Russian media tycoon Lord Lebedev has issued a cautionary message against the perceived decline of free speech in the UK during his second appearance in the House of Lords. The owner of the London Evening Standard and a shareholder in The Independent expressed concerns over what he referred to as the “erosion of free speech” and the impact of cancel culture, suggesting that Britain’s adversaries are now ridiculing the nation.
In his rare address to the upper chamber during a debate on science, technology, media, and culture, Lord Lebedev highlighted the importance of preserving the freedoms that contribute to the UK’s status as an innovation hub. He drew attention to the historical context by sharing personal reflections on his great-grandfather’s experiences in Stalin’s war cabinet, emphasizing the stark contrast to the freedom of speech tradition in the UK.
Lord Lebedev criticized instances such as JK Rowling being prevented from speaking at universities, Nigel Farage facing account closures, modern edits to Roald Dahl books, and the removal of Fawlty Towers from iPlayer by the BBC. He expressed worry about the potential consequences of the recently passed Online Safety Bill, fearing it could provide a legal basis for increased censorship and self-censorship.
The media mogul defended individuals across the political spectrum, citing concerns about restrictions on free speech and the potential chilling effects of cancel culture. He argued against silencing people for expressing their sincerely held opinions, asserting that such actions could inadvertently lend credibility to extreme viewpoints. Lord Lebedev concluded by expressing concern that suppressing free speech in the UK might be exploited by adversaries who could equate cancel culture in Britain with broader global suppression of free speech.
Lord Lebedev, controversially awarded a life peerage in 2020, has faced scrutiny over national security concerns, although he maintains that he is not a security risk, and his family has a history of advocating for press freedom in Russia. Despite his limited parliamentary activity since his appointment, his recent address underscores his apprehensions about the state of free speech in the UK.