It’s hardly news to say that the Conservative party is becoming increasingly authoritarian and despotic, from the recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which drastically restricts the legal right to protests, to recent proposals to reform the Official Secrets Act, which would mean journalists might face 14-year jail sentences for ‘embarrassing’ the government.
Now, the Tory party has rarely had a flourishing relationship with the arts: always deemed too left wing, too liberal. But several recent examples are—and this word has been used a lot of late, usually erroneously—practically Orwellian.
Accusations of censorship are thrown around far too readily nowadays, yet a recent example in Essex is a stark reminder of the realities of creative censorship. ‘An English Garden’, a work by Gabriella Hirst, was on display in Shoeburyness as part of the Estuary 2021 arts festival. “The project is centred on the propagation and redistribution of a nearly-extinct species of garden rose which was created and registered under the name Rosa floribunda ‘Atom Bomb’ in 1953.”
“An English Garden speculates upon possible links between the British Imperial programme of ‘gardening the world’, the enduring impact of nuclear colonialism, and the political symbolism of plants,” Hirst explains on the festival’s website. This is part of an ongoing critical research project by Hirst investigating Britain’s nuclear history.
In 1952, Britain’s first atomic device was assembled on Foulness, close to the Essex coast; the bomb was sent to and detonated on the Monte Bello Islands, off the coast of northwest Australia. “This was the beginning of Britain’s devastating testing of nuclear weapons on Indigenous lands at Maralinga and Emu Field in so-called Australia,” she writes.
But Conservative Southend Councillors objected to this stating of facts. Southend Council is currently run by a coalition of Labour, Independent, and Liberal Democrat councillors, although the Conservative party have the most seats. The controversy played out on social media, with Hirst writing on Instagram: “These individuals (one of whom is a former UKIP Councillor) took issue with a plaque included in the work, which critically reflected upon Britain’s nuclear history and colonial legacy—that is, instead of celebrating Britain’s nuclear capabilities, the work highlighted Britain’s devastating nuclear tests on Indigenous Lands in Australia during the 1950s and 60s. We were given a 48 hour ultimatum to remove the work.”
Southend-based artist charity The Old Waterworks (TOW), which hosted Hirst, issued a statement: “History is not simply a celebratory fanfare and it is everyone’s right to be able to explore the nuances of this shared history and how it has ongoing impacts today… Art is meant to spark debate, provoke thought and encourage new ways of seeing the world, it should not be shut down because what it proposes does not align with the views of individuals, particularly when based on extensive research and historical facts.”
When a country reaches the point where stating facts is deemed a “far left wing attack,” one has to worry about what comes next. However, I wonder—hopefully, perhaps naively—if the councillors’ actions may contribute to an example of the Streisand effect, “the act of trying to suppress information but simply making it more widespread as a result.” Certainly, I wouldn’t have come across Hirst’s work if it weren’t for this outrageous censorship campaign. More people might now be exposed to the issues raised in this artwork—as well as the fact that Tory politicians believe threats of a malicious smear campaign against public artwork are fair game in 2021. I thought they were on a drive for more free speech, not less.
Similarly, there was a police raid on an East London warehouse, the Hoxton Docks, which was hosting the annual Antepavilion architecture commission. They were involved, tangentially, with Extinction Rebellion, whose members had been attending workshops there. The target was a structure erected on the roof entitled ‘All Along the Watchtower’, “a reusable, lightweight tensegrity” structure constructed of bamboo poles and steel cables. The piece was designed by Project Bunny Rabbit, a collective who had previously built towers for Extinction Rebellion—seemingly the bane of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s existence—and the intended target of the raid.
The group were preparing for their Free The Press march on Sunday 27 June, which took aim at the four media moguls who own the majority of British newspapers: Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, Sir Frederick Barclay, and Baron Evgeny Lebedev. Police believed further “tensegrity” structures would be used as part of the protests.
Chief Inspector Joe Stokoe, from the Met police’s public order command, said: “We believe certain protest groups are specifically intending to disrupt some business locations or potentially cause criminal damage to property.” Extinction Rebellion responded by saying that the raid “had uncovered only activists making art.”
Nuala Gathercole Lam, from Extinction Rebellion UK, said: “This is what happens when you take peaceful protest action to the true centres of power in this country… The media moguls’ fear of four people making art in an East London warehouse suggests they know they cannot withstand public scrutiny.”
“We are an architecture prize,” added Russell Gray, the owner of the canal-side complex who was arrested. “We weren’t prepared to become a propaganda tool for these Extinction Rebellion people.” He added: “We support the erection of the structure, the workshop, training people to do construction and craftsmanship. It doesn’t extend to any endorsement of Extinction Rebellion, on whom I’m neutral at best.”
Large swathes of the Conservative party, it would seem, are not only trying to make themselves immune to criticism: they want to free themselves from the very possibility of criticism. And that criticism doesn’t even have to target the party themselves—wealthy donors or their twisted, ignorant approach to British history will suffice. It’s outrageous—and likely to continue.
