If defending free speech doesn’t get you into trouble, then you are not in fact defending free speech. The only speech worth defending is unpopular and very often it comes out of the mouths of people nobody likes. One such instance is that of the unlovable former civil servant Graham Phillips, sanctioned by Liz Truss’s Foreign Office in July 2022 for supposedly undermining the sovereignty of Ukraine. The official citation was that he had been sanctioned because he is “a video blogger who has produced and published media content that supports and promotes actions and policies which destabilise Ukraine and undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty, or independence of Ukraine”. I reported this at the time.
Mr. Phillips, a British citizen, is an obscure and far-from-unbiased video blogger, who has put the Russian side over the Ukraine war, and has been accused of a number of unpleasant actions, as I reported in July 2022. You may be sure I am aware of them, so there is no need to alert me to them again. And yet I am still on his side against the sanctions. So, interestingly, is that fine journalist Owen Matthews of the Spectator, who disagrees totally with me about the Ukraine-Russia war, and disagrees even more with Graham Phillips, but says:
The hunt for Putin cronies has widened from Kremlin–connected Russian oligarchs to include distrust and suspicion of pretty much all Russians – and at least one Briton… Graham Phillips, a former British civil servant who has lived in Russian–occupied Donbas for some years and who has become notorious for his video blogs reporting the war from the Russian point of view, including from the front lines. In July last year, the Foreign Office ruled that Phillips should be sanctioned…
I find Phillips’s pro-Kremlin views obnoxious and his reports blatantly one-sided. But being pro-Russian is not a crime in British law. We are not at war with Russia, nor is the Russian state a designated terrorist organisation. In a democracy, people should be free to be wrong. As the barrister Joshua Hitchens argued in a written submission to the court: “The power the [Foreign Secretary] claims to possess is expansive and unprecedented in modern British political and legal history.”
The crucial point in Phillips’s case against the British Government is the question of the fundamental democratic values which we claim to be defending – and for which Ukrainians are fighting and dying. Collective punishment is profoundly alien to our legal culture, as is punishing people simply on the basis of their views, nationality or ethnicity. At a time when praising and loudly demonstrating for an actual terrorist organisation – Hamas – takes place on the streets of London with apparent impunity, how does the Government justify punishing people for simply being Russian or, in Phillips’s case, for supporting Russia?
Mr. Phillips is also, very notably, the only British citizen (that is, without any form of dual nationality) ever to be sanctioned by His Majesty’s Government
Please note that the enterprising and rather brave young barrister Joshua Hitchens, who has taken on the case alone and without payment, is no relation of mine. It is an amusing coincidence that, alone among British barristers, he has felt that Mr. Phillips’s case is just and needs to be fought. Well, Hitchens is a Cornish name and some may be reminded of the ‘Song of the Western Men’ and its warning to the despotic King James II:
A good sword and a trusty hand!
A merry heart and true!
King James’s men shall understand
What Cornish lads can do!
I do not know when Mr. Justice Swift, who heard the case over two days at the High Court on November 15th and 16th, will publish his ruling. I was in court for almost every fascinating and important minute and it reminded me of the saying of the Greek poet Archilocus (borrowed famously by Isaiah Berlin) that “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing”. I thought that my namesake, Joshua Hitchens, had one big point. Does the Government have the power to punish Mr Phillips without trial? And if it does have that power, is that lawful under the various charters of rights which govern us? His Government-backed opponent, Maya Lester KC (who was supported in court by three other robed and wigged barristers and a small entourage of other helpers), had several small points – about Mr. Phillips’s past activities, his sympathies, and whether he could be regarded in the same light as an actual propagandist for the Putin state, even though (as Joshua Hitchens pointed out) it is probable that nobody of any importance in Moscow has ever even heard of him. Joshua Hitchens also pointed out, as so many in this country seem to forget, that Britain is not at war with Russia and maintains an embassy in Moscow. If we were at war with Russia, as so many of Mr. Phillips’s critics seem to think we are, then the case would obviously be entirely different.
My view of it from the start has been that I too could be accused by some immature Minister of producing “media content that supports and promotes actions and policies which destabilise Ukraine and undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty, or independence of Ukraine”. And not just Ukraine. I have been quite disobliging about another of our allies, Saudi Arabia, and even about the USA. Of course, if governments want to punish people who get in the way of their foreign policy objectives, they are going to start with the easy targets. But it does not mean that they will stop there.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday and the author of several books, most recently A Revolution Betrayed: How Egalitarians Wrecked the British Education System.