Free Speech Union: weekly news round-up

Dear Mike Buchanan,

Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week.

The FSU’s packed schedule of events this autumn!

On 9th November, FSU General Secretary Toby Young will be joined in conversation by historian, author and television presenter Neil Oliver. Members can register to receive the Zoom link here.

After a successful career as a TV historian, Neil had his own brush with cancel culture in 2020 as President of the National Trust for Scotland when some offence archaeologists (not real archaeologists like Neil) unearthed a tweet in which he’d praised the historian (and FSU Advisory Council member) David Starkey. Even though the tweet was posted before Starkey’s controversial comments about the slave trade, some po-faced critics argued it made Neil unsuitable to serve on the Board of the National Trust. 

Since retiring from public life he has become one of GB News’s most popular presenters, with social media clips of his monologues often racking up several million views. He was an outspoken critic of the UK’s lockdown policy and has subsequently raised questions about the efficacy and safety of the mRNA Covid vaccines, prompting renewed calls for him to be cancelled. Neil will be speaking to Toby about his transformation from pillar of the Establishment to anti-Establishment rebel.

The Battle of Ideas Festival in Buxton – discount rates for FSU members!

It was wonderful to see so many of our members and supporters at the Battle of Ideas Festival in London last weekend. There is a follow-up, one-day Battle of Ideas Festival taking place in Buxton in two weeks’ time and we have secured a discount for FSU members.

Festival Director and FSU Advisory Council member Claire Fox will be kicking things off, and speakers include Harry Miller, former MP Edwina Currie, SDP leader William Clouston, Daily Telegraph columnist Sherelle Jacobs and many more.

There’s a great-looking session on free speech and comedy chaired by Comedy Unleashed co-founder Andy Shaw and featuring author and radio presenter Timandra Harkness and comedians Nick Dixon and Tania Edwards. Another session that will be of interest to FSU Members is ‘Online Politics: People Power or Social-Media Cesspit?’ The panellists on that one include GB News’s Calvin Robinson and author Tracy Follows.

To get your discount, use this link and select the promo rate tickets.  

Email the candidates in the Conservative leadership contest about free speech

We’re in the midst of yet another Conservative leadership contest and that means we have a fresh opportunity to ask the candidates where they stand on the critical free speech issues facing the next government, such as the Online Safety Bill and the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. Once we know who the candidates are, we’ll be asking all our members and supporters who are also members of the Conservative Party to use our campaigning tool to contact them in the hope of extracting commitments to uphold free speech that we can then hold the winner to. Expect an email about that soon.

The growing threat of politically motivated financial censorship

The IMF’s managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, revealed that the UN’s major financial agency doesn’t like people using cash and wants to “change that preference” (Epoch Times, Reclaim the Net). Speaking at the IMF/World Bank Annual Meeting, Ms Georgieva bemoaned what she described as digital “hesitancy”. The IMF’s “capacity development experts on financial inclusion often see strong preference for cash”, she said, “even when viable electronic alternatives exist, like e-wallets, mobile money”. Shaking her head and frowning, she went on to ask: “Why are consumers not using these products?”

It’s not rocket science, Ms Georgieva. People are concerned that digital banking will make it easier for them to be cut off from their money if ever a government – or online payment provider in thrall to the idea of “stakeholder capitalism” (Telegraph) – decrees that their lawful political opinions, dissenting views, or deeply held religious convictions constitute ‘hate speech’ or ‘misinformation’ (Epoch Times, Pavlovic Today, Telegraph). Nor can this concern be dismissed as the paranoid fantasy of a small group of tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorists – as we hurtle towards a cashless economy, cases of financial censorship are starting to crop up with alarming frequency (Critic, Spiked).

In February 2022, for instance, Canada froze the bank accounts of anti-vaccine mandate protestors, with Deputy Canadian PM Chrystia Freeland making clear that banks would also be asked to freeze the personal accounts of anyone linked with the protests, with no due process, no appeals process and no court order necessary (Spiked). Online donations platform GoFundMe then withheld donations specifically to Canadian truckers protesting against vaccine mandates in what came to be known as the Freedom Convoy.

