MAIL ON SUNDAY COMMENT: Vigorous debate, not censorship, is the way to correct falsehood
Is what we think or say any business of the Government? Certainly not. For while incitement to violence or other crimes is rightly a crime itself, the simple expression of opinion cannot be limited by the State, and should not be.
Good policy results from free debate, not from censored rigidity. It is regimes such as Belarus, or Putin‘s Russia, that reach for the censor’s blue pencil, or worse, if their orthodoxies are challenged.
In the pre-Blair era, this good old rule was widely understood in Whitehall and Westminster. Governments might try quite hard to stop us finding out what they were doing, and may not always have answered questions fully.
But the idea that the State should try to influence opinion, let alone monitor it and help its suppression, would have been regarded by most civil servants as intolerable.
(File Photo) Good policy results from free debate, not from censored rigidity. In the pre-Blair era, this good old rule was widely understood in Whitehall and Westminster
Since the New Labour Government, there has been a growing tendency to meddle in such matters. Tony Blair said in 1997 that his party was ‘the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole’.
This amazing claim inaugurated a new style of government in which the whole idea of opposition was undermined and dissent actively marginalised.
His Government sent out spin doctors, determined to push and promote its case rather than simply provide information. But, as The Mail on Sunday reveals today, this has gone a dangerous stage further – and under a Tory Government too.
Fear and panic make fools of us all from time to time. We overreact, and do and say things we regret. And some of the Government’s reactions to the Covid pandemic increasingly look as if there was some panic in the corridors of power.
Ministers did superlatively well over the vaccine, and saved many jobs and businesses. They protected us from the extreme overreactions of many other nations.
But they absolutely did not save the NHS, and the giant inflationary cost of the limitless spending they undertook is now coming back to haunt us.
(File Photo) Since the New Labour Government, there has been a growing tendency to meddle in matters of public opinion
Had more criticism been heard, it would almost certainly have helped them to develop more effective policies.
But many serious expert dissenters felt at the time they had been unfairly pushed out of the debate. They now feel that, if they had been listened to, the whole country would have been better off.
It was not totalitarian. But it was not democratic either. And now we find that parts of the British State, including a special unit of the Army, were engaged in actions on the edge of thought and speech control.
The organisation Big Brother Watch has uncovered proof that civil servants and soldiers were monitoring the opinions of law-abiding citizens.
Were those citizens then obstructed in spreading their views on social media? It is impossible to know, but paths existed (and probably still exist) by which this might have been done.
A dissenting Army officer says, damningly, that he had the impression his bosses ‘were more interested in protecting the success of their policies than uncovering foreign interference’.
The pretext for this is supposed ‘disinformation’. But this is simply not good enough. First of all, can the Government decide, in a complex and fast-moving debate, who is right and who is entitled to speak? Hardly.
Liberty has a better answer. By far the best way of discovering, overturning and correcting falsehood in any society is vigorous open debate and diverse competing media – only too pleased to uncover their rivals’ errors.
This can only take place if you have many differing voices, unafraid to speak, and a State that respects freedom rather than secretly monitoring those who disagree with it.