Sunday, February 22, 2015

Freedom of Speech, so long as you keep shtum?

"FREEDOM OF SPEECH" has been much talked about lately, in the wake of the 'Charlie Hebdo' killings and with regard to such slightly less serious matters as the enthusiasm with which some groups of students, feminists or whatever want to ban or boycott others, burn their papers, and so forth, in the name of creating "safe spaces". Having regard for my own safety, not to say sanity, I won't go there, but will stick to the relative comfort zone of things I know and can understand.

"Freedom of Speech" is not a new idea, of course, but more like a retro fashion. I can remember it as the first of the Four Freedoms proclaimed by President Franklin D.Roosevelt a year before I was born (and given the middle name Franklin), the other three being freedom of worship, and freedoms from Want, and from Fear. Maybe if freedom is back in fashion we should consider the rest of the package, particularly the last two, which are missing from much of the world, and being increasingly denied a lot of people in this country.

After the war, when the UN was established with such great hopes, Roosevelt's four freedoms were woven into the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which reads, "Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed the highest aspiration of the common people,...."

I also remember seeing my first live fascists, with placards proclaiming "Let Mosley Speak" and "'Action!' (their paper) "banned from your library. Why?". At that time most town halls were banned to the fascist leader, and if anyone quoted Voltaire, the more recent "barbarous acts" were more uppermost in people's minds, along with the thought that had the War turned out differently, Mosley would most likely have been the only politician to enjoy freedom of speech. As it was, Tory Kensington kept its doors open for Sir Oswald when he wasn't stirring the Teds in the north end of the borough.

 So I was not altogether carried away with the recent fervour over "free speech", nor entirely surprised when a Labour councillor friend in the North East who'd said something about the EDL and Pegida marching in his his city received hate mail saying he was attacking "Free Speech", and going on to accuse him of a string of other offences, as libellous as ridiculous. (Naturally the kind of heroes who send this stuff are always anonymous).

But rather than discuss the ethics of free speech or pontificate about its proper limits, and what the law says or what it ought to say, I would like to look at how much free speech there really is, as illustrated by a few recent instances.

One of the things we ought to be able to freely hear and talk about, because it could affect all our lives, is the treaty being cooked up behind closed doors by European Union(EU) and United States officials, called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Ostensibly about removing obstacles to trade, there are fears that it could force countries to remove restrictions on food additives and genetically modified crops, lower safety standards, and drop the minimum wage. Some court cases already being brought by big companies could be the shape of things to come. Philip Morris wants to sue for loss of profits caused by the Australian government's legislation on cigarette packaging, while Germany is facing legal action because it decided to phase out nuclear power.

Under TTIP big companies with their seemingly limitless resources and high powered lawyers could take any  government which got in their way to special, secret courts. The threat of billion dollar fines could deter a future Labour government,say, from renationalising the railways, or reversing the inroads of privatisation in the NHS. What price then your voting in elections, passing conference resolutions, or - if the Met will still allow it - even marching in the street?

No wonder there have been protests in Brussels about TTIP, or that 97 per cent of European citizens said they were against it in an EU poll. Even European commissioners are expressing caution, as are MEPs, and trade unionists both sides of the Atlantic oppose it, though the British government seems content to let it go ahead.

The wonder though is how little we hear from politicians or on TV about TTIP, and why it is not being raised in an election year. It seems not even elected members of the European parliament are trusted, and they have to take a vow of silence, forbidding them from telling us what they have seen.
 As Molly Scott Cato, a Green MEP for the South West of England, wrote recently:
'... I have now been granted privileged access to the European parliament restricted reading room to explore documents relating to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal. But before I had the right to see such “top secret” documents, which are restricted from the gaze of most EU citizens, I was required to sign a document of some 14 pages, reminding me that “EU institutions are a valuable target” and of the dangers of espionage. Crucially, I had to agree not to share any of the contents with those I represent.

The delightful parliamentary staff required me to leave even the smallest of my personal items in a locked cupboard, as they informed me how tiny cameras can be these days. Like a scene from a James Bond film, they then took me through the security door into a room with secure cabinets from which the documents were retrieved. I was not at any point left alone.

This week hundreds of protesters against TTIP have descended on the European parliament. They are quite rightly concerned about the threat that this treaty poses to the British government’s ability to conduct its affairs in their interests. On a range of issues, from food safety standards and animal welfare to public services and financial regulation, there are deep concerns that the harmonisation of standards across the Atlantic really means a reduction of standards on both sides.

But how are we to know for certain? All discussions about TTIP have been hypothetical, since the negotiations are taking place in secret. In order to read even brief notes of what has been discussed I have to be reminded of my duties not to undertake espionage for foreign powers. Repeated complaints about secrecy from my fellow Green members have resulted in our being admitted to the restricted reading room but we are still not able to share what we discover there with our constituents or with journalists.'

