Sampsonia Way – 28 June 2012

An Interview with Peter Bradley, Director of Speakers’ Corner Trust by Ryan Black  

By establishing sites for free and open discourse, Speakers’ Corner Trust is working to chip away at the cynicism and indifference that can undermine democracy. For almost 150 years the Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park has played host to polemic rant, heartfelt plea, healthy debate, and heckling—all in the spirit of democracy and freedom of speech. In 2004, inspired by the legacy of that public forum, a British ex-pat was able to successfully establish a similar site in Prague. Based on this success, the Speakers’ Corner Trust (SCT) was founded in 2007. SCT is an international charity organization that works to promote free speech and establish free, open places for discourse in the UK and around the world. With projects in several British cities, events in other European countries, and a growing program in Nigeria, SCT aims to reinvigorate the democratic spirit in its home country and nourish it in emerging democracies.

Sampsonia Way recently conducted this e-mail interview with Peter Bradley, former Member of Parliament and current director of the Speakers’ Corner Trust. Here Bradley talks about the process of establishing a Speakers’ Corner in Nigeria, the importance of face-to-face community interaction, and the work it takes to maintain an effective democracy.

How would you summarize the goals and vision of the Speakers’ Corner Trust (SCT)?

Freedom of expression and the right of assembly lie at the heart of all of our civil liberties. They are the aspiration of those who struggle for freedom and the prize of those who have achieved it. But almost 150 years after the creation of the original Speakers’ Corner as a platform for debate and a symbol of those freedoms, the importance we attach to them in the UK and other ‘mature’ democracies has diminished.

We believe that re-engaging citizens in the exchange and development of ideas and opinions is a key to rebuilding trust and participation in mature civil societies. We’re trying to create new opportunities for deliberation, discourse, and debate. But we are also asking people to rise to the challenge of citizenship on the basis that democracy is only as good as we collectively make it. I think two features distinguish what we do from other initiatives seeking to promote active citizenship. First, we have no presumption about what people want to talk about. Second, while we use the internet in our work, we believe that it’s vital to bring people out of their houses and into unmediated, spontaneous personal contact so that they can express, test, and develop their—and their neighbors’—opinions face to face in real places, in real time.

Given that the countries where SCT has established sites are all places where free speech is (in principle) guaranteed, what are the advantages of designating a specific site?

In my view, it’s not enough for a democratic society to simply guarantee citizens’ rights. Rights are like muscles; if they’re not exercised we might find they’ve grown weak and flabby when we need them. We can’t take democracy for granted; we must constantly redefine it. We have to give it meaning by living the democratic life.

Creating a space for citizens’ rights in city centers conveys a powerful symbolism. Even if we never make use of the platform for expression and engagement, knowing that when we stand in that space we are the equal of anyone else in our community is hugely empowering.

But, though the focus of our work has been in the UK, as funding allows we also work in other countries where, even if the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, there are few opportunities for the vast majority of people to practice it. We believe that Speakers’ Corners can play a significant role in embedding civil rights in developing democracies and providing a forum for the public debate, which is vital to the health and progress of civil society.

That is the thinking behind the project we’ve been developing in Nigeria over the last three years. Now with funding from the Ford Foundation we’ve been able to establish an equivalent organization there so that the project is owned and managed by Nigerians, as it should be.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country. A minority of Nigerians are fabulously wealthy, but the majority are extremely poor. There is enormous pride in being Nigerian, and in the country’s potential, but there are also deep divisions, and all too frequently, violence. Corruption is endemic, yet fragile though it is, democracy is taking root. Our aim is to play a modest part in providing ordinary Nigerians the opportunity to debate issues that matter to them, participate in their own governance, hold their public servants accountable, and find new ways of avoiding or resolving conflict.

The Speakers’ Corner in Prague faced some uncertainty in its early years after it became popular amongst far-right extremists, namely Neo-Nazis. How did this situation resolve? Did this inform SCT’s approach at all when it came to establishing new sites or drawing up codes of conduct?

