One of the threads that run throughout my book ‘Comments of a Common Man (Edition 3)’ is that the freedoms we take for granted in the UK are under threat like never before. To look at the daily demonstrations seen outside the Houses of Parliament in London, and similar events held up and down the country, one might be inclined take that statement with more than a pinch of salt.
However, if one also looks more deeply into the question of freedom, a different picture emerges. Yes, we do take for granted our ability go where we wish to, when we wish to and how we wish to. We also assume we are free to say what we want and write want we want, and by which medium, including social media. What we say and write does have some restrictions but these are usually limited to not using profane language and not making statements we know to be false; to not make fake allegations against somebody.
Yet the use of bad language and the making of such fake allegations are now widespread. The most obvious avenue for ordinary people to vent their spleen is social media platforms like Twitter, which has become almost notorious for the manner in which some users behave. Violent and threatening terminology is routinely used on it and the criticism aimed at Twitter can thus be said to be justified - so is it?
No, not really. In a genuinely free country such a platform has a right to exist and to give its users the freedom to speak as they please. What its user’s actually say via their written words however, may be a different matter. The restrictions that can reasonably be placed upon it are the same restrictions that are placed on mainstream news media and everywhere else – including KJM Today.
What we say must be phrased without using inflammatory terms, without making unfounded allegations and so on – Twitter’s critics should thus aim their remarks at its users rather than the platform itself. But Twitter’s critics want to either shut it down or make it police itself, which inevitably means that it will, if forced to by law, censor its users. And censorship is one of the means by which oppressive movements, including Governments, will subjugate ordinary people.
Another is to restrict generally, by any means, the activities of journalists. Broadly speaking, journalists tend to be looked at twice by many and it is true to say that, in the past, some journalists and the publications they produce their material for (written or photographed) have not helped themselves. But we live in different times now. There is, and for the right reasons, a greater discipline now imposed upon those who write and take photographs or video material for their living.
But this discipline is also underpinned by actions taken by the agencies of the state, including the police.
The tools of a journalist’s trade are the pen, notebook (electronic or otherwise), computer and camera. Yet these are routinely seized by the police, despite existing protections in law to enable journalists to do their jobs, and without having their tools arbitrarily removed and without any prior notice.
If professionals like journalists can have their ability to earn a living taken away, what chance do ordinary people have?
The targeting of journalists has however, been the subject of some discussion recently. In an article for Politics Home, Tom Tugendhat, MP for Tonbridge and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, wrote:
‘Democracy is more than voting. It’s more than politicians or Parliament. It’s the way we talk to each other, debate, test – and reject – ideas. Elections reveal the collective decision of a nation, but no matter how fair the poll is, if it is based on deceit or fraud, it is merely whitewashing a sham. In a democracy, polls are a final expression of a free people and built on the foundations of freedom of speech, a free media and an independent judiciary. Today all three are under threat.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) recognised this, officially making defending media freedom its ‘priority campaign’ for 2019. In evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, we were shocked not only by how bad the problem is but how much worse it has become. It’s not just the ‘usual suspects’ or places ‘far away’ from the UK: media freedom has got worse in EU members, important allies, countries where progress seemed established, and places close to home.
One of the most consistent and disappointing findings of our inquiry was how some governments and politicians, who should be the ultimate protectors of the media, are among the worst culprits for persecuting and intimidating journalists. At the very least, too many are denigrating those who work to bring us the facts, and deliberately creating a hostile environment for journalists. That’s shameful.’
Tugendhat goes on to point out that journalists have been killed at a rate of one every four days for the past decade. He writes: ‘And they’re being murdered - not caught in the crossfire of battle or in accidents - but deliberately targeted by states and individuals for doing their duty, bringing us the truth.’
Several examples are cited, including the case of Jamal Khashoggi. Tugendhat further writes: ‘One of our key recommendations to the Foreign Office is that it must put digital threats at the core of its strategy to protect journalists. Violations cross borders and time zones as no journalist is safe from online harassment, even in a ‘free’ country. Our maritime moat does not protect those writing in the UK… [journalists] have been targeted with ‘fake news’ stories or ‘deep-fake’ pornographic content to discredit and intimidate them.’
Tugendhat also writes: ‘Some of the problems faced by journalists are financial. Around the world they’re finding it harder to fund their operations…as one journalist from Mexico asked us: how can you produce quality journalism if you can’t make ends meet?’
And this still includes journalists having their equipment taken away by the UK police. Which returns us to the question posed above; if professionals like journalists can have their ability to earn a living taken away, what chance do ordinary people have?
The answer is none.
The UK police have of course always had the ability to request a search warrant to raid a home or business in order for them to search for and seize property but what is less well known is that they do not have to have a search warrant to do so. By using the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (also known as PACE) they can lawfully enter somewhere and take what they wish, including entering one’s home – which does rather bring into sharp focus the question of freedom.
Tom Tugendhat may well have been referring to the behaviour of other parts of the world in his role with the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, but what of our own affairs here in the UK?
The most oft-used reasons for police searches and seizures of property is terrorism and the suspicion of it, or sex offences and the suspicion of that – and there have only recently been high-profile examples of unfounded and false allegations that have destroyed the lives of innocent people. Viable businesses have gone bankrupt and folded, livelihoods lost because of police raids on their offices and homes.
The behaviour of the UK Police when it comes to arriving on one’s doorstep unannounced and simply taking away the lives of people in the form of their personal possessions, property and ability to earn a living, needs not only to be re-examined minutely and in detail, it also needs to have robust procedures put in place to protect the rights not only of journalists, but everybody else as well.