What The Media Can Learn From London’s Speaker’s Corner

Speaker’s Corner has turned into a playground for fanatics — but the bastion of absolute freedom of speech has a lesson in store for the media.

Speaker’s Corner in the 1970s. © CC BY-SA 2.0, Leonard Bentley

Speaker’s Corner is probably one of the most bizarre free attractions that the London has to offer. At the north-eastern end of Hyde Park, just a stone’s throw from Marble Arch, passers-by can enjoy a bizarre spectacle every Sunday.

Leaning against fences or standing on small stepladders and armed with homemade signs that sometimes remind one of bad school presentations, a good dozen men cry out for attention. They scream and shout against each other, they shout at their listeners, and sometimes they just shout at the squirrels, who like to visit Speaker’s Corner not because it grants them absolute freedom of speech, but because of the abundant food supply, provided by tourists eager for a snapshot of the furrballs. The handful of policemen, who are usually on the spot to watch over the spectacle are often partly amused, partly bored. They usually don’t have much to do.

They shout at each other, they shout at their listeners, and sometimes they just shout at the squirrels.

Speaker’s Corner offers everything— from radical vegans to people who think chemtrails are reality. Militant proponents of radical Islam and the Sharia face off with men in “InfoWars” T-shirts who describe women as inferior and consider Donald Trump the saviour of the planet. It is doubtful that they all meet in the pub afterwards. Apart from the obvious crackpots, the park has also attracted attention as a platform for right-wing extremists. When right-wing extremist Tommy Robinson, founder of the so-called “English Defence League” visited Speaker’s Corner last March and spread his usual mix of hatred and racism, over a thousand listeners came according to various reports. Speaker’s Corner briefly became a trend on Twitter.

In a sense, Speaker’s Corner is a bastion of absolute freedom of speech; and this bastion is mainly defended by fanatics. But even here the digital world has arrived. Some of the speakers are professionally organised. They have small camera teams whoo record their messages for the Speaker’s Corners of the Internet. British journalist Hussain Kesvani recently described this modernisation in an article for MEL Magazine. Some of the speakers, according to Kesvani, have managed to build up a loyal fan base away from the park. Many have successful YouTube channels on which they present their Sunday speeches live or later as a compilation. Titles like “Racism doesn’t exist” or “The Muslims want to exterminate the English people” are no rarity here but rather the standard, according to Kesvani — and tens of thousands watch these videos online.

A Lesson for the Media?

Speaker’s Corner is not only an interesting fieldsite to study study how fanatics, conspiracy theorists and radicals use social media to make themselves heard beyond their traditional core groups — London’s most famous corner also holds a lesson on how the media should deal with small but very noisy radical fringe groups and their views and conspiracy theories.

If you take a closer look during a Sunday visit, it quickly becomes clear that almost no one, apart from a small, devoted following, pays attention to these people. Not even the majority of tourists stop. Only a few of them occasionally stand in front of one of the speakers for a few minutes tolisten before they walk on, often shaking their heads. Many just take a quick photo or a selfie. The vast majority walks by. And why shouldn’t they? After all, not every view deserves to be heard. What is the point of discussing the existence of “lizard people”? Why should one listen to a one-hour “Gravity is a Religion” lecture, if to prove the contrary, it would suffice to give the speaker a strong kick against his stool?

And so it’s perhaps not surprising that not a single journalist or news organisation lurks around on Sundays to report on the views of those present — let alone to broadcast them live. Why should they? What would be won? After all, pretty much everything that can be heard in Speaker’s Corner is nothing of which anyone with a shred of common sense would say: “Everybody has to read about this in the paper tomorrow”. The news value of the speaker’s and their opinions? It’s exactly zero.

But once you leave Speaker’s Corner for the world stage, the situation suddenly looks very different. Here, too, we find those who would fit in well at Speaker’s Corner. But instead of avoiding them, many outlets seem to offer them a platform all too willingly. How US and British media coveredracists or conspiracy theorists such Alex Jones or Internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos are just two examples. Trump’s ex-consultant Steve Bannon, on the other hand, would presumably also have seen his nimbus fade long ago — hadn’t articles about him appeared with an astonishing regularity. Oh, and of course he also received speaking invitations by instiutions such as the FT, the Economist, the New Yorker, or the BBC.

It’s perhaps not surprising that not a single journalist or news organisation lurks around on Sundays to report on the views of those present at Speaker’s Corner — let alone to broadcast them live. Why should they? What would be won?

