Toby Neal: Balancing big fat lies with freedom of speech

See the latest column from Toby Neal.


“Freedom of speech cannot extend to lies.”

Bravo, well said, hear, hear.

The comment came on a radio discussion this week from Fiona Hill, who served on President Trump’s National Security Council for two years.

Another contributor, James Harding, ex-Editor of the Times and co founder of Tortoise media, said: “…No one thinks there’s freedom to lie. Those aren’t freedoms, those are more commonly known as crimes.”

But consider this. If freedom of speech does extend to telling lies, then saying freedom of speech does not extend to lies is, itself, a lie.

Alternatively, if Fiona Hill is right and freedom of speech does not extend to lies, who is to be the arbiter of the absolute truth?

Presumably we could have a government department to determine it, but there again a lot of people say governments are the biggest liars of all.

A police department, then. Or maybe a Truth Committee comprising right-thinking people.

By right-thinking I mean reasonable and objective, not people from the right, but if it was to be fair and balanced, maybe there would have to be some people from the right and some from the left and some in the middle, so to qualify to serve on the committee they would have to fill in forms outlining their political, ideological and moral views.

Years ago there was an interview by Jonathan Ross which has stuck in my mind ever since. The interviewee was Colonel Oliver North, an American hero who had become embroiled in the Iran-Contra arms scandal.

Ross put to him: “Just because something isn’t against the law doesn’t mean you are allowed to do it, does it?”


“Yes, it does,” North responded simply.

The law sets the legal boundaries of behaviour, but what is right, wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, is not exactly the same, and is influenced by culture, religion, faith, prevailing customs, and so on.

At a very basic level, it is not right to break wind in a lift or belch at the dinner table. Nor, so far as I know, is it illegal.

It is not right to lie either, but nor is it illegal except in some contexts such as giving sworn evidence. Boris Johnson has been portrayed by many as Britain’s Liar-in-Chief.

Among his lies, his many critics say, was telling the British people he had an “oven-baked” trade deal with the EU.

However, according to a Channel Four factcheck, his “oven-baked” pledge was a reference to the EU withdrawal agreement, not a trade agreement. So are those who accused him of lying in promising an “over-baked” trade deal themselves liars?

The greatest platform for misinformation in the history of the world is now upon us in the form of the internet.

It is a cesspit awash with lies, bullying, abuse, crime, and trolling which has caused misery, especially among children and young people who use it so much.

The attitude of the platforms has in the past been that it’s nothing to do with them, in the same way that if somebody puts up an abusive poster on the wall you can’t blame the owner of the wall for it.


With Twitter and Facebook banning Trump, the internet is starting to see responsibility being part of its remit.

Freedom of speech does not extend to allowing people to broadcast instructions on how to make bombs, incite hatred, violence, and murder, and so on. All these things are already against the law.

Freedom of speech is something for responsible people to use responsibly.

Yet the most dangerous crushing of our freedoms comes from those who do so under the mantle of being champions of liberty and good, because then the loss of freedoms goes unnoticed and even celebrated.

By clearing the field of debate of reasonable alternative viewpoints, or even eccentric viewpoints, it gives a free space for views that go unchallenged or unquestioned.

That leads to the following question.

Do you really want politicians, American big tech company billionaires, and people like me come to that, deciding on your behalf what is The Truth that you can be told?

In the name of freedom, bring on the liars.

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