Roderick Crawford was founder and editor of Parliamentary Brief 1992-2012 and of Telecom Brief/Telecom International in 1995-1998. He currently works on peacemaking in Iraq, Yemen and South Sudan.
The Labour Party’s manifesto commitment to provide free high-speed broadband across the UK has come under sustained criticism. The critique has been focused in the area of economic policy as well as the potential impact on choice for the public.
What has not been recognised is the threat to civil society and liberal democracy from government control of the main conduit of digital communications — control by a would-be government whose leading politicians are ardent supporters of states and a political philosophy hostile to both free media and free speech. There is little doubt that their media policy is intended to change the balance of media coverage from one in which the far-left is on the fringe to one where it is brought centre-stage.
Under Labour’s proposals, its new provider of services, British Broadband Services, would be accountable to a regulator that is run by the owner and controller of that same service. That is far from best practice. It offers no specific guarantees to providers other than public broadcasters, and will review the ‘fitness’ of independent providers — a subjective test if ever there was one.
Corbyn and McDonnell are both, by any standard based on historical UK politics, ideologically shaped and driven by the far-left; both have a long history of support for regimes that stifle or throttle free media and clamp down on free speech and free association. Marxist-Leninist governments do not support a free media once in power; they support the re-education of the public through their meta-narrative and seek to control media as a first priority. As with the Bolsheviks – the offices of government and the telegraph are both to be taken and held.
Would a free media be safe with a single broadband provider run by people whose every political instinct is to control information and use it to influence the public and reshape its consciousness? The Marxist-Leninist belief system is opposed by the free media, when it remembers it, so why would a Marxist-led government seek to secure such a free media — a media that contributes to the ‘false consciousness’ of the public? Would anyone opposing their political aims be fit to provide media services?
There are plenty of reasons and excuses in the current climate for the state to intervene in respect of content provision and providers, from extremism, online grooming, fake news, breaches of data protection, as well as low-tax takes from the tech giants.
At the same time, Labour’s media policy is intended to break up the dominance of independent media groups and restrict providers to those who pass a ‘fitness’ test, potentially driving out or taking over many current providers with the purpose of creating a new range of media content that is supportive of the far-left perspective and agenda in order to reshape society and its worldview.
Using these opportunities for intervention would put independent providers on the defensive, and together with government control of the broadband network and its electoral mandate for reform, a Labour government would be able to bring radical change to the free media and through it to society.
Control of the gateway to the internet and the main channel for broadcast media’s output puts a major asset into the hands of a government determined on reshaping UK society into one far less free, far less democratic, and far removed from the norms of our current culture. Controlling broadband would allow these policy aims to be achieved through management decisions made outside of Whitehall and away from parliamentary scrutiny; there would potentially be more limited redress through the courts too.
Even if there was no intention to use this control to shape what we see and hear as a society, it puts into the hands of government a means of control that is best left in the hands of the market, subject to regulation by an independent OFCOM. The balance of power between government, regulator, public service providers, and independent media companies would be shifted to one of state dominance.
In consequence, the potential for abuse by government of its market and regulatory dominance would be immense. The temptation to use the additional power this would give government in order to deliver other policies beyond free broadband provision as a twenty first century industrial policy or equaliser of access would be very strong, including that of delivering Labour’s media policy. Of course, it would not be a temptation for a Marxist-Leninist – it is central to their modus operandi to dominate information and public conversation as far as possible.
In political crises in states where the government can control broadband, it is switched on and off to control public access to information, to social media and to hamper the organisation of opposition to the government; would a Corbyn government refrain from such use of this control in a crisis they faced? And if broadband was free, what complaint can people really have: government provides and government takes away.
The centrality of this policy for Labour is clear from Corbyn’s presentation of the policy as the twenty first century equivalent of the introduction of the NHS. Strange that he should connect the apparently gimmicky free-broadband policy with Attlee’s greatest legacy. Politically the NHS pulls politics in the UK to the left; it is this political effect that the Left is looking to replicate through free broadband, but this time to directly rather than indirectly influence political culture in the UK. The policy is not about investment in infrastructure and equalising access, but about a revolution in content to shape minds and our collective political culture. It is an intentional policy of taking control of information and news and shifting UK public opinion to the left through that control. Far from being free, the price would be a free media and a free society.
This policy represents the most significant threat to freedom of speech and freedom of the media, and thus to civil society as it is understood in the West, since the end of the Cold War; it says more about the true intentions of a would-be Corbyn-McDonnell government than anything else.
Given the Marxist leanings of the Labour Party’s current leadership and of its key advisers and supporters, it would be a fundamental mistake to allow this bid for control of a central pillar of our free society to go unchallenged. Now is the time to do so — after the election it may be too late.