The Limits of Free Expression – Tim Harvey

Tim Harvey is a second year English Literature student at the University of Manchester. This is his first article for Sonder Magazine.

The Limits of Free Expression

On the eleventh of January this year, over one-and-a-half million people lined the streets of Paris to protest against the vicious murders of seventeen people, perpetrated by al-Qaeda militants in response to the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s frequent publication of cartoons perceived to be disrespectful to Islam. The march, which swelled to numbers approaching four million across the country, was intended to show solidarity with the victims, and perhaps most importantly, reassert the importance of freedom of expression in the western world. The popular hashtag #jesuischarlie swept across social media, with celebrities and world leaders alike proclaiming their unity to the cause.

Eight months down the line, and suddenly the slogan doesn’t appear to be so popular. Charlie Hebdo’s recent depiction of the drowned Syrian child Aylan Kurdi, the images of whom invigorated widespread sympathy among western nations concerning the European refugee crisis, has sparked outrage, prompting the obverse catchline #jenesuispascharlie. It seems that freedom of expression is all well and good, as long as you’re not offending me.

This very sentiment has been evident in the UK recently, as newspapers have chastised Jeremy Corbyn for his decision not to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ at a service to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The Sun led the charge against the new Labour leader with the headline ‘Corb Snubs the Queen’, in a vitriolic report which mostly mocked his dress sense, while several other media outlets quoted twitter users branding the MP for Islington North ‘shameful’ and a ‘disgrace’. Combine this with knowledge of Mr Corbyn’s friendships with terrorists, and his mourning over the death of Osama bin Laden and suddenly, the sixty-six year old pacifist is an abominable threat to national security. If you don’t sing the national anthem, you’re not a true patriot and thus, cannot be truly conversant with the principles of this country. Right?

We are brought very swiftly back to our old friend ‘freedom of expression’, particularly as the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) recently listed ‘Democracy’, ‘The Rule of Law’, ‘Individual Liberty and Mutual Respect’, and ‘Tolerance of those with Different Faiths and Beliefs’ as ‘Fundamental British Values’. All of a sudden, Mr Corbyn’s decision to remain tight-lipped seems as British as a cup of tea and a game of cricket.

It may also be worth noting that the left-wing veteran received a mandate of nearly sixty per cent of the labour party’s electorate, largely based on his transparent and principled nature. As a staunch republican, it would have been impossible for him to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ with any sincerity, and in doing so he would merely have undermined the honesty-ticket on which he was given such a large backing.

Noteworthy too is the hypocrisy of those criticising the leader of the opposition. Of those who took to social media to castigate his actions, how many were at that or a similar service themselves? How many even knew that it was the battle’s seventy-fifth anniversary, before coming across an article of tabloid-ilk, berating his disrespectful silence? The answer, I suspect, is very few.

Nonetheless, David Cameron’s official spokeswoman jumped at the chance for some cheap propaganda points, declaring that ‘the importance [Mr Cameron] attaches to the national anthem is visible every time he is at one of these commemorative services.’ It is quickly forgotten, I suppose, that the Prime Minister once described the British in 1940 as ‘the junior partner’ to the United States at a time when Britain stood alone in Europe against Nazi expansion, whilst being charged hefty fees for arms by our ‘senior partners’, who were still four years from joining the war. If not ‘disrespectful’, the Conservative leader can at least be termed ‘naïve’.

Ultimately, however, the most ironic of condemnations came from Conservative MP, Sir Nicholas Soames (who, the media are quick to point out, is the grandson of Winston Churchill). Amid a torrent of reproval, which in various assortments of colourful language has described Mr Corbyn as ‘stupid’ and ‘scruffy’, the MP for Mid Sussex weighed in by stating that he thinks the Labour leader ‘needs to make his mind up whether he is a grown-up or not’. A call for maturity from a man who has twice had his driving license revoked for ridiculous, repeat offences? How very quaint.

Although it is purportedly a part of our national identity, it seems we are not quite ready for freedom of expression, and we certainly haven’t quite yet grasped the concept of double-standards. In a week when millions in the west mourned the loss of eleven journalists (whose publication has since come under major scrutiny from those very same activists), we largely turned a blind-eye to events in Nigeria, which saw Boko Haram slaughter nearly two-thousand men, women and children in a massacre at Baga. Instead, the west jumped at the opportunity to defend freedom of expression in the face of extremism, in a rally attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to France, Mohammed Ismael al-Sheikh. Oh, the irony.

There is, however, a chance that sensible discussion and mature debate may prevail. The election of Jeremy Corbyn by an overwhelming majority in the Labour leadership election showed that petty rhetoric, spearheaded by the likes of Tony Blair and Mr Corbyn’s leadership opponents, was ineffectual in the face of a desire for a genuine and honest left-wing political alternative. Growing numbers of the public appear to be tired of the childish jibes of politicians from all points of the political spectrum. Perhaps it’s time, to use Mr Soames’ words, for politics to become a little more ‘grown-up’. Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions certainly pointed hopefully in that direction.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether the public will be convinced of media propaganda suggesting that the bombing of Muslim countries is preferable to peaceful diplomacy for our country’s national security, however, there is no doubt that out-of-context Corbyn quotes will continue to be fired into the public eye, proving, for some, unequivocal evidence that the quietly spoken north London MP is in fact Satan incarnate, wishing to stoke fires on British soil which will turn everyone, from the monarchy to the lowest echelons of society, into ashes.

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