The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has published an article in the Sun claiming that Stop Funding Hate is a threat to free speech. Here is what he wrote, with comments in italics. 

Johnson: ‘It is one of the most worrying features of the modern world that free speech is coming under attack – even in societies that claim to be liberal and tolerant. So far in 2017 there have been 51 journalists murdered simply for doing their job, and 181 have been jailed.’

It is obscene for the Foreign Secretary to link the deaths of journalists in dictatorships and war zones around the world with the activities of a group seeking in a peaceful manner to counteract hate speech against British citizens by British newspapers. And it is more obscene to read such words written by a man who was once recorded discussing with a friend that friend’s plan to have a journalist beaten up.  

‘We are seeing newspapers collapsing, and as good journalism becomes tougher to fund we are seeing people become ever more vulnerable to government propaganda and fake news.’

Boris Johnson is worried that people are vulnerable to government propaganda and fake news. Stick that on the side of a bus.

‘Last month the British government stepped in with £1million for projects to support the free media across the world.’

£1 million, across the world. Johnson himself banked that much every four years for writing his Telegraph column, and he called it ‘chicken feed’.  

‘We in this government believe that free speech is an integral part of a free society. We believe that a free press is not only morally right; without a free press any society will eventually suffer from corruption and economic decay. We can rightly be proud of the British tradition of free speech – dating from the triumphs of John Wilkes in the 18th century – that was part of the reason this country rose to economic and political greatness.’

Coming from a minister in a government desperately fighting to prevent the public seeing any of its documentation about the effects of Brexit, this is rich. Coming from a man who once discussed a plan to have a journalist beaten up . . . (see above).

‘So it is incredible to find that this freedom of expression is now under vicious attack – in our own country.’

What Stop Funding Hate advocates is as mild and orderly a form of protest as can be imagined. What Johnson really objects to is that there is protest at all – as though protest was not a worthy British tradition.

‘A small but dedicated group of left-wing activists has launched a campaign to undermine the financial base of some newspapers whose views they dislike.’

If it’s a small group, why is he worried? And does he believe it is left-wing to object to hate speech and the persecution of minorities? 

‘They have attacked the advertisers who help to fund those newspapers, and who make it possible for reporters to bring new facts into the public domain.’

Nobody has been attacked. Advertisers have been asked by customers not to give succour to organisations that promote hatred and abuse the vulnerable. People have a right to do this.

‘The tactic of this campaign – misleadingly called “Stop Funding Hate” – is to urge a boycott of all companies who place advertisements in the Sun, the Daily Mail or the Daily Express. This week they even attacked the NSPCC – a much loved national charity – for the sin of running a promotion in the Sunday Express.

Again, no one has been attacked.

‘It is deeply disturbing to learn that this campaign is beginning to have an effect. Last year Lego dropped all advertising in the Daily Mail, and actually apologised to its customers. In recent weeks Paperchase and Pizza Hut have followed suit. I believe that these decisions are sad and mistaken and indeed cowardly.’

Here is the real headline from this article – a message of hope for all those who are suffering as a result of newspaper hate speech: ‘BORIS JOHNSON SAYS STOP FUNDING HATE IS WORKING’.

‘It is not as if this internet campaign commands overwhelming public support. Despite all the noise and virulence of their campaign, there are said to be fewer than a thousand people who are actively involved.’

Said to be fewer than… by whom? The Sun and the Mail? This flimsy attribution, remember, is coming from a man who was fired from the Times for making up quotations. Besides, there is ample evidence that the overwhelming majority of the public distrusts the corporate papers and wants to see them properly regulated. It’s the papers that are the out-of-step minority here.

‘And these companies should realise that they are bowing to a ruse – the attack on advertisers – that comes straight from some of the worst authoritarian regimes in the world.’

Bullying peaceful protest groups – as Johnson is trying to do here – is far higher on the list of ‘ruses’ employed by such regimes. And those regimes often use Johnson’s very words: ‘a small but dedicated group of left-wing activists’.  

‘As for those who are mounting the campaigns, they do not seem to appreciate the irony of what they are doing.’

Boris Johnson lecturing us on irony? No, really?

‘They may not like the editorial line of these publications, or the way in which they cover certain issues. But this country has the world’s strongest laws against libel and defamation. We have highly progressive legislation against hate speech and the whipping up of prejudice of any kind.’

If this were true the Sun would not be free to adapt the language of the Holocaust – ‘The Muslim Problem’ – when referring to millions of British citizens. (And by the way, how does our Foreign Secretary feel about that?) In any case he misses the point here, deliberately. Stop Funding Hate is not interested in banning the Sun but instead appeals to the sense of social responsibility of advertisers who may prefer not to give succour to hate preachers. If that is bad for the Sun’s business, perhaps the Sun should review its business model. 

‘By attempting to drive some newspapers underground they risk fomenting a further sense of alienation in the public – and pushing some into the arms of extremists.’

The implication here is that the British public should do nothing about hate speech in the press because that might give the impression that hate speech is less than acceptable in British society. As for pushing people into the arms of extremists, the hate preachers are doing that: does Johnson not know about the murder of Jo Cox? And what about ‘driving newspapers underground’? The Sun is losing 450 readers every single day; it seems to be doing a good job of driving itself underground. 

‘They are not sticking up for liberal values. They are not sticking up for freedom.’

One thing we know: Boris Johnson is sticking up for Rupert Murdoch’s advertising revenues.

‘They are attacking the freedom which is the foundation of our democracy. They should remember the great French sage Voltaire, who summed up the approach that has served Britain well for generations. “I may not agree with what you say. But I defend to the death your right to say it.”’

Does Johnson take this line with the views of supporters of terrorism? Of course not. He knows that this is more complicated than a one-liner from Voltaire. [Update: And as it happens Voltaire did not actually say this.] In the case of Stop Funding Hate no one is taking away anybody’s right to free expression. If Rupert Murdoch believes hate speech is vital to our national discourse, and if he finds that his advertisers disagree, he has more than enough money to propagate his message without their help, and there is nothing to stop him.