Douglas Murray – our generation’s greatest defender of free expression?

(Image via Marco Bernardini on Flickr)

“If you cannot lampoon bad ideas it means you can only lampoon good ideas. If you must refrain from insulting targets which might harm you then you will be limited to only insulting targets which are harmless. The problem then is not simply that you let bad ideas get a free pass; it means bad ideas have the opportunity to win.”

 So wrote Douglas Murray in his passionate defence for free speech. Passionate, yet also hypocritical because Murray only defends free speech when it hurts minorities, not when it threatens power.

You may have come across Murray before on those light-weight political chat shows. With his perfect pronunciation and calm authority, he comes across as a serious intellectual force to be respected. But then we remember the context: these are light-weight political chat shows. It is not difficult to come across as a heavy hitting, respectable intellectual when it comes to these kinds of programmes. The reality is, when you listen a little closer, Murray is almost paper light when it comes to intellectual rigour.

Take his piece the above quote was taken from. Murray also writes:

“Simultaneously in the media there are supporters of the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden who portray his theft and dissemination of thousands of British and American national security secrets in such a light. At very few times in history would freedom of expression and the “freedom” to steal vast swathes of secret government information and then dump it in such a fashion that only enemies of the state could gain from it have been confused. But they are widely confused here, and it represents only a portion of the mix-up.”

And this is where Murray’s shakey ground reveals itself. We can have freedom of expression when it comes to insulting Muslims and their “bad ideas” but when it comes to the state and its “bad ideas” there are limits. Where these bad ideas threaten individual liberty, they must be defended rather than exposed. The limits of freedom expression must be determined by our security services, who should be free to constrain any expression that seeks to undermine the state surveillance network.

Back when Snowden’s revelations came to light, Murray was critical of the papers that published details of the information exposed by Snowden. In one article, Murray asserted that the editorial team at The Guardian, including Alan Rusbridger, were either “grossly negligent” or “worse than criminal”. That’s too say that, according to Murray, publishing a story about a bad idea and criticising this bad idea was “criminal ” which seems at odds with his proclaimed belief in the absolute values of freedom of expression.

The problem with Murray is that he defines freedom of expression in very narrow terms. It is ok to ridicule Muslims or to publicly criticise their faith and belief system (Muslims are a frequent target for Murray), but is not OK to expose the state and state actors to the same standard. For Murray, we must not be permitted to either expose or criticise state activity that threatens our civil liberties. Some “bad ideas” get a free pass. For Murray it’s the “bad ideas” of the powerful that warrant a free pass. If we reduce freedom of expression to only being able to criticise and ridicule the powerless rather than the powerful, then that is no freedom at all.