Around the same time, PayPal de-platformed left-wing alternative media sites Mint Publishing and Consortium News for publishing stories that questioned the rationale for the West’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion (TK News). Then, over the summer, PayPal and Etsy deplatformed the evolutionary biologist and gender critical writer Colin Wright for expressing his belief in biological reality (Quillette).

Last month, PayPal shut down the accounts of UsforThemUK, a parents’ group that fought to keep schools open during the pandemic, due to “the nature of its activities”, and the Free Speech Union, and on both occasions did so without prior warning, meaningful explanation, or recourse to a proper appeals process (Telegraph, Daily Sceptic). More recently, Ko-Fi, an online platform that allows users to sell their work and raise donations, removed a number of accounts belonging to feminists and feminist organisations due to their gender critical views (Reclaim the Net).

Are things about to get even worse? According to financial journalist Robert Kogon, the EU’s recently passed Digital Services Act (DSA), makes that a distinct possibility (Brownstone Institute, Daily Sceptic).

The DSA is designed to function in combination with the EU’s so-called Code of Practice on Disinformation: the Code requires signatories to censor what the European Commission defines as disinformation on pain of massive fines, while the enforcement mechanism, i.e., the fines, is established by the DSA. 

Because the legislation specifically targets “very large online platforms or very large online search engines”, it might appear as if digital financial service providers like PayPal are beyond its purview. Not so, says Kogon. The Commission has been arguing for some time that “actions to defund disinformation should be broadened by the participation of players active in the online monetisation value chain, such as online e-payment services, e-commerce platforms and relevant crowdfunding/donation systems” (European Commission, 2021).

The rationale here seems to be that because people who post so-called ‘disinformation’ on, say, Twitter are also increasingly going to be users of various other financial service platforms, it is possible to target them in two ways: first, by censoring their material as and when it appears; and second, by demonetising them so that they can’t produce any more such material.

It’s that second possibility which seems to fascinate the Commission.

That’s why the first ‘commitment’ in its strengthened code of practice is dedicated to the “demonetisation of disinformation and improving the politics and systems which determine the eligibility of content to be monetised”.

It’s also why, just nine days after the passage of the DSA through the European Parliament, the EC issued a “Call for interest to become a Signatory” of the Code. In the past, signatories have almost always been entities like advertisers, internet service providers, social media companies and search engines. What types of actors is the Commission particularly hoping to sign up to the Code this time? “Providers whose services may be used to monetise disinformation (E-payment services, e-commerce platforms, crowd-funding/donation systems).”

The problem, of course, is that once financial services providers have signed up to the European Commission’s Code and committed to, as the Code puts it, “exchang[ing] best practices and strengthen[ing] cooperation with relevant players… in the online monetisation value system”, their systems will all be finely tuned and ready to impose the Commission’s model of financial censorship on the entire world, including the UK. And at breakneck speed too – not only does the strengthened Code contain a total of 44 “commitments” that its new signatories will be expected to make, but it also contains a deadline for meeting them: namely, six months after signing up to the Code (Brownstone Institute).

In other words, if you thought 2022 was a bad year for financial censorship, just wait until you see an organisation like PayPal roll up its sleeves and get stuck in to meeting its legally binding ‘commitments’, as dictated by the European Commission, in 2023.

The FSU lobbies the government on financial censorship – join the fightback!

As Toby pointed out in Pavlovic Today, the FSU is currently lobbying the Government to introduce a law preventing financial services providers from financially censoring people or groups in this country for the expression of legal but dissenting views. But legislative work takes time, which means we need to keep the pressure up, mobilising the extraordinary public opposition to PayPal’s recent behaviour to tell our politicians that we don’t want a Chinese-style social credit system to be rolled out across the West.

Using the Free Speech Union’s campaigning tool to write to your MP is a great way to keep up that pressure and remind our legislators that there’s strong feeling on this issue among the public. If you’re as outraged as we are about the growing threat of politically motivated financial censorship in the West, please use this tool to send a template email to your MP, urging them to ask a question about it in the House of Commons.

The process only takes two minutes, and the link is here.

Graham Norton falls victim to cancel culture

The fallout from Graham Norton’s recent appearance at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, in which he claimed that ‘cancel culture’ doesn’t exist, and that those complaining of being ‘cancelled’ have simply been held ‘accountable’ for their views, continued this week (Critic, Evening Standard, HuffPost, Independent, Mail).

