Free speech and the British press
in The free speech wars
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The chapter provides a brief overview of how the British press has used ‘free speech’ as a rhetorical weapon to justify its activities. The popular daily press and the ‘tabloid style’ emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, steadily altering the character of high-brow titles as well. This new ‘popular culture’ was largely directed by the press barons and their favoured journalists. Their views combined belief in the market with nationalism/imperialism. The press barons presented themselves as challenging power, supported by instances such as their contestation of state censorship during the First World War. They also gave space to some surprisingly progressive material, with Adrian Bingham having documented content about gender and sexuality that challenged traditionalist views. However, more oppressive trends that have persisted to the present predominated, such as jingoism, the scapegoating of minorities, and the enforcement of conservative moral codes. Meanwhile, sections of the press utilised titillation and softcore pornography, while also prying into people’s private lives. These are combined in the MailOnline’s ‘side-bar of shame’, while journalists’ snooping has veered into illegality. Newspapers have long used the rhetoric of free speech to justify themselves, and as a means of staving off proposed regulation. Recent high-profile issues such as phone hacking and greater condemnation of discriminatory content (aided by social media) has put the press on the defensive. Combined with the enduring conservative character of the British media, many journalists have thus eagerly assumed positions as self-styled guardians of free speech, appropriating terminology from the current wider culture war.

The free speech wars

How did we get here and why does it matter?


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