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Andrew Lewer MBE MEP is a Conservative MEP for the East Midlands who supported the Vote Leave campaign in the referendum. He is a former Leader of Derbyshire County Council.

In my time as an MEP it has frequently come as a surprise to me how so many EU regulations affect so much in public policy, business and people’s daily lives. They continue to do so: all the new EU laws passed while we are still members – even after Article 50 is invoked – go straight into UK law.

The names that EU regulations and directives have often help to disguise their significance. It is at this point that I must urge you to read beyond the name of the one I am reflecting upon in this article: The Audio Visual Media Services Directive (‘AVMS’). Not interesting? Hold on!

Control of videos on social media. The future of commercial television. How many advertisements you are allowed to watch. What percentage of European content must be on your television channels – and potentially anything you watch on demand. Maybe even the nature of free speech online. That is what we are talking about with AVMS and potential large scale changes to it are currently being debated at the European Parliament.

As Lead Member for the Conservatives on this I am doing my best to influence the outcome.

For all his many achievements, one of the things RA ‘Rab’ Butler is best known for is his description of politics as ‘the art of the possible’; it was indeed the title of his autobiography. I found positive examples of this in my time as a County Council Leader but feel I encounter less positive ones as an MEP. On-going work on the AVMS illustrates this well

I could state my principles on the subjects AVMS covers (and those colleagues seek to extend it into), I could only put in amendments that exactly reflect those principles. I could go on to only vote in favour of those parts of the legislation that wholly match my and my Group’s views (likely to be small in number). As a result of this I could then vote against the proposals as a whole.

Or: I could attempt to trim and ameliorate the current proposals and accept parts I am not entirely happy with in return for  getting rid of – or toning down significantly – elements that would be detrimental to British interests or contrary (in my view) to British values.
Unless the debate in the Culture and Education Committee goes seriously off course I shall incline to the latter course, because at least that way some of our problems with the legislation can be snipped off, rather than none (but with me feeling righteous for not having had anything to do with it).

I am conscious of breaking the epigram often (incorrectly actually, but no matter) attributed to Bismarck in my describing the legislative procedure above, “… the making of laws is like the making of sausages – the less you know about the process the more you respect the result”.

However, some of the issues at stake are sufficiently important – some commercially, some on principle – to merit it. We also need to bear in mind that although post-Brexit we could simply repeal elements of AVMS we do not like, in reality it will not be that simple. With so many other reforms and repeals clamouring for attention we could find a revised AVMS being, to coin a phrase, at the back of the queue; we could thus be stuck with it for many years.

There are technical concerns about the revisions to AVMS to be considered, such as:

  • Product placement and sponsorship
  • Advertisement break limits
  • Whether embedded videos in non-television channels (like on-line newspapers) should be regulated by AVMS
  • Whether a required percentage of ‘European content’ in our television programming (currently 50 per cent for linear television) should  also apply to on-demand services like Netflix, and to what extent
  • The ability of Member States to charge non-home broadcasters levies

All are significant. All could merit further discussion here. Beyond them, however, is a deeper concern and that is the desire of many MEPs to define and regulate ‘hate speech’ in AVMS, which I am concerned not to see get out of hand. Wider still, they illustrate a danger in British society generally, regardless of Brexit.

Being against ‘hate speech’ sounds laudable, indeed incontestable, but it can lead – inadvertently or otherwise – to censorship. It leads to questions about who determines what ‘hate speech’ is. There are those in public life who would proscribe all manner of jokes, non-“PC” comments and certain opinions that they affect to find ‘offensive’ to such an extent that we would struggle to feel that free speech really still existed.

Free speech is essentially accepting that people are free to say things we do not like, not merely ‘free’ to say the things we do like. Should these be ‘offensive’ then they can be tackled via forthright debate. Indeed, debating ideas in a public forum makes it harder for those ideas to be formed as an individual insult and a public debate provides the target of offence with a rebuttal.

To me the British way is not to ban the burka but neither is it a ban on people saying they wished others did not wear it or even that in their view doing so is detrimental to a cohesive society. To me the British way is not to ban racists, it is to allow them to appear on television and be challenged. Look what happened to Nick Griffin and the BNP after he went on ‘Question Time’.

I fear we are veering towards placing the freedom not to be offended (or at least for certain people not to be offended) above freedom of speech. Vigilance against the ‘offendotrons’ is needed, as brilliantly described by Australian writer Helen Dale recently.

Notwithstanding AVMS, if we are moving away from European concepts of the law defining what you ARE allowed to say then it is my hope that we do not replace them with excessive control of our ownAn. That instead we seek inspiration from the first amendment of the constitution of the United States, a document itself inspired by our 1689 Bill of Rights and our Magna Carta of 1215.

52 comments for: Andrew Lewer: A new threat from the EU to free speech

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