The public's willingness to back more authoritarian measures has been a constant feature throughout the pandemic. Poll after poll for the past 17 months has suggested strong support for tough restrictions, sanctions, deterrents and lockdowns – perhaps not a surprise in a country where a third of voters backed the use of live ammunition against the 2011 rioters. But is such authoritarianism now bleeding into the cultural sphere too?
A new poll for The Spectator conducted by Redfield and Wilton reveals that some 40 per cent of the public would support the government censoring books with content that it deems 'sexist, homophobic, or racist'. Of the 1,500 surveyed, only 30 per cent would oppose this, with 29 per cent either neutral on the proposal or 'don’t know'. Steerpike wonders what the reaction would be if Salman Rushdie was to publish his controversial work The Satanic Verses today.
Slightly more back private companies carrying out the role of judging what is and is not acceptable, with 42 per cent in support of publishers 'coming together to censor books with content that they deem sexist, homophobic, or racist.' Less than a third of voters – 30 per cent – would oppose this, with again 29 per cent uncertain or neutral on the issue. Sixty years after the Lady Chatterley's Lover verdict, are the British public now abandoning its support for the right to offend?
With today's news that online trolling is to become a criminal offence in the week of last week's Euros final, it's no surprise to see such attitudes harden when the same questions are asked of tech firms. Asked whether social media companies should censor content that they deem sexist, homophobic, or racist, a majority – 62 per cent – would support this, with 18 per cent opposed – and 21 per cent either 'neither support or oppose' or don’t know. One for Facebook, Twitter et al to consider what with the Online Harms Bill currently making its way through Parliament.
These attitudes are not merely confined to new media however. More than half the public – 57 per cent – agreed that television regulator Ofcom should have 'greater powers to fine broadcasters who make comments that Ofcom deems offensive.' By contrast 23 per cent would neither support nor oppose the proposal, just 12 per cent would oppose it, and 7 per cent don’t know. Watch out Piers Morgan.
Interestingly, while the public do (narrowly) back the state being involved in such questions as to what is and is not acceptable, there appears to be a dislike of politicians being involved in the so-called 'culture war' issues. Just over half – 51 per cent – claimed the 'government should stay neutral' when asked: 'Thinking about the Government’s involvement in societal debates such as over ‘taking the knee’ before football matches, which of the following comes closest to your view?' Under a third – 29 per cent – believe it should take a 'favourable stance' and a mere 8 per cent said it should take an 'unfavourable stance.'
One for those Tory strategists to reflect on, perhaps.