After Woolwich, don’t ban hate speech, counter it. Hate it, too

Facing Islamist violence, the British home secretary, like her counterparts in Europe, wrongly reaches for censorship The home secretary, Theresa May. ‘What May proposes is impractical, illiberal, short-sighted and counter-productive.’

 

In response to the vile murder of a British soldier by two Islamist extremists armed with meat cleavers, the home secretary, Theresa May, has suggested a broadcasting ban on people who hold “disgusting views” and the pre-censorship of online hate speech. We face a real threat of violence here, as do other European countries. Another Islamist extremist was arrested in France and has admitted to stabbing a French soldier. But this is not the way to reduce that threat. What May proposes is impractical, illiberal, short-sighted and counter-productive. It would curb a vital freedom without enhancing our security. Her suggestion should be consigned to the dustbin of hysteria.

 

The home secretary will reply that she wants to place the blocking duty not with her own bureaucratic enforcers but with Ofcom, the public regulator of broadcasting. But now a state regulator is to pre-censor editorial content, at the bidding of an interior minister, in the name of defending public security and fighting terrorism?

 

May’s proposed ban is impractical. If it didn’t work in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher tried to stop Sinn Féin/IRA spokespeople breathing the “oxygen of publicity” on terrestrial television, how much less will it work today – when publicity-hungry Islamist provocateurs like Anjem Choudary can just go off and post their videos on YouTube. So, says our knee-jerk home secretary, we should consider getting Google and YouTube, as well as the broadcasters, to block such footage in advance. Now not everything that Google does is good, whether on tax, competition or privacy, but to impose on it the editorial obligation to pre-screen everything going up on YouTube would destroy something incredibly valuable: an unprecedented ability to speak directly to one another, across oceans and continents.

No, the way to fight these preachers of violent extremism is not to ban them but to take them on, in every medium. Editorial judgments must be made – by editors, not by interior ministers.