Silencing Donald Trump sets free speech precedent – David Blunkett

THE immediate aftermath of election day in the United States set me thinking.

Was it right for TV networks and social media to challenge the veracity of President Donald Trump's post-election remarks?
Was it right for TV networks and social media to challenge the veracity of President Donald Trump's post-election remarks?

As someone who has defended the freedom of the press and freedom of speech through thick and thin, were branches of the American media right to cut off the words of the sitting president?

The actions of Twitter were easier to deal with than the question of the broadcast media switching away from Donald Trump’s rants. Twitter was able to flag when it was apparent that outright lies were being told, or whether there was no evidence whatsoever to back up allegations of electoral fraud.

This, in itself, was an important rebalance in terms of the way social media handles what appears on their platforms. Avoiding censorship, but also providing context or warnings which might encourage people to think for themselves, and to weigh what is being propaganda as opposed to sensible dialogue.

President-elect Joe Biden addresses the American people.

But switching away from the sitting president in his evermore incoherent ramblings is a different matter. Contradicting him is one thing, shutting him down is quite another.

Of course, from my own personal and political point of view, shutting him up was a godsend. But that is not what was at stake. In a democracy, and through public dialogue, it is always worth remembering that one day the boot might be on the other foot.

Where there is clear incitement or direct evidence of causing others harm – whether through hate speech or encouraging disorder – the position is much clearer.

Never have we needed to be able to trust the mainstream media, print or broadcast, more than we do today. Rooting out untruths – whether through factual inaccuracy, by accident or design – is an essential feature of a free press.

Donald Trump is refusing to accept the outcome of the American presidential election.

The Yorkshire Post, and the reputation of regional and local outlets generally, have a proud history in checking facts as well as offering an alternative voice.

Today, we see how important that is in a sensible and balanced dialogue about the current Covid lockdown. The same can be said for ensuring that there is much greater transparency in the way in which vast sums of public money are allocated through contracts related to tackling the virus.

It is crucial to the democratic health of the nation, and not just its finances, to root out cronyism. At the moment, the identities of those being allocated large sums of public money, and for what purpose, are only coming to light through diligent questioning, journalistic persistence and political probing.

Normal open procedures for contracting have gone out of the window and so, it would seem, a sense of decency and morality as well as the probity of both politicians and public servants.

Even something as apparently trivial as who gets honours can display an erosion of confidence. For instance, in the delayed Queen’s birthday honours, a staggering 40.9 per cent of CBEs and higher awards went to people resident in London. The population of London constitutes 12.9 per cent of the total population and the further away from London you live, the less likely it will be that you would receive any honour.

So, at a time when US citizens may be looking forward to a different kind of political dialogue, a return to some sort of civility and acceptance of genuine differences of opinion between opponents, as Joe Biden stresses, it is worth reflecting on what is happening within our own society.

On Tuesday, the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, announced the establishment of an advisory panel on the future of Public Service Broadcasting and “whether the current funding for PSB is sustainable in the longer term and remains fit for purpose”. Little noticed but profoundly important as a public service safeguard. Take a look online at the membership of the panel to get a feel of the direction of travel.

I’ve long been an advocate of teaching citizenship and democracy in school. I introduced the first measures 20 years ago to ensure that youngsters might learn something about the world around them in the context of how democracy works, where power lies and, above all, how differences might be settled in ways which promoted understanding and persuasion rather than the opposite.

Here in Yorkshire and in my own city, I have witnessed the creeping Americanisation of the debate around sensitive and important issues. It is not to tolerate the intolerable to want to ensure that people genuinely can debate and seek to persuade without shutting down or dismissing the approaches of others.

From the editorial staff of major US broadcast networks, through to the standards set by public service broadcasters, getting the balance right is the stuff of which our democracy is made.

These days we test our freedoms on almost a daily basis – truth struggles to have its voice heard over the cacophony of opinion.

But, in the end, a free society stands or falls by how we deal with the right to express our thoughts, to share our differences and to do so with respect and a willingness to change our mind as well as seeking to change the hearts and minds of others.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former Cabinet minister.

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