What is free speech?

“What is free speech?” asks Lynne McTaggart in her latest blog post. You may not be able to read this post: if you have commented on her blog in recent days, you may, like me, have had your IP address added to a block list to stop you finding out.

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Needless to say this is trivially easy to evade (perhaps we should rename McTaggart’s blog What TOR Does Tell You?). And what do we find?

First, all comments by skeptics have been censored from the previous post, “je suis gagged“. Comments by me, Alan Henness, Les Rose and others – all gone. I didn’t capture them, but here is one of mine that I preserved against this eventuality:

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Check the source, it ain’t there now. As always, when Lynne McTaggart pretends to defend free speech, she is doing just that: pretending. She does not give a damn about free speech, any more than she gives a damn about accuracy or the conflicts of interest in the self-serving publications of cranks.

Lynne McTaggart is, in short, a hypocritical egomaniac sociopath.

Now to the post at issue, which of course I had absolutely no trouble accessing. Or commenting on.  Not that this will last (do follow the new post, maybe we can run a sweepstake on how long reality-based comments remain up).

what is free speech

 

I’ll deal with the last para of the post first, as it is the context for the whole thing, and makes the rest of it much funnier and more ironic.

How we’re policing this blog

In this blog, we are happy to keep posts that offer a reasoned disagreement with the issue being discussed.

That is what is technically known as a lie, since they have summarily deleted a large number of polite, well-reasoned and entirely factually accurate comments.

PrincessBrideHowever, we are deleting some of the known trolls who are part of a group that has in the past two years has:

That word troll. You keep using it, but I don’t think it means what you think it means.

The word troll actually has two relevant meanings:

  1.  A person who posts inflammatory content in the hope of provoking a reaction; or the material so posted.
  2. Someone who disagrees with me.

Lynne’s using the second meaning. Unfortunately, the first is real and the second is made up: it is not a valid meaning of the word. I changed the following from bullets to numbers for ease of reply.

  1. butthurtincited others to destroy our reputation
  2. taught others to interfere with our business’s weblinks and our search engine optimization
  3. encouraged others to hide our magazines in stores
  4. used innuendo, rather than fact, to undermine our reputation
  5. reported blatant lies about our journal
  6. staged phony letter writing campaigns in clear restraint of trade
  1. We have never needed to incite anyone to damage your reputation. It is inconceivable that anybody could do a better job of that than you do yourselves.
  2. Only thing is, these things are public knowledge. Sure, we advise people to use donotlink.com when linking to your blog and webshite. You can do the same back, for all we care. But we don’t “interfere with [y]our business’s weblinks” because we don’t control them. We control our own weblinks, and we choose not to use them to boost your SEO ranking. And frankly? Asserting that your SEO juice is comparable to the murder of cartoonists? That’s repugnant. Especially since in this case we’re in the role of the cartoonists, and you’re the Mullah. We are mocking you. It’s our right.
  3. How many people, exactly? Where’s the evidence? In my Tesco WDDTY has pride of place at the bottom of a shelf of marginal magazines, where it belongs, but it was the merchandiser who put it there, not me.
  4. You wish. We have, however, pointed out, factually, where you’ve used innuendo in place of fact to attack public health measures.
  5. Put up or shut up. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this blog will correct any error of fact if communicated to us with credible evidence showing the error. I know a lot of other skeptics who will do the same. We’re keeping an eye on the corrections of misleading information published in WDDTY. The critical fact you seem to have a quite disproportionate amount of trouble grasping is that (a) just because you say something doesn’t make it true and (b) just because you disagree with something we say, doesn’t make it false.
  6. How do you stage a phony letter writing campaign? Either the letters are written, or they aren’t. We have seen blatant astroturfing by WDDTY but the skeptic community is very small and relies for its effect on one simple technique which I am happy to share with you: we support our statements with evidence. Thus, if we write to Tesco and tell them that WDDTY prints anti-vaccine propaganda, we will support that with articles and quotes from WDDTY and evidence showing it to be anti-vaccine propaganda. Admittedly this is childishly simple: finding examples of anti-vaccine lies in WDDTY is just about the easiest part of our work here.

