Brendan O’Neill

Novara Media was cancelled by a culture it helped to create

Novara Media was cancelled by a culture it helped to create
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Something stirring happened online yesterday. People rushed to the defence of a media outlet they dislike. In the name of standing up for freedom of speech, political differences were put aside and the case was clearly made that even people we passionately disagree with must be at liberty to speak and publish. This was freedom of speech in action. People of all political persuasions rallied together to demand ‘freedom for the thought we hate’.

The outlet in question is Novara Media. When YouTube temporarily suspended Novara’s channel, it wasn’t just the middle-class millennial Corbynistas who make up the bulk of its viewership who rushed to its defence. So did many centrists, right-wingers and what we might call ‘proper’ leftists (the ones who, unlike Novara, prefer class politics to identity politics and don’t think you should be strapped to a stake for thinking people with penises are men). As we put it at Spiked, ‘Free speech is for cringey pseuds, too’.

This is what freedom of speech is all about – defending liberty even for your opponents. As Noam Chomsky once put it: ‘Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.’

This is Freedom 101. If you want to enjoy for yourself the liberty to think and speak as you see fit, then you must rage against every encroachment upon that liberty, even when the target is someone you disagree with or loathe. Don’t even think about engaging in schadenfreude when people you despise are censored. Because it is only by defending freedom for all, by strengthening the culture of freedom across society, that we can feel confident of our own right to express ourselves. In defending free speech for Novara Media, we defend it for ourselves, too.

But here’s the thing. Imagine if it had been the other way round. Imagine if, say, Guido Fawkes, much loathed by the radical left, had its YouTube account suspended. Would there have been as noisy an outpouring of concern from the radical left as there was from conservatives and anti-identitarian leftists when Novara was fleetingly disappeared? We all know the answer to this question. Of course there wouldn’t have been.

We know this because Big Tech has been engaging in slippery forms of political censure and control for years now and there has been either silence or tacit approval from much of the radical left. Where was their concern when feminists like Meghan Murphy were permanently banned from Twitter for using male pronouns to refer to biological males? Or, indeed, when another British media outlet – talkRADIO – was likewise thrown off YouTube temporarily? Or, for that matter, when President Donald Trump, at the time still the sitting president of the United States, voted into office by 63m Americans, was unceremoniously turfed off Twitter and Facebook?

Typically, the response of the identitarian left to such scandalous acts of political censorship by unaccountable billionaires in Silicon Valley is to say: ‘Well, these are private platforms, so they’re well within their rights to refuse to host people they don’t like.’

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been in discussions with supposed radicals and they’ve said something like this. Marxists for property rights! This notion that private companies can do anything they like was behind the refusal to serve black people in the American South or the pre-feminist trend for sacking women the minute they got pregnant. It is genuinely bizarre to hear self-styled revolutionaries support the right of capitalist elites to assert so much control over people’s lives and speech rights.

And it has come right from the horse’s mouth. In June 2020, Gary McQuiggin, who works for Novara Media, tweeted: ‘It’s not censorship when a private company decides to remove you from it’s [sic] platform. You don’t have an inalienable right to a Twitter account.’ Private property rights, don’t you just love ’em? And yet yesterday, the very same Mr McQuiggin said: ‘Whether or not you agree with what we publish, it shouldn’t be the whim of giant tech companies to delete us overnight with no explanation.’ The cognitive dissonance is off the charts.

The truth is, Novara Media was cancelled by a culture that it helped to create. It temporarily fell victim to exactly what the radical left fuels and too often supports. For too long much of the left has backed no platforming and clampdowns on offensive speech. It has turned a blind eye to, or tacitly supported, the repulsive hounding of gender-critical feminists like Kathleen Stock. I’m sorry, but you cannot look the other way as people are pummelled for holding supposedly controversial views and then be shocked when the same pummelling comes for you.

Corbynistas are often wrongly referred to as Trots (please stop doing this, right-wingers! The woke politics of identity has nothing in common with Trotskyism). If only they would read some Trotsky. He, like so many other radical thinkers of the 20th and 19th centuries, recognised that censorship against people you dislike is always a politically suicidal act. If you strengthen ‘the repressive fist of the bourgeois state’, then one day those ‘repressive laws will be used against [you]’, he said in his 1938 essay on press freedom. Many on the left today have thus far failed to learn this most basic lesson of liberty. Will yesterday’s events finally open their eyes?