Speaking to GB News’s Andrew Doyle, the creator of Father Ted and The IT Crowd, Graham Linehan, professed himself “disappointed” by Norton’s comments. Linehan, who has suffered multiple cancellations and was most recently dropped by Hat Trick Productions from involvement in a musical version of Father Ted on account of his perfectly lawful views on transgender activism, said: “I find Graham Norton personally such a betrayal, because one of the first things he did was his role on Father Ted, there is no way he cannot know about what’s happened to me. For him to say there’s no cancel culture, I don’t know what to say about it, but he’s really disappointed me” (Express).

“Sorry Graham Norton”, a not-very-sorry-sounding Zoe Strimpel said, “but cancel culture is all too real” (Telegraph). She felt it is “simply wrong” to argue that “cancel culture is a ruse cooked up by the Right for more attention”. In workplaces up and down the country, she said, “people are being driven to misery – or sacked – for doing nothing wrong”.

Mark Dolan felt much the same way. He was “profoundly offended” that Norton, “himself a privileged and very well-paid presenter”, should seek to “gaslight the huge numbers of artists and creative people who have been or feel censored, or who have had their livelihoods destroyed for having the wrong views” (Express, GB News).

The FSU can attest to the accuracy of these claims – we get an average of 50 requests for help a week and at any one time we’ll have around 100 cases on the go. These are cases where people have been punished, sacked, bullied, harassed, investigated, or disciplined for speaking their mind – or because a colleague prowled through their personal social media profiles looking for ‘offensive’ material.

As the backlash intensified, people angered by Norton’s reluctance to admit the reality of cancel culture rushed off to engage in a spot of ‘offence archaeology’ and came back clutching a TV sketch from the 2000s in which the presenter mocked Big Brother contestant Jade Goody, now deceased, by dressing up in rolls of fake flab and adding a touch of shaving foam to his chin to symbolise semen [she’s working class… so she must be a slapper – geddit?!].

When Norton subsequently deleted his Twitter account, his supporters were understandably outraged (Mail). Norton had been “hounded off Twitter” said Guardian journalist Owen Jones. The host of The Graham Norton Show was “forced off Twitter” and it was all “desperately sad”, said TV presenter India Willoughby (LBC). Pink News felt that Norton had been subjected to “harassment” and a “barrage of abuse”.

It sounds awful. Perhaps he should consider joining the FSU. If you’re reading this, Graham, we have plenty of experience supporting people who’ve fallen foul of cancel culture. Not that Brendan O’Neill seemed in the mood to play the Good Samaritan (Spiked). “What are [Norton’s defenders] talking about?” the cold-hearted brute thundered. “Didn’t they listen to Graham? Don’t they know that this is just accountability culture and that it’s a very good thing? Live by accountability, die by accountability, right Mr Norton?”

Don’t mind Brendan, Graham – he’s like that with everyone. The link to our sign-up page is here. Membership starts at £2.49.

Alumni For Free Speech – a call to arms!

We are delighted to announce that friends of the FSU have recently launched ‘Alumni For Free Speech’ (AFFS), a campaign to galvanise and co-ordinate university alumni to pressurise institutions to protect and promote free speech properly. (The AFFS website is here). AFFS is a timely campaign that will undoubtedly make a major contribution to the fight for free speech at our universities – alumni working collectively can exert both moral and financial pressure and thus have huge leverage and impact on their universities.

AFFS will have three main areas of work: pushing universities to comply with their free speech legal obligations; encouraging and supporting alumni to start focused campaigns to push their own institutions to better protect free speech; and liaising with the FSU to tackle specific incidents as they occur – be they sackings or disciplinaries, no-platformings or cancellations of people and/or events.

AFFS needs large numbers of alumni to become members to gain traction with universities and help make this happen. It also needs financial support to do its work, and in particular to bring in a director to drive this vital project forward. If you’re a graduate, then please show your support for the AFFS by joining the organisation here – the process only takes a minute and membership is free.

Sharing the newsletter

As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join, and help us turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons below to help us spread the word. If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.

Best wishes,

Freddie Attenborough

Communications Officer

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