Balancing the right to free speech with the imperative to confront hate speech is a huge challenge. It is less of an issue in uno-duce-una-voce autocracies or countries where a tradition of violent transition is established, if not revered, in the national mythology. In this country, for many years, conflicting interests faced off over Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, which precluded broadcasters from interviewing representatives of terrorists.
That law, lest the car-bombers-as-civil-rights-workers revisionists suggest otherwise, prevented the broadcasting of “any matter that could be calculated to promote the aims or activities of any organisation which engages in, promotes, encourages, or advocates the attaining of any particular objectives by violent means”. Participatory democracy, so long a dream for the great majority of people in this country, was encouraged and defended.
The issue is gathering urgency, as right-wing agitators use fear and hate to advance their ambitions. How could it not, when the president of America can say that, after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville where a woman was murdered: “I think there is blame on both sides... but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.” That must encourage the “lone wolves” who find affirmation on the dark web.
It has been suggested that the Christchurch killer, Brendon Tarrant, who murdered 50 people at prayer last Friday, was motivated by material found online, which, if published by traditional media, would provoke outrage. Tarrant joins a sorry but toxic list that includes Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik, who killed nearly 80 people in July 2011. Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh killed at least 168 people in April 1995.
He was executed in 2001. That blood-letting continued when, in June, 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine people during a prayer service in South Carolina. White supremacists have their equivalents in other cultures. Abu Hamza, the infamous Finsbury Park imam, who preached militant Islamism, was jailed for inciting violence and racial hatred. He was extradited to the US, where he is in jail without the possibility of parole.
These are the tip of the hate iceberg, and it is easy to deal with them. It is far more difficult to deal with those who use societies’ commitment to protecting the right of free speech to undermine those societies. Tarrant’s compatriots may have shown the way. Australia’s government has cancelled a visa of far-right agitator Milo Yiannopoulos. His comments about Islam in the wake of Christchurch were “appalling and foment hatred and division”, said the government and immediately banned him.
That was a direct, justified rejection of hate speech. The far more difficult question is how to deal with the likes of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka Tommy Robinson. The same question must apply to elements of Nigel Farage’s Brexit ‘march’. Many marchers may be sincere, but to imagine that racism is absent is to be so naive as to believe that St Patrick drove all the snakes from Ireland.
The goalposts have moved on this issue, principally because of unfettered online poisoning, so it is time for a new attitude, a new, intolerant assertiveness in the face of intolerance. Gloves off.