Nick Clegg: The so-called Snoopers’ Charter would invade your privacy

Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg spoke tonight at the Journalists Charity about the events of the last week.

Speaking about freedom on speech and the so-called Snoopers' Charter which the Tories want to introduce, his speech is as follows:

I know that normally speeches at these gatherings are light-hearted, but the events of the last week have given events like this a greater importance.

Freedom of speech and a free press are at the very heart of our liberal, democratic society.

We must not take the work of journalists and the freedoms that allow you to do your work without fear or favour for granted.

So I want to take this opportunity, first and foremost, to say thank you.

Whether you are a reporter holding the powerful to account…

a foreign correspondent risking life and limb to show the world uncomfortable truths…

a commentator contributing to our national debate…

or a cartoonist pricking the pomposity of politicians and public figures, or even religious figures – thank you. You make us freer.

I’ve felt the sharp end of some of your pens myself, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

You cannot have freedom unless people are free to offend each other.

You don’t have to agree with everything, or even anything, that Charlie Hebdo published to “be Charlie” – you only have to wish to protect the freedoms and rights that define liberal societies like ours.

This barbaric attack was an assault not just on journalists and cartoonists but on the values of free speech, public dispute and openness which those professions embody.

It was an attack on the very heart of an open, liberal society.

You might imagine after several days when politicians across the spectrum and across the world have come together – literally linking their arms together in Paris – in defence of free speech, that we should take it as a given that it will be protected.

But sadly that’s not the case.

Among those linking arms in Paris were leaders of other less liberal countries where people are still locked up or worse for speaking their mind, or journalists for doing their job.

But even in liberal, democratic societies such as ours we need much greater vigilance to protect free speech.

Sadly, governments sometimes, with the best of intentions, introduce measures in the name of public safety that undermine the very freedoms we cherish, and which our enemies despise. 

Just look at some examples from recent years:

  • Labour's championing of Section 5 of the Public Order Act – using "insulting words" to cause "alarm or distress".
  • The Tories' push to filter lawful web content.
  • The Home Secretary's push to introduce "banning orders" which would give her the power to put ASBO-style constraints on people who say unpleasant but lawful things.
  • The use of RIPA to obtain journalists' records.
  • And of course, the so-called Snoopers’ Charter…

which would mean a new indiscriminate power for governments to record every man, woman and child’s web history, emails and social media interactions regardless of whether they are guilty or innocent of anything.

The irony appears to be lost on some politicians who say in one breath that they will defend freedom of expression and then in the next advocate a huge encroachment on the freedom of all British citizens.

Let me be really clear , we have every right to invade the privacy of terrorists and those we think want to do us harm…

but we should not equate that with invading the privacy of every single person in the UK. They are not the same thing.

The so-called Snoopers’ Charter is not targeted. It’s not proportionate. It’s not harmless.

It would be a new and dramatic shift in the relationship between the state and the individual.

People who blithely say they are happy for their communications to be open to scrutiny because they have 'nothing to hide' have failed to grasp something fundamental about open democratic societies:

We do not make ourselves safer by making ourselves less free.

Free speech means bad ideas can be exposed and good ones promoted.

But how is the marketplace of ideas supposed to work if law-abiding people can't communicate freely about our ideas with others, free from surveillance?

How can we test our assumptions about the world and discover new ideas if our web browsing is being monitored?

Free speech and privacy therefore go hand in hand.

Neither are absolute rights of course, but interference with either needs to be truly exceptional.

Of course, much of the debate in recent days has focused on what the Government can and should do to tighten our security.

The Coalition has already acted to do so – there have been two pieces of legislation in recent months which the Liberal Democrats have both supported and helped to design and I have advocated as Deputy Prime Minister.

The question of how we can make ourselves safer is vital and we must never become complacent.

But the question I want to pose is: How do we also keep ourselves free?

If we really believe freedom of speech is a founding principle of our democracy, then we must act to protect it.

I look enviously at America, where every schoolchild is taught from day one that they have inalienable rights – including free expression – which are a fundamental part of what it means to be American.

I want us to have the same. The time has come for a written constitution with a Bill of Rights.

The Liberal Democrats are committed to a constitutional convention after the general election, and deciding how we enshrine free speech in a new written British constitution should be at the heart of it.

Article 10 of the ECHR, the right to free expression, doesn't go far enough.

We need something home-grown if it is going to stick in the public consciousness and really act as a brake on politicians' authoritarian tendencies in the future.

The Commission on a Bill of Rights we set up in 2011 looked at this.

It failed to come to a unanimous view because the Conservatives saw it as an opportunity to weaken the ECHR, not complement it and strengthen it.

On Sunday, millions of people took to the streets in solidarity, in remembrance and in defence and celebration of the freedoms we hold dear.

Our response must be to protect and enhance those freedoms, not to allow fear to chip away at them.

We must always defend the British values of freedom, openness and tolerance.

We must always defend the rights of individuals to express themselves freely.

And we must always defend the right of a free press to do its work without fear or favour.

It is at times like these, when our freedoms are under threat, that we must stand up for them most of all.

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