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The Hill Piers Morgan is Willing to Die On

When did ‘free speech’ mutate from a liberal pursuit into a tool for far-right hate speech?

On 10th March, Piers Morgan, with complete seriousness and without an inch of irony, posted a picture of Winston Churchill on Instagram in defence of free speech. That week, he had publicly called Meghan Markle a liar when she reflected on the impact that life with the Royals had on her mental health to Oprah. But he doesn’t buy it, simply, and he wants everyone to know.

Unfortunately for Morgan, it’s not just his co-hosts that wish he would shut up. After storming off Good Morning Britain on the Monday for daring to be questioned, Ofcom (UK’s communications regulator) had received 41,000 complaints by Tuesday evening, including one from the Duchess herself. ITV found itself in a sticky situation as the broadcaster’s Get Britain Talking mental health campaign is somewhat at odds with the presenter’s prickly views.

So Morgan ‘quit’. And naturally, he blames the snowflake generation and has taken this opportunity to remind his followers of the threat that liberals pose to ‘free speech’. 

His Instagram post reads:

On Monday, I said I didn’t believe Meghan Markle in her Oprah interview. I’ve had time to reflect on this opinion, and I still don’t. If you did, that’s OK. Freedom of speech is a hill I’m happy to die on. Thanks for all the love, and hate. I’m off to spend more time with my opinions.’

Here we are again: subtly and without much fanfare, the notion of ‘free speech’ has been used to normalise hateful rhetoric. It’s a technique that UKIP leader Nigel Farage also employs emphatically. In a recent Twitter post he heralded Alan Jones on Sky News for speaking ‘the truth’ about Meghan and Harry’s interview, tweeting ‘at least Australia still allows free speech’- a wave of salute to Morgan. Alan Jones was using his platform to share similarly disparaging comments about Meghan and cast doubt on the racist media coverage of her in the UK press. Defending ‘free speech’ is a technique used repeatedly to uphold and normalise hateful speech. In 2018, when Tommy Robinson – the former leader of far-right group the English Defense League – was banned from Twitter, thousands marched in the UK in defense of his ‘free speech’.

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Image: Penelope Barritt/REX/Shutterstock

Over the past decade, right-leaning persons have weaponized ‘free speech’ and framed it as a ‘crisis’ – a concept examined by author and journalist Nesrine Malik in her book, We Need New Stories. She argues, drawing attention to a ‘free speech crisis’ is actually a tactic to ‘normalise hate speech or shut down legitimate responses to it’. ‘The purpose of the [free speech crisis] myth is not to secure freedom of speech, that is, the right to express one’s opinions without censorship, restraint of legal penalty. The purpose is to secure license to speak with impunity; not freedom of expression, but rather freedom from the consequence of that expression.’

Four or five years ago, when Brexit was in full swing and Trump’s following had gained momentum, Morgan’s comments wouldn’t have caused such ripples. Although the normalisation of hate speech had been building for some time, we can regard Brexit and Trump in 2016 as a peak. Never before had such extremist views been given mainstream platforms. If Morgan had voiced his opinions about Meghan then they might have gone uncontested, simply reflective of other popular views in the media. 

However since then, two movements signify an important shift in public opinion. Me Too and Black Lives Matter are representative of countries that are willing and wanting to interrogate a society broken by political division. Division that is caused by increasingly polarised political parties, both in the US and the UK. Society has watched the last five years unfold and we are resolute in stopping history repeating itself. We’ve seen the impact that powerful ‘opinions’ can have. So, the public won’t stand for it anymore when people with power, like Morgan, abuse their position to spread words that are dangerous.

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Image: Stephen Lam/Reuters

Society has grown stronger in its fight against racism and prejudice, nonetheless the ‘free speech crisis myth’ is cunning.  It gives racists and homophobes a handy back pocket comeback. “Hey man,” they say, “free speech – you don’t have to like it, but I have a right to voice my opinion.” While the subtext reads: “A mainstreaming of what were once considered fringe political views by the far right means I will voice my hate speech and I demand to do so without objection.” A cloak of liberal and intellectual syntax works to hide blatant prejudice. Nonetheless, if Morgan’s downfall is anything to go by, society is growing ever smarter in bearing down on defenders of the ‘free speech crisis’ myth.

Now aware of this myth it’ll stick with you. The perpetuation of Malik’s ‘free speech crisis myth’ will be so blatant and obvious you won’t believe people fall for it. When it comes to Morgan, we’re thankful that his reign of error (as Jameela Jamil coins it) is over. You know what they say, opinions are like arseholes, everyone’s got ‘em. Personally, we’re glad Piers is off to spend more time with his. 

Lauren works in advertising at Contagious, a strategic consultancy and magazine that dissects the best creative outputs from around the world.You can follow her on Instagram at @pauren.lerry

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