Free Speech for Media Elites
14 March 2023
Gary Lineker will be back on the BBC on Saturday. After tweeting that the UK’s proposed immigration policy had something in common with the policies of 1930s Germany, he joined a slew of liberals comparing everything they don’t like to fascism. Eventually he took the weekend off in a semi-enforced state of protest against disciplinary action for impartiality before the BBC kowtowed to pressure from online influencers and social media swathes, promised to put Gary back on and decided to review its policy.
Free speech appeared to win out, but in fact the incident shows us that the concept of free speech has been completely lost in a left/right struggle and that traditional rules are being replaced by the flippant values of the raw market. We need both free speech and impartiality, but the incident shows that we don’t have either.
The coverage of the BBC-Lineker incident on the so called ‘right’ and ‘left’ media is telling. Not unpredictably, outlets such as GB News and TalkTV complained about Lineker’s tweet and asked for his dismissal, railing against the leftist tendency to associate everything with fascism and stressing that the tweet was a breach of journalistic impartiality standards.
On the other side of things, apparently leftist media outlets like Novara Media promptly came to the defence of Lineker, arguing (as Aaron Bastani did) that the tweet ought to be permissible because the views expressed in it were accurate critiques of the British government. For the Novara people, if the tabloids would only stop disagreeing with them we could cut the ribbon on the socialist utopia we’ve always wanted. Even Kier Starmer jumped on the free speech bandwagon for this one.
To cut a long story short: those who agreed with the tweet wanted it to be ‘free’ and criticised its regulation and those who disagreed with it wanted it and its sender to be cancelled. In this case, the traditional free speech advocates on TalkTV had swapped places with the scrutinous judgment panel on Novara. Had the tweet been for rather than against the immigration bill, the ‘left’ and ‘right’ would have not needed to invert roles.
But the ease with which the inversion was possible puts free speech in a difficult position: we only see it defended by those who agree with the content of the speech itself. To give a quick answer to why we need spaces of free speech and why we might need to defend it in principle and not only when we agree with the content of the speech in question, we might give a mini-reading of Lineker’s tweet using psychoanalytic ideas of free association.
Practicing therapists of all kinds obviously know the importance of having spaces of free speech. In the practice of free association, the patient speaks freely and makes connections between two elements, revealing a bond between them that is often unconscious (formally unknown to the subject speaking). This bond reveals something about the structure of the subject’s thinking. In these moments, Freud says, “concealed purposive ideas assume control of the current of ideas” taking over from the conscious mind’s organization of ideas. In other words, we learn something about ourselves.
In Lineker’s tweet, the two elements associated in a bond are the current Conservative government and an idea of Weimar Germany, which he presumably studied as an O-Level student (four of which he actually passed) at City of Leicester Boys' Grammar School in the mid 60s. When Lineker’s unconscious takes over, he reduces complex questions of contemporary immigration rules to oppositional categories learned from high school, using fragmented memories of the most evil possible period in history (here playing the role of ‘the one thing we can all agree on’), to allow complexity to be reduced to black and white thinking. Unsurprisingly, many Jewish commentators opposed the tweet - being as they are conscious of the complexity of the elements in Lineker’s free association bond.
It is common to suffer from the same unconscious impulse to deny complexity and contradiction in favour of simple opposition and Lineker is not alone either in this or in reverting to this historical reference point, which is very much the free association du jour. It might even be that there's something dangerously fascist - even more so than in the Tory immigration policy - in this tendency that Lineker's tweet embodies.
We might say, then, that the value of free speech in the Lineker tweet is that it shows us some of the limitations with our unconscious thinking – as free association in a therapeutic context might do. Indeed, these moments aren’t specific to the analyst’s couch: pubs, cafes and playgrounds would traditionally host these kinds of conversation in abundance. Defending their importance has nothing to do with whether we agree with the content of the speech: it’s rather a question of whether we can learn from the utterances being allowed to happen.
But if there is a space for free association and for free speech, there is also a need for spaces of impartiality. If one marker of historic change shown by the Lineker incident is the failure of either the left or the right to formally support free speech, another is the erosion of traditional forms of regulation and control in favour of the open marketplace of public opinion. The incident shows clearly the traditional arbiter of journalistic integrity in the form of the BBC fail to assert its position – and eventually agree to review it – in response to perceived public popular opinion to the contrary.
We might at a stretch connect this to moments where public opinion was used to pressure the legal system to do more in relation to #MeToo or to pressure police institutions to take incidents of brutality more seriously, but there is a difference here because in those cases the pressure is on the system to follow its own rules (when it often too lax about doing so) whereas here it was to contravene them.
At the heart of that difference is that the values being supported by public opinion originate precisely there: from public opinion itself. To make another playful psychoanalytic reading, we might say that they are the values of the hysteric rather than the values of the master. The BBC controller asserting impartiality and punitively treating those who fail to conform would represent, even in its failure, a kind of fidelity to the principle of impartiality as such, regardless of the content of the transgression. The old masters kept the same rules and stuck to them. On the contrary, the hysteric constantly changes the content in the position of privilege and leaves us with nothing but the changing tide of public opinion – itself little more than a reflection of the market forces of capital – as the guide for our social values.
More importantly, the lobbying force in this instance were not the 'mob' of overall public opinion in the UK (half of whom would support the immigration bill and therefore qualify as Nazis in Lineker's formulation) but a small group of media elites and Twitter users (who are in total just over 15% of the population) who clubbed together to apply pressure on the BBC. In the end the BBC showed its lack of impartiality in its willingness to come in line with the media elites and readjust (in policy as well as in practice) with the current prevailing opinions among media elites and the market.
In all this, impartiality and free speech are shown to persist but only when the content of the utterances is in line with the discourse of the prevailing media elites and the market values of the moment. As principles, both free speech and impartiality are under huge threat from the hysterical markets of capital.
Alfie Bown is Editor of Sublation Magazine.