Let’s be really clear here. You present WDDTY as a health and lifestyle magazine. Where retailers have withdrawn it, it’s because we have shown this presentation to be mendacious.

WDDTY is not a health magazine. It’s a propaganda organ for quacks and anti-medicine conspiracists. It is not a purveyor of accurate information. Even the title is misleading because most of the content is either blindingly obvious and doctors do tell you, or, if doctors don’t tell you these things, it’s because they are wrong or (at best) so early in their developement that no sound conclusions can be drawn.

We also police offensive language, comments that are completely off point or any other gratuitous attempts to undermine us. You all know who you are. Don’t bother coming back – we’ll always delete you. That’s not free speech. That’s just being a coward and a bully – and also having nothing better to do with yourself

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WDDTY handles another comment pointing out an error in their content.

Lynne McTaggart: you are a coward and a bully. You delete any comment, however polite, that criticises your false claims. Your claims cannot stand up to challenge or criticism, and rather than either admit this or tone down your rhetoric, you ruthlessly censor those who challenge you, and then pretend that the echo chamber that remains, reflects all independent opinion.

That is an absolutely certain route to remaining wrong, and becoming more wrong over time. It is the technique used by Islamists who attack magazines that mock their religion.

And your self-serving justification fools nobody. Just be honest and say you don’t let skeptics post. It’s your right, it’s our blog. We’ll point and laugh, but that’s it. Dressing it up in the language of free speech? That’s a whole different level of crass fuckwittery, and we will call you on it because some of us have genuinely suffered as a result of entirely legitimate commentary.

That snivelling self-serving whine-fest in full

Irony meter burns

The Charlie Hebdo killings have focused the mind on free speech – freedom of expression, to call it by its formal legal name – and also revealed how little we know about what it actually means, as witnessed by the comments on last week’s blog.

And they have also focused the minds of some charmless egomaniacs on how they can exploit this act to advance their own agenda.

Welcome to that select band, Lynne. No doubt you are flattered to be following in the wigsteps of Donald Trump. You are not fit to wipe the shit you spread from the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists’ boots.

Free speech has been in common law in Britain where I live for many years but was actually only enshrined into ‘official’ law in Article 10 of the European Commission on Human Rights, after which is was then incorporated into British law in the Human Rights Act of 1998.

tagnut-coxYou missed a few bits. For example, the biggest barrier to free speech in the United Kingdom was the law on defamation. There are too many examples to count. Robert MaxwellW, for example, used libel law to try to silence investigative journalists.

WDDTY backed abuse of libel law by Chris Woollams and Andrew Wakefield but said nothing whatsoever about the abuse of libel law by the British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh, nor about the hounding of Dr. Peter Wilmshurst for daring to publish negative trial results.

When it comes to suppression of free speech using illiberal laws, WDDTY is consistently on…  the wrong side.

Free speech only started to matter when Lynne McTaggart discovered that increasing the profile and profitability of your product, also increases the focus placed on its misleading and dangerous content.

Press freedoms

The law is mainly meant to protect the right of the press, which includes the broadcast, the spoken word, other written and digital media, as well as the rights of political opponents to criticize the political and corporate Establishment.

Correct, but such criticisms have to be factual. For example, if a paper published a story saying that Prince Charles had abused his influence to try to skew coverage of a scientific topic in favour of pseudoscience, they would need good evidence.

Oddly, when the law changed in 2011 to prevent such abuses becoming public, I couldn’t find any mention in WDDTY. Unlike all genuine free speech advocates, WDDTY doesn’t care about illiberal and suppressive acts if they are ideologically consonant.

