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The far right say they love free speech – but the attack on Owen Jones shows they hate a critical press

This is what the far right's commitment to free speech looks like in practice: targeted campaigns of abuse, bullying and physical violence to terrify their opposition into silence and inertia

Eleanor Penny
Sunday 18 August 2019 18:20 BST
Owen Jones says he has seen 'evidence to suggest political motivations' to attack

In the early hours of Saturday morning, Owen Jones was attacked in the street by a troop of thugs who “made a beeline” straight for the prominent left-wing journalist. They ambushed him outside an Islington pub, dragged him to the ground, punched and kicked him, leaving him with head injuries and a “bloodied back”. The friends who sprang to his defence were beaten for their trouble.

Over recent years, Jones has been subjected to a febrile chorus of death threats, harassment and stalking from the far right – and so, for him, there is no doubt as to the motivation behind this attack.

Across the country and across the world, the far right are on the rise. They’re in the streets, in the broadsheets, in the whispering velvet halls of power. Their tooled-up footsoldiers, giddy on vicious fairytales of their own heroism, are walking into cinemas and shopping centres and places of worship – and opening fire.

A far right attack claimed the life of pro-migrant MP Jo Cox. MP Rosie Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan have also been singled out for punishment. Racially-motivated abuse and attacks are on the rise. Crisis after intractable political crisis has whittled down the legitimacy of the establishment and the sharp white bones of racism are freshly exposed.

The media has proved a key battlefield. The established right-wing press routinely demonises migrants and people of colour, whilst whipping up suspicion against left-wingers, social democrats, and even the vaguely pro-migrant centre.

Anyone who opposes the right-wing political settlement, anyone who doesn’t back the most hardline hate-campaigns against a humane migration policies are branded “traitors”, dismissed as a decadent metropolitan elites cynically disinterested in the affairs of “real” people. Enemies, it would seem, are everywhere.

Meanwhile, high-profile members of the far right use “free speech” as a rallying cry to demand more and more press attention. They pose as “censored” revolutionaries – claiming that if they aren’t offered big name panel shows and cosy interviews, this is simply further proof of the liberal conspiracy to silence the capital-t Truth.

Tommy Robinson is a particular master of this ploy, revamping his image from racist thug to populist free speech martyr, and receiving fawning press attention. In reality, it’s nothing but a cynical bait-and-switch ploy to paint their opponents as reactionaries, demand bigger platforms, and declare themselves exempt from critique or consequence.

Many (otherwise liberal) outlets take the bait, offering up their airtime and column inches to a frothing band of reactionaries with precisely zero interest in the protecting freedoms they are attempting to exploit.

Enter Owen Jones. As the far right have slithered their way into the media and political mainstream, left wing and critical voices have come under harsh fire from yammering bands of far-right fanboys and their milquetoast non-opposition, who bombard them with harassment and threats.

Jones has become a favourite whipping boy for cheerleaders of the new far right; a symbol of the kind of “treachery” they want to smoke out of society. He’s unabashedly left-wing, proudly pro-migrant, determinedly anti-racist, openly gay – and most terrifyingly of all, lots of people agree with what he has to say.

Online abuse has bled out onto the streets, with activists hurling abuse at him on the street. One far right leader posted photos of him on Facebook, along with threatening messages that promised to hunt him down. At last, one particular group of knuckle-draggers felt bold enough to make good on some particularly brutal promises. If we are surprised by any of this, we have not been paying attention.

This is what the far right commitment to free speech looks like in practice: targeted campaigns of abuse, bullying and physical violence to terrify their opposition into silence and inertia. Freedom of speech means freedom to spew their toxic propaganda as widely as possible, whilst punishing those who mount an opposition.

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Intimidating members of the press is a reliable weapon in the far-right tactical arsenal. Tommy Robinson, for his part, is notorious for hunting down the home addresses of journalists who have criticised him – and turning up there in the middle of the night.

A far right terrorist in the US was recently convicted for sending nail bombs to the offices of those outlets Trump decried as the “lying media”. Trump is notorious for attacking individual journalists who criticise him, and statements saying the entire media industry is crammed with “enemies of the people”.

This comes as part of a broader project not simply to single out individual opponents or disloyal organisations, but to discredit the media as a whole. It’s an effort to create an atmosphere of suspicion and confusion in which misinformation, scare-tactics and propaganda can flourish, and in which critical members of the press are painted as stooges of a conspiratorial elite there to sell out the “real” population (who ever that may be). At best, the press come off as weak and dim-witted puppets. At worst, they’re an active danger which must be stamped out.

This is no more or less an attempt to crush the possibility of opposition. To make alternative futures unthinkable by discrediting, terrifying, or drowning out the millions of people clamouring for a more just world.

When the Nazis rose to power, journalists were targeted, attacked, murdered in the street. Foreign reporters who refused to paint a rosy picture of life in the Reich were summarily turfed out of the country.

Meanwhile, party propaganda demonised the media as in cahoots with – or idiotically indifferent to – the machinations of the powerful cabal of Jews, degenerates and leftists cannibalising the country from within. Trump’s insult – “the lying media” – is a direct translation of the Nazi’s favoured slur “lugenpresse”.

Suppressing press freedom is a survival tactic for a political project which thrives on misinformation, violence and fear. So no, we should not be surprised that the far right feel bold enough to pounce on a left wing journalist in central London in front of many witnesses. We should be determined to make their paranoia reality – to protect the marginalised people they want to demonise, to push for a different future, and to extinguish the cancer of the far right once and for all.

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