Of course, an important part of free expression is the freedom of the press. As people say, if you don't like what you see in a particular paper you can stop buying it. Whereas, if you are wealthy enough you can buy the paper and change its politics.

We all know better than to trust the tabloids for our information, but there's the 'quality' press- papers like the Telegraph.Until recently its chief political correspondent was Peter Oborne, a conservative even if independent.

On February 17, 2015 Oborne resigned from The Daily Telegraph. In a letter posted to the online news website, OpenDemocracy, Oborne criticised his former employer for the relationship between their editorial and commercial arms. Oborne outlined how the paper would suppress negative stories and drop investigations into the HSBC bank, a major source of their advertising revenue, which, in his opinion, compromised their journalistic integrity calling it a "form of fraud on its readers".

He also alleged that the Telegraph’s coverage of stories relating to UK supermarket chain Tesco, shipping company Cunard and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong had been influenced by commercial considerations, adding, “There are other very troubling cases, many of them set out in Private Eye, which has been a major source of information for Telegraph journalists wanting to understand what is happening on their paper”.

 It would not be the first time a newspaper has considered its advertising revenue before running a story that might upset a company.  What was newsworthy was that someone like Oborne felt he had to speak out. In other cases journalists newer to the profession have come across what looked like a big story to pursue, but reluctantly had to dump it when they were told it would never get printed, or realised it might break rather than make their career.

I' imagine the Ritz-owning, Channel Island-dwelling Barclay brothers who own the Telegraph might be sympathetic to some of HSBC's tax avoiding customers anyway, aside from the advertising. A much bigger newspaper owner, whose interests' ability to avoid UK taxes did not prevent a mutually understanding relationship with British governments is Rupert Murdoch. The Sun's infamous Hillsborough story was a political matter. And Sun journos who we're told were horrified by what they saw were free to go up the road from Wapping, or keep their heads down and mouths shut, remembering that all that took Prince Rupert's shilling had waved goodbye to conscience along with union rights.

Free Speech at Work?

Are you free to say what you like at work? "Have a nice day?", click, click and/or "would you like fries with that?" may not be the full extent of your repertoire, but it can be pretty well circumscribed. Elsewhere, that nice office where everyone's on first name terms and you can dress down Friday may seem free, but have you noticed how the receptionist looked nervously over her shoulder before she whispered her confidence to you?
How free people feel to speak their mind depends generally on how secure they are and if the place is organised. In some casual jobs people are afraid to talk to the person they are working with, in case what they say is eavesdropped, or reported, and next day they are out of a job.
As for government departments, undermining job security and union organisation is not just about pay and conditions, but one way of intimidating civil servants from speaking out about stuff they know, or telling the public things we should know. Of course it may have the opposite effect.
In the past the Official Secrets Act was used to cover a multitude of sins, and probably still is, but now it is being supplemented with commercial businessspeak.

Members of the Public and Commercial Services(PCS) union at the National Gallery are starting their second strike today in the fight against their work being handed over to a private security firm. But they have an additional issue since management suspended senior union representative Candy Udwin, an art handler, for allegedly “breaching commercial confidentiality,” PCS said, by giving information to a full-time union official, including information about the costs of using profiteers.

Now hang on. We the public still own the National Gallery, right? In fact the management claims it must get more "commercial" because there are limited public resources available. But the private company coming in is not a charity. It must see a profit in taking over the work. So how come the cost of bringing the privateers in is not something the public, including people who work at the gallery, are supposed to know?

Another aspect of freedom of speech at work is safety. In the construction industry, where many workers were blacklisted after taking up safety issues, and HSE inspections are few and far between, responsible workers will not cut corners, but they may hesitate to raise issues, hoping someone else will, if it means losing your job and having your card marked henceforth.

Electrician Frank Morris lost his job on the Crossrail project after raising concerns about safety, and it took over a year for him to win reinstatement.  Frank was not the last, either. But last week a worker who was sacked in similar circumstances was reinstated within half an hour of workers taking militant action on his behalf.  This may have to do with a demonstration at company headquarters spilling over into London's Oxford Street and stopping rush hour traffic. It is probably also not unconnected with the inquest opening tomorrow at St.Pancras Coroners' court into the death of Rene Tkacic working on Crossrail, and the vigil planned by trade unionists and safety campaigners outside.

Our individual freedom and even lives as workers depends on our ability to join in collective action.

Crossrail  Vigil at St.Pancras Coroners Court, Camley Street, London N1C 4PP. Assemble 9.15am

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