Censorship cannot become the new normal

Joy Morrissey

GUEST POST: Joy Morrissey is the Conservative MP for Beaconsfield and Patron of Conservatives in Communications. Follow on Twitter

At a time when we are all still struggling to come to terms with Coronavirus, I would like to re-emphasise the vitally important principle of free speech. Many may not believe that this should be a priority right now, when we are faced with the daunting task of fighting this virus and supporting our ailing economy. But without the historic principle of free speech, which allows for the free flow and exchange of innovative ideas, we would not have been able to make the great scientific and policy making strides that are helping people around the world to tackle this pandemic.

Yet, worryingly, across the Western world, evidence is mounting that people, particularly the young, seem less and less appreciative of the value of free speech. This has become increasingly apparent as more people try to censor the opinions of those with whom they disagree rather than challenging them with reasoned arguments.

This has unfortunately intensified to the extent that individuals themselves are now being censored, no-platformed or “cancelled” in a misguided attempt, almost religiously, to defend the idea that certain beliefs are sacrosanct and cannot therefore be challenged or criticised.

As a result, we now live in a culture where not a day goes by without an individual or public figure having to clarify, apologise or resign for having expressed an opinion, or said a word out of place, or deviated from the approved line on a given subject.

We cannot perhaps expect people from all corners of society to appreciate just why free speech matters so much and how it influences, shapes, and improves their everyday lives.

Yet the vital importance of free speech must be well understood by academic institutions which only exist, and continue to thrive, because of our liberal freedoms.

How can universities seriously expect to maintain their status as bastions of thought, knowledge and innovation, when they continually allow their student bodies to censor research or academic speakers who contradict their world view? Surely they realise how illogical their wilful inaction is?

Already there are real concerns that the failure of institutions to stand up for liberal values could be stifling and suppressing research, discussion and innovation by academics in other areas.

A report from Policy Exchange has suggested that right-leaning, or Brexit-supporting academic staff at universities feel uncomfortable expressing their views, because doing so may trigger a hostile response which could hamper their research and their careers.

This extends to other contentious issues such as those surrounding trans rights. In fact, the report points out that many academics feel as though they must self-censor their work prior to publication. This undermines the very existence of universities as open and thought-provoking environments where old ideas can be challenged and new ideas created.

This is also bad news for the wider public, as potentially game-changing concepts could be stifled, while impractical ideas and solutions get bulldozed through unchallenged.

If universities are more concerned about hurting people’s feelings than the quality and breadth of their academic research then I believe we have a serious and endemic crisis right at the heart of our premier educational institutions.

This is already having consequences across society with schools, public bodies and workplaces following universities’ example and failing to foster an environment which embraces open discussion and debate.

Across our society we need to do more to distinguish between abusive speech inciting violence, and free speech which involves the expression of new ideas and the challenging of old ones. There should be unanimous agreement about the vital importance of the latter.

Only through free and open debate have projects from both Conservatives and Labour, which were previously thought of as unthinkable or unworkable, eventually became universally accepted hallmarks of our country, such as the NHS or the principle of privatisation.

No one – and no idea – is so perfect or unassailable as to be beyond criticism. If you have strongly held beliefs, then you should be prepared to defend them through reasoned and measured debate, exposing weak criticisms for what they are and highlighting how much stronger your own arguments are.

This means of course that we may all be exposed to views and opinions that we find unpalatable or even preposterous. But the minute we start chipping away at the free expression of others, we begin to erode the very essence of what makes us a democracy.

That is something which as a party we must not allow to happen. Universities should wake up and smell the coffee and act now to uphold the very principle of free speech on which they were founded.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com.

How we’ll support female Tories in Comms

Katie Perrior is Chair, and Aisha Vance-Cuthbert and Laura Dunn are co-Directors of Conservatives in Communications

Once again, thank you for your continued support and to those who participated in the CiC Census 2020. The anonoymised and aggregated data is a helpful guide for everyone concerned.

As a reminder, we invited all supporters to weigh in and we received a strong response. In particular, we polled gender (25% of respondents are female) and invited everyone to suggest how we should get more women involved. We received plenty of comments (125 in total!), including some constructive feedback and ideas. We read each and every one.

Responsibilities

Before we get underway, let’s remind ourselves about our group: Tories in Comms is an independent, voluntary and informal industry network for conservatives who work in our sector. While we have a role to play and take our responsibilities seriously, there are others who must take the lead.

For example, while it’s great that just over half of all MPs elected in 2019 were Conservative (365 of 650), it’s also disappointing that – just like our base – only one quarter of them are women (87 of 365). The Party must do more to improve this, and outfits such as the Conservative Women’s Organisation and Women2Win continue to play an important role.

Women are under-represented as senior leaders within the worlds of PR and PA. Other groups, such as Women in PA and Women in PR agree, and they too continue to make a difference; though businesses must do even more.

In a similar vein, the Party, businesses and network must do more to ensure the membership, workforce and base are ethnically diverse.

Let’s look at how we can improve things.

Us and you

Our core team is 50% female, including our chair and two directors. Laura is our women’s lead while Finley Morris is our lead on young people, including, yes, young women. Men have a role to play in encouraging gender parity.

We will continue to advertise all volunteer positions in our newsletter as well as on our website and social media.

Partners

There are several organisations doing an excellent job to encourage female participation. We don’t want to duplicate efforts, rather promote each other’s respective work.

