicisation of this key question.
Moreover, the causal relationship between articulating extremist views and committing criminal or terrorist attacks is not clear. The answers given by Charles Farr to the select committee inquiry on its question concerning the proscribing of groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir were redacted from the transcript of the evidence session. What connection there is between holding a viewpoint and acting in an illegal manner is not well established it would seem.
Garton-Ash in true liberal fashion argues that extremists need to be taken on “in every medium” using work by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue on “how you can counter extremist narratives online with other online narratives and tools” as an example.
In the annual report on the Government’s Prevent strategy, there is an allusion to similar work noting:
"We have supported community-based campaigns that rebut terrorist and extremist propaganda and offer alternative views to our most vulnerable target audiences. We have worked with digital communications experts to help fifteen civil society groups exploit the potential of the internet."
There is not, however, any mention of the ‘fifteen civil society groups’ employed to this end. ENGAGE have submitted a freedom of information request to disclose the names of the fifteen groups but we are yet to receive a response from the OSCT.
Transparency over the ‘means’ used in the ‘marketplace of ideas’ battle will be as important as the ‘end’ of driving out ‘bad ideas’.