by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 27
January 2021

George Monbiot’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ is a dangerous idea

by Peter Franklin
Why suppress obvious nonsense that isn’t going to inform government policy? Credit: Getty

Lockdown sceptics? I’m sceptical of them. Indeed, I’m a lockdown hardliner: I’m pro maskanti mass air travel and believe that pandemic disease poses an existential risk to humanity.

I also thought that the claim that the ‘lockdown mentality’ was a permanent threat to our way of life was wildly overblown. But suddenly I’m not so sure. The fact is that some of my fellow hardliners are going off the deep end.

This morning The Guardian published a column by George Monbiot, which calls for Government restrictions on free speech:

“We have a right to speak freely. We also have a right to life. When malicious disinformation – claims that are known to be both false and dangerous – can spread without restraint, these two values collide head-on. One of them must give way…”
- George Monbiot, The Guardian

The one he want us to give way on is free speech: “When governments fail to ban outright lies that endanger people’s lives, I believe they make the wrong choice.”

What does he mean by “outright lies”? The examples given include “vaccines are used to inject us with microchips” and other conspiracy theories. But why suppress obvious nonsense that isn’t going to inform government policy? Monbiot’s answer is that ordinary people might believe it and refuse to get vaccinated — thereby putting themselves and others at risk.

On this basis, he proposes a time-limited ban on the most blatantly false claims — “running for perhaps six months”. But why stop there? Why not set up a Ministry of Truth to provide an ongoing means of suppressing dangerous information? If lives are at stake, then isn’t that all that matters?

Consider the following example. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Germany decided to accelerate the shutdown of its existing nuclear power stations. There’s compelling case that this move unnecessarily prolonged Germany’s dependence on coal-fired power stations, thereby exposing people and the planet to life-threatening pollution. It’s an argument that George Monbiot should be familiar with, because he’s made it himself on a number of occasions (here, for example).

So if the risk to life trumps free speech, should those who advocated for accelerated nuclear shutdown have been suppressed? Indeed, wouldn’t there be a case for proscribing the organisations who were at the forefront of the shutdown campaign — for instance, the German Green Party?

There is a moral distinction between spreading blatant lies and failing to adequately weigh-up the balance between different risks. But, in practical terms, the latter can be more dangerous — because it appears to be reasonable and therefore can influence more people, including policy makers.

Therefore on the logic of lives at risk, the Ministry of Truth would be more gainfully employed making examples out of fallible experts than uncredentialed grifters.

In any case, who would make the necessary judgments? August bodies like the World Health Organisation — which initially discouraged the use of masks before changing its mind? Do we want to prosecute dissenters who disagree with official advice that may subsequently be shown to be wrong?

Monbiot is right to point out that the right to free speech is not absolute. But to significantly extend the sensible curbs that currently exist would have a chilling effect on public discourse — and hence a means by which mistakes in public policy can be exposed.

The irony is that a proposal designed to protect life could end up endangering it. Perhaps George Monbiot should ban himself just to be on the safe side.

Join the discussion

  • How refreshing to read a coherent identification of the sinister, totalitarian impulses and presuppositions that lie behind Mr Monbiot’s thought ” and behind the organisations that support such thought.
    And how refreshing to read a line-up of comments that are so consistently supportive of Mr Franklin’s arguments. His last sentence is brilliant!

  • It’s particularly ironic this being published in the Guardian, which will delete any comment opposing the idea that people can be “born into the wrong body” and that a man becomes a woman simply by declaring it so. Well, it used to delete these comments – now it simply does not allow comments on this topic.

    As far as I know those two claims are entirely unscientific and essentially amount to a delusion. But perhaps new scientific evidence has emerged that the Guardian is party to.

  • Vaccine scepticism is a perfect example, to the extent that it is an exercise in reasoning rather than outlook. There is no rational reason why a healthy person would incur a so-far unquantified health risk from vaccination with this experimental substance in order to obtain the quantified lack of benefit to him, to others and, by extension, to the NHS. Yet it is precisely this kind of reasoning that is to be prohibited.

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