In Defence of The New Yorker and Freedom of Speech

“I wholly disapprove of what you say—and will defend to the death your right to say it.”

–      Voltaire

“Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;.”

–      First Amendment, United States Constitution


Last week David Remnick, political journalist and editor of The New Yorker, announced that he would be interviewing Steve Bannon, formerly Trump’s Chief Strategist and founder of Breitbart News, as part of The New Yorker’s annual festival.

Cue epic shitstorm on Twitter where complexity and listening to others opinion’s gives way to 280 characters and mob-mentality, from both the right and left.

In this case the mob was triumphant and those who disagreed were quickly categorised into the one-dimensional groups of ‘white privilege’ or ‘racists’. Debate was non-existent, and freedom of speech was quickly forgotten… unless of course you agreed with the mob.

It therefore came as no surprise that on Tuesday 4thSeptember, Remnick released a comprehensive statement detailing why he believed interviewing Bannon was a journalistic necessity but in the end decided to rescind Bannon’s invitation to the festival. Under the weight of cancelled subscriptions and staff resignations, no doubt. “I don’t want well-meaning readers and staff members to think that I’ve ignored their concerns. I’ve thought this through and talked to colleagues – and I’ve reconsidered. I’ve changed my mind. There is a better way to do this.”

The arguments on Twitter were varied but mostly boiled down the following few points, to which I have responded to below.

By interviewing Steve Bannon, The New Yorker, and by extension the media, was giving Bannon a platform to further his alt-right and illiberal agenda and ideology.

Steve Bannon already has a platform. Firstly, as Donald Trump’s former Chief Strategist, both during the presidential campaign and then when Trump became the President. Secondly, Bannon is regularly featured in the right-wing media, including Fox News, which has a substantial number of viewers as well as being previously known as the face of Breitbart News. And thirdly, Bannon appeared and was interviewed at a similar festival The Financial Times holds annually. Remnick echoes the above in his statement saying, “by conducting an interview with one of Trumpism’s leading creators and organizers, we are hardly pulling him out of obscurity”. The interview would not have involved Bannon on soapbox inciting his alt-right views. It would have been an interview with parameters. It would have involved Remnick questioning, debating and challenging Bannon and his views. It would not, as some have suggested, been an hour or an hour and a half of Bannon spewing his misguided and ill-informed ideologies all over live TV.

Bannon’s opinions, no matter how much you disagree with him or find them deeply, deeply upsetting, are protected by the First Amendment. Unless he begins inciting violence, something which is illegal and something The New Yorker or Remnick would have never allowed to happen, Bannon has a right to his ideas as much as you have a right to disagree with those ideas.

The interview would have been live, thereby giving Bannon and his supporters even less opportunity to say that his words were taken out of context or misquoted than a traditional print and online interview. The fact that it would have been live also allows for transparency for both the interviewer and the interviewee. Again, something that is not afforded in a print or online interview.

Giving Bannon a platform means you are endorsing and normalising his views, which ergo poses a risk of those in the audience and those at home agreeing with Bannon.

As Remnick stated, interviewing Steve Bannon is “not to endorse him”. Remnick also goes onto say that, “it’s obvious that no matter how tough the questioning, Bannon is not going to burst into tears and change his views of the world. He believes he is right and his ideological opponents are mere ‘snowflakes’.” The same can and will be said of both Bannon’s supporters and those who maybe unaware of Bannon but hold some or all his same views.

Firstly, this is a very simplistic view to take. That because one engages in conversation and rigorous debate with someone who holds opposing views, is the same as agreeing with or endorsing those same views and opinions.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it is very dangerous, particularly as a journalist, to believe that you should only invite those individuals who hold the same opinions to you to festivals that look to discuss and debate ideas. If the left leaning media continues along this track, they will not be so dissimilar to Fox News which exists in its own bubble and provides commentary over real and weighted journalism.

Steve Bannon and others like him should be ignored and marginalised.

You cannot shut the door after the horse has bolted. His views are that of the President and ergo, that of the White House and of the government. His views are that of the 62 million who voted for Trump. I am obviously not saying all of those who cast a vote for Trump agree with all him and Bannon stand for, nor am I naïve to believe that all those voters be put into comfortably into the category of racist.

Bannon’s views, no matter how upsetting or disgusting or misinformed, could not be marginalised even if you wanted them to be.  Trump, Brexit and the nationalistic movements that are sweeping Europe prove that ideology such as Bannon’s are anything but confined to the fringes of society.

Attempting to marginalise or push racist and bigoted opinions underground is dangerous as those views then cannot be challenged but rather endorsed by those down there in the echo-chamber with them. They will continue to exist in their own bubble, unchecked and unchallenged by others who do not share their views. We have already seen the dangers of this through the Facebook algorithms that only show you the news that you agree with.

In the words of Peter Tatchell, “The best way to challenge bad ideas is with good ideas. If you simply ban someone, the ideas do not go away, and their supporters are not disabused of those ideas.”

“If you think white supremacists and equivalent should be ‘debated’, you are not ‘open’. You are a racist. End of.”

 The above is a tweet from an academic that was tweeted this week. It should be noted that in the first part of the tweet, which I have omitted, the academic states she will not looking at people’s responses. Though I suspect she will be looking at her retweets and her follower numbers.

Even before the Bannon/Remnick argument erupted, there has been a growing pattern of illiberal liberalism taking place online. As the above tweet stipulates, debate is not to be had. Engaging with those people who either disagree with you completely or disagree with you marginally, is off the table.

Taking the simplistic, and in my mind, very dangerous route of silencing anyone who disagrees with you and calling them a racist, is now common place. It should be said loud and very clearly that the very argument above and others like it, run parallel to the tactics of the alt-right and the Trump administration: they are right, you are wrong. There is no debate. Those who disagree are ‘snowflakes’ or ‘fake news’ or ‘enemies of the people’.

At the start of the article I quoted Voltaire. A moral standard I believe we are very fast losing through fear and through hatred, on both sides of the political spectrum I should add. Those who called for the interview with Bannon to be cancelled exhibit parallels with the very segment of society that they find so abhorrent.

I live in the UK. I am white. Therefore, watching Steve Bannon spouting alt-right and racist views is going to affect me very differently than it would a black or Hispanic person who lives in the United States. That is my privilege. But it does not mean that because something upsets us or affects us in the worst way possible, we should not challenge it. Especially when that decision is taken by a social media mob. It actually means we should challenge it with better, more nuanced, and fact-based opinions.

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