Another current, albeit somewhat more difficult example is the coverage of the so-called “migrant trek” in the USA. Initially, it was a story about a larger group of Central Americans who had set out for the US in order to escape misery, violence and death squads in their home countries. Donald Trump and other groups have, however, abused the fate of these people in order to stoke fear ahead of the US mid-term elections. The NRA claimed that billionaire George Soros was financing the trek. The president tweeted about “invasion”, claiming without evidence that terrorists were among the people. In a move widely seen as a campaign tactic he later deployed troops to the border with Mexico — although the trek was still thousands of kilometres away and posed no threat.

Even some of Trump’s conservative critics saw the spectacle as nothing more than an attempt to influence the elections in his favor. But instead of seeing the charade for what it was, many American media jumped over the stick that Trump held out to them. The migrant trek, a threat that was not actually not a threat at all but a humanitarian crisis, dominated the media coverage during the election campaign for long periods of time — and thus heated up an already racist and xenophobic climate even further. The sad climax was the terrorist attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh. The assassin was convinced that “the Jews” would bring the “invaders” into the country “to kill his people”.

Alex Jones protesting in Dallas, Texas. © CC BY 2.0, Sean P. Anderson

In this context, the Internet and social media have made it easier for extremists to create and disseminate controversies and lies — which the media often see as an occasion to report on these spectacles. Again, Alex Jones is a good example in this context. But even if it is only a matter of critically covering extremism, this approach always risks spreading extremist ideas even further. To put it differently: Even supposedly neutral reporting can have negative social consequences. For a long time, the BBC was a sad example for this. In debates on climate change, serious scientists were pitted against dubious climate change deniers — all in the interests of preserving balance; as if the unfounded opinion of the latter group deserved the same attention as the consensus of the scientific community.

In this context, Speaker’s Corner is the metaphorical mirror in which even renowned quality media such as the New York Times or the BBC have to take a long look. If we don’t pay attention to fringe groups with their confused views in a London park — and don’t make them bigger than they actully are — why should we apply different standards to the same type of behaviour in a different context?

Why the Media Should Contain Extremist Ideas

There is much that suggests that the media should contain extremist ideas, conspiracy theories and lies. Not by desperately trying to refute them — this rarely works — but by not paying more attention to them than they deserve, like the speakers at Speaker’s Corner. For extremist groups or individuals are often only as successful as the media allows them to be.

It wouldn’t even be the first time. Indeed, there are historical models for this approach. Researchers danah boyd and Joan Donovan wrote about how newspapers in the southern states of the United States successfully helped contain both the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party by deliberately refraining from spreading the racist and anti-Semitic ideas of these groups through their reporting. Donovan and boyd call this “strategic silence”.

No one says this approach is easy. Quite the contrary. It requires a major rethink on the part of journalist and media outlets. It also highlights the areas of tension in which modern journalism operates. Reporting on controversial topics often attracts attention and readers. There is a commercial incentive to cover them. In addition, journalism still works according to the principle that itwants to accompany as critically as possible all important events at a given time while providing space to a multitude of voices. Competing interests and philosophies often make it hard to make a call. However, modern-day journalism must not shy away from these tensions, it must face them.

Modern-day journalism must not shy away from these tensions, it must face them.

Finally, one question remains unanswered: wouldn’t “strategic silencing“ also mean a restriction of freedom of speech and freedom of expression? Not at all, because this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what stratgic silence entails.

No one should make the mistake of believing certain right-wing populists or conspiracy theorists when they claim that they cannot freely express themselves, that they are being censored by the media — quite the contrary. In many ways, especially in Western democracies, it was never as easy to say what one wants to say as it is today. The irony of many controversies around freedom of speech is how much attention is often granted at the end of the day to allegedly censored views.

The fundamental difference between censorship and strategic silence is that freedom of speech does not equate to a right to be heard by all or a right to be amplified by the media. Freedom of speech and expression are restricted when speakers are persecuted for what they say, not when a newspaper refuses to provide them a platform for their opinions.

This article is based on a shorter piece which originally appeared in German in the Swiss newspaper NZZ.

Felix Simon is a journalist and researcher and regularly writes for the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, “Die Welt”, the “NZZ”, “Telegraph” and other outlets. He holds a BA in Film- and Media Studies from the Goethe-University Frankfurt and an MSc in Social Science of the Internet from the University of Oxford, where he works as a research assistant at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He tweets under @_Felix Simon_.