Lord Lebedev warns against the ‘erosion of free speech’ in King’s Speech debate

Parliament was warned on Tuesday to act against the “erosion of free speech” in Britain which was “playing with fire”.

The warning came from Lord Lebedev, proprietor of The Evening Standard which is campaigning to protect freedom of speech.

In a hard-hitting speech, the Crossbench peer hailed the UK’s “great tradition of free speech” which he stressed was now being whittled away.

He emphasised to peers that it would be “insane to throw away these freedoms”.

Lord Lebedev told the Upper Chamber: “My great grandfather Mikhail was a deputy minister in Stalin’s war cabinet - not a role that naturally encourages a man to speak his mind freely.

“In fact, my family say he never felt able to speak openly about anything out of fear - the downright terror that afflicted the country where I was born, of being punished for saying the wrong thing.”

Turning to Britain, he added: “That is why this country’s great tradition of free speech has long aroused such admiration in my heart, and around the world.

“Ten years ago I told the Leveson inquiry that a free and independent media was essential for Britain today.

“It has been alarming since then to see the erosion of free speech that is taking place here.”

He highlighted the case of JK Rowling who faced a backlash over her views on transgender issues and the controversy over Coutts Bank closing Brexiteer Nigel Farage’s account.

“So let me say in the spirit of Voltaire I equally support the right of Jeremy Corbyn to his views on Hamas. I may find those views repellent, but I will defend his right to hold them – it is not just the Left that is guilty of cancel culture,” he added.

“I will even defend the Tory MP Andrew Bridgen – abruptly sacked from his party for his views on Covid vaccinations.”

He voiced concerns that provisions in the Government’s online harms legislation could give further legal basis for a process of censorship and self-censorship which was already happening.

He warned: “When you muzzle people, cancel them, sack them – merely because they champion their honestly held opinions – then you are playing with fire.”

He stressed that by restricting free speech “we are allowing the most deadly enemies of freedom - to claim an equivalence between cancel culture in Britain and the suppression of free speech around the world”.

He also highlighted the growing number of authoritarian regimes around the world where journalists are jailed, and sometimes shot, including in Russia.

“Your lordships I have read industrial quantities of falsehoods about myself in the last two years, but at least I live in a country where journalists don’t fear for their lives,” he added.

He challenged campaigns against Fawlty Towers and Roald Dahl, people being reprimanded for using the word fat, and stressed that the furious gender debate was “harming the cause of gay rights around the world”.

He also championed freedom as “indispensable to our national creativity”.

Concluding, he emphasised: “That spiritual and intellectual exuberance, that amazing artistic, cultural, literary, scientific and journalistic energy has drawn people of talent from around the world to make this a great home of innovation and ideas precisely because they know they will be able to live their lives as they choose and speak as they find.

“We would be insane to throw away these freedoms.”