Free speech is supposed to enable us to avoid the tyranny of government or institutions by giving us the right to air our views without fear of reprisal. The organization Liberty, devoted to protecting human rights in the UK, quotes the late US President Theodore Roosevelt on this point: ‘Free speech, exercised both individually and through a free press, is a necessity in any country where people are themselves free.’

Not really, no. You don’t have the right to make racist statements, even if you believe them. You don’t have the right to make fraudulent commercial claims, even if you believe them.

The law is designed to protect the public from the powerful, not to protect the over-entitled from criticism, a point McTaggart has consistently failed to grasp.

As someone with a background in investigative reporting, my job, as I see it, is essentially holding the Establishment’s tail to the fire. Consequently, what I write about is controversial.

If Lynne McTaggart ever had a background in investigative reporting, it was so long ago that its fossilised remains will be buried under Ordovician shale somewhere.

Lynne McTaggart is a polemicist, and agent provocateur, a propagandist and a writer of new-age whacknuttery. Her ability to separate fact from fiction is, as has been thoroughly established by now, conspicuous mainly by its absence.

What she writes about is very often entirely uncontroversial. Vaccines, for example, are one of the most potent public health measures in human history. They aren’t at all controversial.

However, what she writes about it, very often is controversial.  It’s controversial for three main reasons:

  1. It’s very often wrong.
  2. It very often endangers the health of anybody who reads it.
  3. It very often repeats commercial claims that would be illegal for the article subject to make openly

There are people who write well-research critiques of medicine. Ben Goldacre, for example, and Margaret McCartney. Goldacre has written at length about abuse of the clinical trials process by pharmaceutical companies and, unlike WDDTY, his criticisms have been strikingly effective. And not controversial, not to any great degree anyway.

I critique a medical system largely sponsored by highly profitable private industry that pays off many governments and that increasingly stands accused of an extraordinary abuse of power. I also write about cutting edge science that has not yet been accepted by the scientific establishment.

Not really, no. You print everything from snide innuendo to outright fabrications, targeting a tightly regulated business and advancing in every case the agenda of that business’ perceived competitor: quacks.

The thing is, though, that your criticisms of “big pharma” are not effective, because they are self-evidently agenda driven, and because they are very often false or grossly distorted.

There is no chance that you will ever affect the regulation or scrutiny of Gardasil by claiming that it has killed up to 1,700 girls, because that claim is not just wrong, it’s insane.

There is no chance you will affect public promotion of MMR by constantly repeating claims about autism and other purported adverse effects, because the tiny number of papers which advance that theory are mostly retracted and/or fraudulent, and there is a vast, truly, vast body of evidence showing the exact opposite.

And your advocacy of such bullshit will be controversial because the end result of anti-vaccine propaganda is that people die. Some number crunching for you:

Number of people WDDTY originally claimed were possibly killed by HPV vaccine 1,700
WDDTY’s revised figure: 68
Number of VAERS reported fatalities verified to be actual deaths in the source WDDTY cites: 47
Number of deaths provably caused by HPV vaccine after the first 67,000,000 doses: 0
Number of cervical cancer diagnoses due to HPV in US, annually: 11,000+
Approx. proportion caused by variants prevented by quadrivalent vaccine: 70%
Approximate annual death toll due to vaccine-preventable HPV infection, worldwide: Approx. 250,000

So, even if all the claimed “deaths” were actual deaths (which they aren’t) and even if all of them were caused by HPV (which they definitely aren’t), the odds would still be good.

And in fact, the odds are well beyond good.

Risk Benefit
May cause fainting, just the once. 70% reduction in risk of cervical cancer.

Tough call, eh?

Small wonder that not everyone agrees with me.

Thus far, everyone I have traced who disagrees with you, does so on the basis that you are provably, factually wrong.

Thus far, everyone I have traced who takes the time to check whether you are right or wrong, does so only because your claims fall into a class which, if true, would require immediate action, and if false, are dangerously irresponsible.

