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OfCom: The secretive govt censor that has fined the UK affiliate of Republic Bharat. Why people are rejoicing and what it means

When they do it, it’s called regulation. When we do it, it’s called censorship.

Yesterday morning, for scores of Indian liberals, Christmas came early. They woke up to the cheer of the UK affiliate of Republic Bharat being hit with a fine of 20,000 British Pounds for broadcasting “hate speech.” This is the first time I have heard of the OfCom, the UK government body that served the fine.

For scores of India’s elite liberals, this was not the day to talk about free speech. It was a day to celebrate.

There were a couple of things that were noteworthy about the reporting around the incident. First, the OfCom was described to us as a “regulator” for the media. Okay, what does it regulate? Apparently, all the things that you can say on air. You know we have the National Board of Film Certification in India with a similar brief for what you can show in the movies. Our media usually refers to it as the unofficial term Censor Board. So why didn’t the media refer to the UK’s OfCom as a “censor”?

Oh, I get it. When they do it, it’s called regulation. When we do it, it’s called censorship.

Second, the sense of liberal cheer was not dampened when the nature of Republic Bharat’s alleged offense began to emerge. It turns out that in the backdrop of India’s Chandrayaan mission last year, the folks on Republic Bharat had referred to India as a nation that produces scientists, as opposed to Pakistan which produces terrorists. Hate speech for sure. And how untrue! Seventy-three years after partition, it was heartwarming to see the imperial British government, the Pakistanis and the Indian liberals come together to celebrate a common victory.

But I wanted to know more about this OfCom. It’s full name is the Office of Communications. It holds sweeping powers over broadcasting, telecommunications and even postal industries in the UK. That’s reassuring. I do hope that the OfCom is under the Ministry of Truth in the UK. Dear George Orwell, are you hearing this?

So what methodology does the OfCom use to decide whether something is hate speech? I did a simple google search. It led me to this letter, posted on the official website of OfCom in response to a Freedom of Information request (similar to our RTI):

What OfCom considers ‘hate speech’

That’s just awesome. The methodology is secret. And the OfCom’s Secretary has confirmed that it is not in the “public interest” to release it.

Thank you, dear Secretary to Ofcom, for looking out for the public interest. Seems the good people of the United Kingdom had some kind of meeting, where they elected this faceless bureaucrat as God. Or at least the official guardian of public interest.

As a concession to those of us who are not guardians of public interest, the Secretary was kind enough to provide “Annex B” setting out the reasons why this methodology must be kept secret. And it makes for truly amazing reading. They have two columns, one listing factors for disclosure, while the other lists factors for withholding. And below that, the Secretary, who is a “qualified person” as defined by law, has delivered the final verdict.

First, let us read the factors in favor of disclosing the methodology. It’s remarkably short.

OfCom’s methodology

Ah, the “general desirability” that the actions of the regulator should be transparent! The public’s right to know how their government decides what they are allowed to say? That’s just generally desirable, though apparently not important enough. You have to give it to the British. They do condescension well.

Now let us find out the much longer and more important factors for withholding this methodology. First, there is this.

Factors for withholding methodology

Ah, the government needs a safe space where they can decide what should be censored. If the general riff-raff get to know what is being said here, the government might get its feelings hurt. And then the government might feel shy about expressing its views in the future.

Dear President Xi Jinping, do consider giving a bear hug to these sensitive souls in the British government.

And finally, there is this.

OfCom’s methodology

Long sentences. So, we’re going to have to break it down. The monitoring is only effective if the broadcasters don’t know when and who is being monitored. If this information becomes public, the broadcasters might become alert in time and fix their conduct before the sword falls on them. Then, how would the government know who the thought criminals are?

So everyone is suspect, all of the time. At any time, a government bureaucracy, using a secret methodology, might decide that you have broken their secret rules. Nothing to worry here. As long as you only talk about unicorns and rainbows, you will be just fine. Hopefully.

And finally, the Secretary delivers the expected verdict. No disclosures, sorry.

“Public interest favours withholding information”

Observe how long the sentences are in the latter part of Annex B. Unlike the simple, easy to understand sentence that mentioned the general desirability of things being transparent. In case you are wondering, you do have a right to appeal. In that case, the OfCom will do an “internal review.”

This is modern liberalism. A parody of itself and its alleged goals. Honestly, tell me. If I had not told you at the very beginning, would you have known if these were documents from the British government or the Chinese government?

But to scores of Indian liberal elites, all this matters little. They don’t care if the bosses of some TV channel cheat investors using insider trading. They don’t care if notable journalists are on tape fixing portfolios in the Union Cabinet with lobbyists and big business. And they don’t care if media coverage endangers lives of security forces during anti-terror operations. All they care about is making Republic Bharat shut up about Pakistan.

In other words, yes to corruption. Yes to terrorism. No to free speech.

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or may not be an Associate Professor at IISc Bangalore. He is the author of Operation Johar - A Love Story, a novel on the pain of left wing terror in Jharkhand, available on Amazon here.  

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