Less than a week ago, shortly after CCTV footage of Matt Hancock making out with his secret girlfriend was released by The Sun, officials from the UK’s data watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office raided two homes and seized computers as part of an investigation into the leak. Fast forward to yesterday, 20 July, when it was revealed that journalists’ investigations—into matters of public interest—could be treated as spying under planned reforms to the UK’s Official Secrets Act.
If you’re not sure what that means exactly, let me clarify: Priti Patel, along with the rest of the UK government, is currently working on one of the biggest attacks on press freedom. Why? Because instead of not doing the ‘embarrassing’ things that are exposed through journalism, they’d much prefer to keep on doing them behind closed doors while making sure they don’t get out in the open.
And how exactly can they stop journalists from disclosing their dirty little secrets? By threatening to treat them in the same way as those who commit espionage offences. Oh, and did I mention that those journalists could be jailed for up to 14 years? Welcome to George Orwell’s 1984 sequel, 2021. Let’s crack on, shall we?
For a while now, the Home Office has been working on implementing harsher and more extensive secrecy laws that would have the effect of deterring sources, editors and reporters by making them potentially subject to uncontrolled official bans not approved by a court, and punished much more severely if they do not comply. About two months ago, while most of us were busy discussing other hair-raising news, a government consultation went under the radar. “Although portrayed as countering hostile activity by state actors, the new laws would, if passed, ensnare journalists and sources whose job is reporting ‘unauthorised disclosures’ that are in the public interest,” writes The Guardian.
As soon as this consultation that claimed that press disclosures can be worse than spying, because the work of a foreign spy “will often only be to the benefit of a single state or actor” popped up, guess who endorsed it in no time? Priti Patel, obviously.
Calling for parliament to consider “increased maximum sentences,” the Home Office is basically trying to prove that there is no distinction in severity “between espionage and the most serious unauthorised disclosures,” including “onward disclosure” in the press. It claims that journalism could even create “far more serious damage” than a spy. Yet the 66-page document does not mention “journalism” once, and refers only to “onward disclosure… without authorisation.” Same thing, but hidden.
What you probably didn’t know is that the whole process behind these new laws actually began in 2016 when the Law Commission—a statutory body that reviews the law in England and Wales—started work on “protecting official data,” claiming reforms were needed “to bring the law into the 21st century.” Changes were, supposedly, justified because of the ability of “hostile states” to conduct cyber-attacks and because the potential impact of spying and leaks had increased. That doesn’t sound too bad, but wait—it gets worse.
Initial proposals by the commission in 2017 did not attract much attention until an article in The Register pointed out that the proposals would put leaking and whistleblowing in the same category as spying for foreign powers—and that UK leakers and journalists could face the same extended jail sentences as foreign agents. Sentences would apply even if the leaker was not British, nor in Britain, or was acting in the public interest. After the article was published, an avalanche of criticism from NGOs, the press and media organisations followed. As a result, public consultation was extended.
Slowed further by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Law Commission published revised proposals last autumn, which have now just been scrapped by the Home Office as not “the right balance in this area.” The introduction of a public interest defence available to anyone, including journalists, was discarded. Instead, here’s what it has to propose.
The idea that any leaking of the government’s private matters could be in the public interest should not be possible, it states. Forget about whistleblower protection, and even forget about the argument that they acted in the public interest. One of the main changes is to widen the scope for prosecutions. “For public servants,” according to proposals, “offences should not continue to require proof of damage, as is currently the case. Instead, they should require proof of a sufficiently culpable mental state, by which we mean, for example, proof of the defendant’s knowledge or belief that the disclosure would cause damage.” I bet Dominic Cummings is shaking in his boots right about now.
“Maximum prison sentences that could be imposed on publishers or sources—currently two years under the Official Secrets Act for unauthorised disclosures—would be multiplied to an unspecified higher level,” adds The Guardian. Other publications mention that the Home Office looked at whether sentences should be increased from two to a new maximum of 14 years, just so you can get an idea of how long we’re talking about here.
In the consultation document, the government goes on to claim that anyone deciding whether to put information in the public domain, including whistleblowers in government or journalists who may have been handed information, would “rarely (if ever) be able to accurately judge whether the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs the risks against disclosure.”
While it remains partly unclear exactly how the laws will allow the UK government to prosecute individuals behind ‘smaller leaks’ such as Matt Hancock’s affair—would that qualify as an unnecessary embarrassment for them or one that isn’t in the public interest?—it’s crucial we highlight the fact that simply threatening to jail whistleblowers and journalists is an attack on freedom of speech regardless.
Responses to the new proposals are being sought by 22 July. If editors, journalists and advocates of freedom of speech and press do not highlight the danger these represent, we might truly see the UK turn into a 1984-esque nation.