I have not read every single story from every single issue of WDDTY, though I have read a large number.

Every time I open an issue, I am looking for one thing: a piece of information which is (a) genuinely significant and demanding of action and (b) not already (at time of publication) under investigation by doctors.

That would seem to me to be the raison d’être of WDDTY: to uncover information that is genuinely important, that doctors don’t tell you.

I’m still looking.

 

Free speech does carry with it the right to disagree, even to voice views that offend someone who doesn’t agree with you. I, for instance, find some of what Charlie Hebdo did offensive and gratuitous. I’m not a big advocate of mocking individual religions, but the editors were completely within their right to make a statement about a religious institution.

They mocked all religious institutions, in fact. They mocked the institution of religion itself. They did to religions what skeptics do to WDDTY.

And as Prof. Brian Cox says:

The problem with today’s world is that everyone believes they have the right to express their opinion AND have others listen to it. The correct statement of individual rights is that everyone has the right to an opinion, but crucially, that opinion can be roundly ignored and even made fun of, particularly if it is demonstrably nonsense!

Read that very carefully, Lynne McTaggart, because it exactly what’s going on here. You have the right to state your bonkers conspiracist claptrap. You have no enforceable right to have people listen to it, still less bring it to the unsuspecting eyes and ears of people whoa are unaware that you are a pathologically dishonest crank.

Unfortunately, with the advent of the internet, that sacred freedom – to be free to critique a corrupt government or Establishment – has become confused, now that anyone with a bit of time on their hands can set up a blog or make a comment, secure in their own power and anonymity.

That is certainly what sustains the anti-vaccination conspirasphere, and several other nests of over-entitled loons, and it’s also a major factor in the propagation of fraudulent claims exploited by vendors of quack treatments and devices.

You have no need to make illegal claims on your own website when the internets will make them for you, and you only need to offer the product.

And that’s why quack rags like WDDTY are a problem.

The once noble aim to give voice to dissenters has degenerated into a license to say whatever you feel like about anyone you feel like trashing.

Couldn’t have put it better myself. For instance, you might use social media to make allegations that your opponents are active only because they are being paid by The Man, despite the absence of any evidence whatsoever to support the claim.

Or you might contact the employers of your critics and assert, again without evidence, that their criticism of your repugnant rag is “unethical”.

What you won’t do (and we know this because we’ve seen it) is challenge attempts to suppress legitimate dissent by those whose agenda you support.

Let’s be clear here: I don’t care if you run your website, as long as you don’t make misleading advertising claims in respect of But I don’t think it belongs on supermarket shelves.  Unless you want to put it in a wrapper saying that it contains dangerously misleading advice contradicted by the best available evidence, including in many cases the very studies you reference purportedly in support of your bullshit.

WDDTY is in the same category as race hate magazines. It is as accurate a guide to medicine as Fox News is to politics. It promotes a lunatic fringe, using lies and deceit, and that is simply not something that should be on the high street.

Where’s the line?

People have wondered on these pages how far we are meant to go, when it comes to protecting free speech. Does that mean we need to tolerate abuse by trolls? If we delete them do we stop free speech?

No, they haven’t. You have no interest in the subject. We already established that.

And your definition of trolls is the classic crank definition. A troll does not mean “someone who disagrees with me”. Challenging your claims is not trolling. Pointing out where you have made factual errors is not trolling.

The law is clear on this point. Article 10 qualifies this freedom by saying that the right of freedom of expression is qualified by such restrictions that are necessary ‘for the protection of the reputation and rights of others.’

Article 10 says:

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
  2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

I highlighted a couple of things that show (a) the Human Rights Act and Article 10 do not cover WDDTY, because it is not public authorities who take the decision not to stock the tawdry rag; also highlighting that the rights bear duties and responsibilities, particularly in respect of accuracy and fairness; also that protection of public safety and protection of health are legitimate causes of action even by public authorities.

