Tuesday, February 21, 2006

It's Not Been a Good Month for Freedom of Speech

In 1996, a British judge described David Irving as a holocaust denier, anti-Semite and racist after he lost a libel case he had brought himself. This all looked pretty fair to me. This week, Irving said he now accepted that the holocaust did happen after all. I have to say I am totally unconvinced by this change of heart which looks like an attempt to placate an Austrian judge. It didn't work and Irving was sentenced to three years in jail. Austria is a country with a seriously horrible skeleton in the closet. While it has successfully made out that World War II was all Germany's fault, the Austrians were enthusiastic allies. Worse, fascism is still popular and racism endemic. A couple of years ago a neo-Fascist party was even elected to join the government. Austria has long had a live and let live attitude to the multitude of Nazi war criminals that lived there. It is ironic that their only recent attempt to combat domestic fascism has been to imprison a British nut case. To liberals like me, this hypocrisy simply underlines Austria's credentials as the most fascist state in Europe.

Freedom of speech is a misunderstood concept. We actually do not need freedom of speech to say uncontentious things like the holocaust happened or poverty is bad. The freedom exists so that people can say things that are outrageous, offensive, wrong and abhorrent. A freedom that only applies to people who don't need to use it is pointless. Free speech is rapidly dying in Europe. Let me be clear that I do defend the right of people to make blasphemous or religiously offensive comments. I also have the right to argue stridently against the people doing so.

The problem with being a liberal is not that you have to defend the likes of Irving. Instead, it is being accused of defending him when you are only trying to defend rights that took centuries to achieve. Unless the media wake up soon, they will find that their freedom will have been eroded far more than they realised.

Scarely less craven is the British government's silence. If an old Stalinist was imprisoned in a far away country for denying the Ukrainian famine, all hell would break loose. But because they think Irving is beneath contempt (and let's face it, he is), freedom of speech can go to hell. Actually, the UK has just made glorifying terrorism a criminal offence. This is a stupid law and strongly suggests that fascism has even crept into the UK Labour Party.

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