Friday, June 2, 2017

Freedom of Opinion (1940)

From the December 1940 issue of the Socialist Standard

On November 18th Mussolini made a speech to the Italian Fascist Party in which he claimed that the Italian war bulletins were truthful and fair statements of Italian as well as British war losses.

Commenting on this speech in its editorial for November 19th, the Daily Express compares the position of the Press in this country with its position in Italy and Germany and Russia, quite rightly pointing out how impossible it is for any criticism of the Government to obtain publicity in the latter three countries.

We know quite well that the dictatorships owe much of their success to lies and the suppression of opinion, but how do we stand here in that respect? The Daily Express says: —
   The difference between Axis truth and British truth is this—that in Britain we still retain means of proving whether a statement is true or not. Our free Press and unfettered Parliament have a real part in our war effort.
Is this statement in strict accordance with the facts? Of course it isn’t. The Press is only free to criticise up to a certain very limited point. If it says anything that can be construed into an impeding of the war effort it does so at the risk of prosecution under very definite and plainly-worded war measures, and this whether the criticism be based on truth or falsehood. It is also within the power of the Government to suppress any newspaper or periodical it considers a hindrance to the successful carrying on of the war, as it has already demonstrated in particular instances.

Free opinion fares no better as the action taken by, for example, certain local councils in penalising employees who are conscientious objectors, has frequently made dear. And this has "occurred in instances where the tribunals appointed by the Government to examine the cases have, by their findings, expressed themselves as satisfied with the sincerity of the people concerned.

Now, either the Daily Express is playing, on a minor scale, the same tune as Mussolini, or, like the ostrich, it is burying its head in the sand.

In its issue of November 20th the Daily Express published an article on the Indian labour leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, by Edward Thompson, in which that writer argues that Nehru is not even a pacifist but is favourable to the British war attitude and would support it if India were invited to participate with Britain as a “comrade.” Yet Nehru has been sent to four years' rigorous imprisonment for “making speeches tending to obstruct India’s war effort.”

In the Stop Press News column of the same issue of the Daily Express as the one containing the article on Nehru, there is an extract from a speech by Mr. Herbert Morrison, who, referring to Mr. Kennedy, the American Ambassador, said: —
   I was delighted to learn of his repudiation of authenticity of interview. . . . He had seen this country clinging, even in the midst of a life and death struggle, to essentials of its historic practice of free speech and free writing.
A curious comment on this is a statement made in an article by Edward Hutton in the "World Review” for November. Here is what he wrote:—
  “The appointment of Mr. Herbert Morrison has given much satisfaction. He is, after all, a much more sympathetic figure than the pompous Anderson, who was the worst type of character to be Home Secretary during a time when it is obviously necessary temporarily to curtail the liberty of the people.”
On this point it is worth while recalling the words of a writer of nearly a hundred years ago— P. E. Dove. In his “Theory of Human Progression,” published in 1859, Dove put the position in a nutshell when he wrote: —
    Freedom of speech, and of public speech, and in any number of speakers and auditors, is one of the first essentials of true liberty. Wherever it is not enjoyed, liberty is a shadow and tyranny is a substance.
However, it may be conceded that if the conditions stated by Dove were allowed to exist it would be impossible for any government to prosecute war successfully.

Of course, what the Daily Express really means when it speaks of "our free Press” is that, providing one is in favour of carrying on the war one may criticise the conduct of those appointed to do this work, again providing that such criticism is not prejudicial to its successful prosecution. And there are many pitfalls into which the well-intentioned may fall, as the Daily Express has had occasion to show in its columns in more than one instance.

This strikes us as a very provisional kind of freedom of the Press.

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