Saint Piers, Free Speech Martyr – COMMENT

By Paul Wragg

PIERS MORGAN’S ignominious exit from Good Morning Britain presents an ideal moment to reflect upon the meaning and nature of free speech.

That a man whose career has been devoted to dispensing brash, callous attacks on vulnerable people – this is, after all, the man who routinely thinks young people are oversensitive ‘snowflakes’ and who disgusted even the Daily Mail and The Sun when he ridiculed the then 16-yr-old Greta Thunberg for her emotional speech at the UN Climate Action summit in 2019 (or he was mocking her Asperger’s, I’m not clear which) – should demand our sympathy for his plight – is as astonishing as it is rich.

It is hardly the first time his gross insensitivity toward others has attracted complaints, albeit it is the first time that ITV has taken determined action, it would seem.

Whether it was the 41,000 complaints to Ofcom or his petulant reaction when his fellow presenter, Alex Beresford, began to criticise his constant attacks on Meghan Markle, what prompted this action is something we may not know, for sure, for some time.

His complaint that Beresford had treated him disrespectfully was, I hope, met with the incredulity it deserved.

This petulance and oversensitivity, of itself, gives the lie to his later tweet, purportedly quoting Sir Winston Churchill, that ‘some people’s idea of free speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage’ is both hypocritical and unintentionally ironic, for it was Beresford’s critical opinion of him that prompted his own inflated sense of entitlement to cry ‘outrage’.

Admittedly, it is entirely unsurprising that a man who refused to take responsibility for apparent phone-hacking taking place on his watch should once again shun responsibility for his own departure from GMB. Instead, he chose to play the martyr: “If I have to fall on my sword for expressing an honestly held opinion about Meghan Markle… so be it.”

This is, of course, a canny tactic. It plays to a certain audience and creates a kind of nobility for Morgan. “He fell on his sword so that others may live free” is an unlikely description of Morgan’s services to humanity. Nevertheless, it reminds us that the right to freedom of speech belongs to all.

Although it has the ring of heroism to it, it is a right that belongs as much to rogues and villains as it does heroes and pioneers. Morgan’s contemptible use of it is but one example of how the right has been abused over time.

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It also illustrates how easily the right is both misunderstood and misapplied.

Whenever someone is taken to task for their comments, it is just so easy for them to complain about ‘free speech’. This reaction, though, usually signals a profound ignorance about what the right to free speech is or how it works. Most obviously, it demonstrates the misconception that free speech is absolute.

This, I’m afraid, is simply wrong. It is not a literal right to say whatever one pleases without consequence. There are many ways in which the law regulates speech. For example, speech that incites violence, causes public disturbances, or undermines justice is all liable to interference by the state.

What ought to happen is that whenever someone asserts that their right to free speech is threatened, we should ask who the right is being asserted against. After all, one person’s right is another person’s duty, so who is it that Morgan alleges has breached their duty to him to uphold his right? Who has prevented him from speaking? Who has robbed him of his opportunity to share his opinions?

Given that, as I write, Morgan’s bilious protestations are still attracting press attention, it seems deeply implausible, and a little ridiculous, to say that his power to disseminate his views has been cruelly snatched away. He’s hardly silent, more’s the pity.

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The object of his complaint would seem to be ITV. Having tried to save face by claiming ownership of the decision to leave, his argument is deprived of its force. If he did, in fact, choose to leave, then he has no one to blame but himself (albeit that would mean taking responsibility for his actions – something that is clearly unpalatable to him).

If, though, he was sacked (or something approximating dismissal), then the rights claim seems more plausible, although only superficially. Another stubborn myth about the right to free speech is that it applies to all instances of speech. This is also simply wrong.

Free speech is a constitutional right as between state and citizen. If Morgan had been imprisoned, then his claim would have credibility. But ITV has no more obligation to provide Morgan with the forum to speak than newspapers have an obligation to give citizens access to their printing presses.

One interesting but, as it transpires, misinformed perspective on the rights question appears in American journalist Jake Tapper’s concern that Morgan’s departure resulted from Ofcom’s jurisdiction over programming standards. This, he warned his fellow Americans, ‘is what happens when you live in a country without the First Amendment. Insanity.’

Given what does happen in a country with the First Amendment, I’m not entirely clear on the source of Tapper’s sanctimony but his underlying concern that state interference with speech is abhorrent deserves our attention at least. After all, sinister zealots like me want to see newspapers subject to the sort of compulsory independent regulation that broadcasters are subject to. Obviously, Tapper is wrong to say that Ofcom is a state regulator but, superciliousness aside, let us take seriously his claim that it is ‘naïve’ to believe in Ofcom’s independence.

Underpinning this First Amendment fundamentalism is a belief that the state has no legitimate interest in the religious and political beliefs that its citizens hold. This explains, for example, why Americans have never mistreated communists or civil rights advocates and why the Black Lives Matters movement has been embraced so readily by all Americans.

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Of course, the UK system of broadcast regulation is not without its flaws but the idea that journalism, for example, should adhere to rules of impartiality as well as taste and decency does at least meet minimal societal expectations that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. It’s hardly anathema.

This is not an ideal that Morgan readily embraces, which is why he is best suited to the newspaper scene where anything goes – or GB News, which will not be ‘shouty, angry TV’ shouted chairman Andrew Neil, angrily. It will be ‘anti-Woke’, which would also seem to suit Morgan, and we should expect to see him there very soon.

There are circumstances in which this imposition of basic civility could conflict with the right to speak freely. Yet, the impact on free speech of this restriction is not strikingly problematic. It is not, as if, the obligations that Ofcom imposes on broadcasters suppresses specific ideas.

For example, if Ofcom or, more troublingly, the government were to ban – oh, I don’t know, let’s say, the teaching of anti-capitalist ideas to children then, obviously, we should all be concerned about the health of free speech. Thankfully, though, we can rest assured that our vigilant press would not stand for this sort of authoritarianism and would immediately demand that that government resign.

Yet Morgan’s dismissal (if it was that) was not because he expressed controversial political ideas or because he held power to account. It was for callous, ignorant comments about mental health – comments that he has since repeated without remorse. His free speech claims are, I’m afraid, a poor attempt at whitewashing. They are the empty words of a brash, callous man whose insensitivity to others is matched only by his own oversensitivity.

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