Today, we’ve agreed to work closely with Women2Win and Women in PA, and we look forward to working together on future events and content. You will find them highlighted on our website.

Events

Historically, our group was 100% focused on networking and there was a preference for after-work drink receptions. For the past 12 months, we’ve continued down that path with events on Wednesdays, 6-8pm. However, we recognise that format doesn’t suit everybody, especially women with children and/or those based outside London, and therefore we commit to hosting breakfast and lunch events. We will also look to vary our guest speakers and topics and virtual events. Where we can meet in-person, name tags will also be provided, and we’ll do whatever we can to make all our events welcoming and inclusive. While our Summer Reception has been cancelled and Conservative Party Conference is unlikely to go ahead as planned, we’ll do our very best to host face-to-face events soon.

Speakers

Our commitment to female involvement has been there from the get-go. All three of our most recent events since our relaunch featured women: Lord Black hosted a Q&A with Katie, Kulveer Ranger hosted a Q&A with the Home Secretary Priti Patel MP and Katie chaired a panel on the 2019 election. We will continue to invite high profile women, including our parliamentary patrons like Baroness McIntosh as well as MPs Esther McVey, Joy Morrissey, Nickie Aiken, Siobhan Baillie and Theo Clarke, and we commit to having at least one female speaker at every CiC event.

Content

All supporters are invited to submit content for our newsletter, and to be promoted on our website and social media, and we really encourage you to do so especially if you have something to add on this issue.

Mentoring and profiling

Almost three quarters of survey respondents are interested in becoming a mentor while two thirds are looking for a mentor. Throughout 2020, we will profile our female supporters. Watch this space for details of both of these ideas.

Promotion

We don’t assume people know about Tories in Comms, so we’ll continue to promote the group, by partnering with organisations and leveraging social media.

We also encourage every supporter to invite one female friend or colleague to sign-up to the network and attend an event.

OUR 12-POINT PLAN

  1. We will advertise all volunteer positions
  2. We will work with our partners on events and content
  3. We will host both breakfast and lunch events
  4. We will vary up both speakers and topics
  5. We will use nametags at events going forward
  6. We will ensure our events are both welcoming and inclusive
  7. We will continue to invite high profile women
  8. We will strive for at least one female speaker per industry event
  9. We will encourage women to submit content for our newsletter
  10. We will launch our mentoring scheme
  11. We will do more to promote the network and supporters
  12. We will encourage supporters to encourage others to sign-up.

Our commitment is real, but we cannot do this on our own, so whether it’s encouraging your female friends and colleagues to join us or writing a piece for our e-newsletter, please do get involved. A final note to all our male supporters – thank you for everything you do which helps us progress and succeed. We’re fully aware that most of our career progression has been through decisions made by men and while we want to see more females in these leadership roles, we’re thankful for that support from our male colleagues over the years.

On getting more women involved

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director of Conservatives in Communications

I’m biased towards women. There, I said it.

Some of the best people I’ve worked with are women. Some of the best people I’ve hired are women. Some of the best people who’ve managed me are women. Some of the best people I’ve campaigned for are women and, some of my best moments include developing networks* for women.

You’ll find great women throughout the history books. Take The Dream of Rome by Boris Johnson for instance. Here, he discusses how the Roman Empire achieved political and cultural unity in Europe, and compares it to the failure of the European Union to do the same. We’re introduced to one of the most prominent women in Rome’s history : Octavia the Younger (69–11 BC) was the sister of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, and the fourth wife of Mark Antony – who had an affair with Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt. She became a political adviser and negotiator between her husband and brother, and was respected and admired by contemporaries for her loyalty to Rome.

Fast forward two millennia and travel two thousand kilometres to when and where another woman had risen to the top. The Leader of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher, was the first woman to be elected Prime Minister in the UK. During the 1975 Tory leadership election, she famously said this:

If you want anything done, ask a woman.

Now, I’m not going to argue with the Iron Lady! Last year, when I spotted an opportunity I worked with two women to get it done: Carol Freeman and I persuaded a former director of communications at No.10, Katie Perrior, to chair the network we wanted to relaunch – whose mission includes being more diverse. And, when Carol moved her family to the West Coast, I asked Aisha Vance-Cuthbert to step up.

Over 12 months, we’ve rebuilt Conservatives in Communications to almost 400 professionals, including 19 parliamentary patrons like Joy Morrissey, Nickie Aiken, Siobhan Baillie and Theo Clarke. We’ve hosted three events, including one with the Home Secretary Priti Patel. And, we’ve tasked individuals with establishing effective ways to improve diversity among our ranks.

That said, as of writing this, I guestimate only a quarter of our supporters are women. It’s clear to me and the whole team that we could and should be doing more – as a sector and a network – to encourage greater participation.

Next week, we will launch our inaugural survey – Conservatives in Communications (CiC) Census 2020 – an opportunity for supporters to give constructive feedback and make suggestions anonymously. I hope supporters take advantage of this, because, together, we can and will make a difference.

I look forward to seeing the final results and reading your comments, and to implementing the proposed recommendations. As a former board member, and adviser to the president, of UN Women UK, I’m going to practice what I preached then about equality and continue to encourage all genders to partake as agents of change.

* UN Women UK, DTCC Women’s Network in London and Conservatives in Communications

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for our website. I’ve opened up the comments section.