Within living memory, for many people, you couldn’t watch a play at the theatre unless it had first been approved by someone called the Lord Chamberlain. Without this man’s permission, the great British public could not see anything which featured such shocking things as extra-marital or same-sex relations, lest they be corrupted. (Of course, right now the great theatre-watching public cannot see anything, but that is beside the point).
But that arrangement fell apart, and by the time it was abolished in 1968 it had become a joke; today we look at the very idea of a role like that of the Lord Chamberlain as anachronistic if not comic. Yet the ancient question of which it sought to answer — “Who has the right to decide what other people should know?” — has never gone away, and pertains to democracies as well as closed societies.
For the power that the Lord Chamberlain possessed was nothing compared to that of today’s censors, gigantic tech companies that can control not just what we see but our very reality. The decisions that the censors of our time can make are of infinitely more significance than whether the public might be shocked or not. They have to do with the extent to which they can be informed at all. And this, like many unresolved questions, has become far more acute and serious since the arrival of Covid-19.
In May last year I described how a group of self-professed experts in London were auditioning to police what the acceptable boundaries of discussion around the Covid-19 narrative actually were. Given that the current pandemic is seeing the largest, most significant and longest-lasting infringements on the civil liberties of the general public ever recorded in peacetime, you might expect that any debate on the virus, its mutability and lethality would be a subject for almost boundless discussion. And yet from the outset the reverse has been true.
Some of this is understandable. For example, early on in the pandemic there was the issue of David Icke spreading a conspiracy theory linking the virus with 5-G masts. Aside from the fact that members of the public on occasion took these matters into their own hands, there was also the question over whether he should be interviewed. The platform on which he appeared — a website called London Real — appeared mainstream, indeed centrist, and so gave Icke a patina of authority, especially to younger people who might not remember him sitting in a shell-suit on Wogan claiming to be the son of God. The fact that Icke ended up causing such a problem is in many ways not a story about Icke, but about the difficulty this age has in identifying what is and is not acceptable to say, hear and know. There are no Lord Chamberlains, but neither are there media gatekeepers who might signal who is worth listening to.
Of course, it does not help that the people so keen to answer this question of authority so often appear to get it wrong . Take the aforementioned researchers at the “Institute for Strategic Dialogue”, who, in seeking to delineate what were and were not coronavirus conspiracy theories, claimed as beyond the pale the idea that the virus “didn’t emerge from a food market in Wuhan but was rather engineered in a nearby laboratory and then released, either deliberately or accidentally”.
Since then, a number of senior intelligence sources from across the Five Eyes security network have indeed speculated that the laboratory, rather than the wet-market, remains a plausible origin of the virus. Unfortunately, China has disappeared scientists and other curious types who might have been able to assist in these inquiries, and only last week the Chinese government jailed a female journalist, Zhang Zhan, for researching the origins of the virus. All of which goes to show that it is unwise to attempt to rule things out, put them behind crime-scene tape and label them as “conspiracies” when they ought in fact to be looked into.
But as the virus — and the lockdowns — have continued, the question of what is and is not permissible has grown more urgent, with the tech companies taking it upon themselves to act as latter-day Lord Chamberlains, but with far more power.
The main tech platforms — YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Google — now have more control over information than any group of people in history, and by some distance. They are presiding over an information explosion that makes Gutenberg look like a mundanity. Perhaps nobody could be up to this job, but the tech platforms have consistently shown that they are woefully unequipped for it. Watching them attempting to juggle with the ethical question of what the public should or should not know is — to steal a phrase from Evelyn Waugh — like watching a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.
Of course tech companies, and the sort of people who work within them, have their biases, and can hardly be expected to escape these. YouTube regularly removes or de-monitises political content it finds distasteful, and it is hardly a secret that they tend to find some political views more offensive than others. Facebook and Twitter in particular chose before the last presidential election not just to censor a story from America’s oldest print newspaper but to silence the New York Post itself, a scandal for which the companies have still paid no meaningful financial or reputational price.
But the pandemic has given the subject added urgency, allowing these tech censors to claim the genuine concern of public safety which they have previously, and rather limply, applied to “dangerous” political views. Last week YouTube banned the UK’s TalkRadio from their platform, “terminating’ the channel’s ability to post because the broadcaster had “posted material that contradicted expert advice about the coronavirus pandemic”.
An array of commentators from the Left and Right of the political spectrum applauded this. And as the UK government instituted a third national lockdown these public figures called for increased censorship of anybody who went against the official, “approved” narratives on Covid. The former BBC journalist Paul Mason (no Conservative he) tweeted that Boris Johnson had not gone far enough in his lockdown pronouncements. “I want him to call out and ridicule the bullshit anti-maskers, lockdown skeptics and denialists in his own party,” railed Mason. “And order social media platforms to suppress / label Covid disinformation.”
As it happens, YouTube demonstrated the trouble with this only hours later, by reinstating TalkRadio’s YouTube account. The company explained: “We quickly remove flagged content that violate our community guidelines, including Covid-19 content that explicitly contradict expert consensus from local health authorities or the World Health Organization. We make exceptions for material posted with an educational, documentary, scientific or artistic purpose, as was deemed in this case.” Yet the problem is not only YouTube’s swift reversals of their own policies, but the fact that even their appeals to authority lack authority.
Throughout the Covid crisis the WHO has repeatedly been shown to be untrustworthy, under-informed and politicised to an extent which would shock anybody not previously aware of their existence. It was the WHO, for example, that said some while back that asymptomatic spread of the virus is very rare; other authorities, including the CDC and the UK government, have said that it is in fact responsible for a large number of infections. Back in the spring US health authorities stated that masks don’t reduce transmission and should not be worn, something that would get a content creator removed from YouTube only weeks later.
The only answer is that there should be as wide a debate as possible. This is not just a principle that has seen us through in the past, but one which has never been more urgent. We are in a dangerous situation at the moment, but what many people are arguing for amounts to wartime levels of censorship, controlled by private companies with almost no accountability. Yet wars at least have surrender papers to end them; any restrictions we allow to censor the lockdown sceptics will most likely remain in place after the vaccine has done its work. It would be ironic that a disease originating in China ended up putting us on the road to a similar system.