Free speech

Franco Frattini (picture European Commission)

Are there two European Unions? The way in which a decision by the Council of Ministers on the fight against racism and hate speech was reported in the newspapers yesterday makes me think so.

The aim of the proposal is to establish agreed minimum penalties for certain forms of hate speech throughout the European Union. (This is how the BBC reported it:  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/6573005.stm )

This measure was reported in the Guardian (read the report here) as the EU taking a stand against racism and xenophobia. European Commissioner Franco Frattini was quoted in the report as saying that the European Union has a moral role and not only an economic one. It was noted that British law was already tougher than this EU-wide agreement so that it would have no impact in the UK. In effect, the rest of Europe is doing what Britain wants it to do.

In the Daily Telegraph, by contrast, the story was billed as the EU clamping down on free speech on the internet. (Read the report here.) A blogger was given the space to say that this measure would inevitably be extended around the world. No evidence or justification for this statement was given: neither probably exists. It would be an absurd loophole if the normal laws regulating speech and publication did not apply to speech and publication on the internet, after all.

Rather than someone who was actually at the meeting, the “ministerial” quote came from Conservative shadow home secretary David Davis. He said that Britain had had laws against this kind of speech since 1861 and that new laws were not necessary.

So, in this respect at least, both the Guardian and the Telegraph agree. One European Union after all.

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