WDDTY endangers health. It promotes misleading  commercial speech. These are not protected under the law, and they would not be covered under any sane law.

That means you are not allowed to defame or injure other people’s reputations because you don’t like their hairdo or what they stand for. For instance, the right to free speech will protect ‘fair comment,’ but will not protect a person who tries to spread hateful lies against another.

Excellent, so you’re going to stop lying about Simon Singh, Sense About Science and the rest of your critics. Progress! Only, I don’t suppose you mean that, because as with absolutely everything you ever read, you will interpret it in the most self-serving way possible.

In fact, you already have, through selective quoting, as we saw above.

That article is also backed up by libel law, which prevents people from saying things about other people that are untrue, with the burden of truth on the person allegedly committing the libel. The law also prohibits ‘hate speeches’ that incite violence.

Open goal!

Libel law was suppressive for centuries, and was recently changed thanks to the Defamation Act 2013W, an Act that got no coverage whatsoever in your oh-so-free-speechy magazine.

Who was the catalyst for starting the ball rolling? Simon SinghW.

The Defamation Act 2013 provides defences:

  • Requirement of serious harm: “A statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant”. This is lucky for WDDTY as its attacks on its critics are so batshit crazy that no harm is likely to arise.
  • Truth: It is a defence for defamation to show the imputation in the statement complained of is substantially true. This is the one that covers criticism of WDDTY’s content.
  • Honest opinion: It is a defence for defamation, to show the statement complained of was a statement of opinion. This is the one that protects criticism of McTaggart’s blog, and the WDDTY editorial content.
  • Public interest: It is a defence to show the statement complained of was, or formed part of a matter of public interest, and a publication was reasonably believed to be in the public interest. This is in fact the entire reason that criticism of WDDTY exists: the fraudulent, misleading and dangerous claims it makes risk public health.
  • Peer-reviewed statement in scientific or academic journal: The publication of a statement in a scientific or academic journal (whether published in electronic form or otherwise) is privileged if the statement relates to a scientific or academic matter. This would have nuked Wakefield’s vexatious claim had he launched it today in the UK, and it would also have protected Peter Wilmshurst against harassment by a company whose product he showed to be ineffective and dangerous (which, inexplicably, WDDTY never seem to have covered at all).

The criticisms of WDDTY are protected. They are also being made by people who, in some cases, were prime movers behind the law itself.

As with all freedoms comes responsibility. What free speech doesn’t allow is for is license to say or do whatever you feel like. It does not give people the right to abuse each other, destroy their reputations, restrain their trade or incite others to act against them. In fact, restraint of trade is also illegal.

There is nothing on restraint of trade in the Human Rights Act. It’s a common law concept. However, we have now arrived at the meat of McTaggart’s complaint.

It’s not about free speech, it never was, McTaggart has never given a flying fuck about free speech and has in fact backed suppressive acts that aim to restrain free speech.

McTaggart cares about the money.

McTaggart thinks that just because she chooses to publish her tawdry rag, and profit from advertising (as she originally said she never would), that the world has to roll over and let her sell it however she likes.

This is, of course, nonsense. Freedom of speech gives critics the right to contact newsagents, supermarkets and others, alerting them to the dangerously misleading nature of a product. As long as these statements are factual (and they are), then there is no conceivable justification for restricting that activity. No free speech advocate would claim such a thing. It would be outrageous to assert that the rights to pursue trade, override the rights of free speech, especially when public protection is involved.

In fact, that was a large part of the problem with the old libel law.

Being an advocate for free speech also doesn’t handcuff us into accepting anything anyone wants to throw at us. You are not obliged, for instance, to invite the people who seek to destroy you round for dinner. Or indeed to allow them a voice on your own community pages.

You’re not an advocate for free speech. You are an advocate for the protection of your commercial mendacity against the legitimate criticism it engenders.

 

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