We are always asked about the risk we face in creating platforms for extremists as well as ordinary citizens. We are very clear that there cannot be freedom of speech for some but not for others. We are equally clear that depriving the majority of their rights to free expression in order to deny the few creates problems, not solutions. So we have a very simple principle: Everyone has an equal right to free expression, within the law. Speakers’ Corners do not confer rights that don’t exist elsewhere. In the UK, for example, no-one would have the right to incite hatred or violence just because they were standing at a Speakers’ Corner. Other than encouraging people to be considerate and courteous, our model code of conduct has very little to say about how speakers should behave. Free speech has to be genuinely free.

In Prague as elsewhere, I think democrats have a duty to contest views they find distasteful or abhorrent. It’s important to provide people with radical views with the opportunity not only to express them but also, hopefully, to measure and modify them against other more moderate thinking. It’s no coincidence that extremists emerge more often from oppressive regimes where free expression is denied than they do from democracies.

But our experience has been that extremists rarely use the Speakers’ Corners, precisely because they are only confident enough to preach to their own kind and not prepared to challenge the majority. Also, when people feel that the space is theirs, they tend to be much more positive and constructive in what they say, and more prepared to listen to and respect the views of others.

Has the organization faced any opposition from local governments or groups in establishing any of its sites? Were there any projects that you wanted to establish but couldn’t?

We have found both local government and the police in the UK enthusiastic supporters of what we do; they invariably sit on local Speakers’ Corner Committees. We have had to contend with very few bureaucratic hurdles in establishing Speakers’ Corners.

That said, we are careful in our overseas work to avoid places where the authorities or significant groups are likely to oppose, or only pay lip service to our aims. That means that we are unlikely to be able to work where, arguably, we are most needed. We were, for example, recently considering organizing events in Hungary and Turkey similar to the one which took place in Berlin last year, but we were advised that the current conditions are not conducive to such an initiative. The last thing we want to do is parachute into a political culture about which we know too little, hold an event which may appear to be a great success, then return home, leaving local participants at risk of some kind of retribution.

We need to work with the grain, as I think we have in Nigeria. That does limit the societies we can promote projects in, but I don’t think that invalidates our work. Rather it ought to remind us how precious are the freedoms we enjoy. There are so many people still struggling. We should value and cherish our democracies for all the flaws and deficiencies about which we are free to complain.

What has the public response been to these Corners, and what can the organization do to maintain an atmosphere of productive discourse?

I don’t want to claim that all the Speakers’ Corners we have helped develop are in regular use. Indeed, many of the events that we hope our projects encourage will take place elsewhere. But it’s encouraging that wherever we have worked, there has been public enthusiasm for the project. Beneath the cynicism and the apparent indifference, there are huge reservoirs of goodwill and energy which we’re trying to tap. I think that the simplicity of our proposition—that citizens should be talking to each other—and the fact that we’re only seeking to restore a practice which has been common, in one form or another, in every culture since time immemorial, strikes a chord with most people.

Interestingly, we’ve discovered that many towns and cities in the UK used to have informal Speakers’ Corners in or near market squares, which traditionally were the places where people came to exchange ideas, opinions, and ideologies until mass communication rendered them obsolete.

But, while the internet opens a window on the world, it can also slam the door on our neighbors. I believe that people do intuitively recognize the need to engage with each other face-to-face, as well as electronically. After all, if neighbors aren’t talking to neighbors, they’re hardly likely to be talking to their politicians either. Without those conversations and relationships, what is the basis for community?

What will SCT focus on for the future?

So long as we can fund our activities—which is a huge challenge especially in the current economic climate—we’ll continue to do what we’re doing in the UK and elsewhere. We will keep developing resources that we hope enable people to deliberate and debate with each other in ways that are empowering, enriching, and entertaining.

We’ve just launched, in a joint project with the University of Leeds, a new website that provides educational resources for teachers to help 11 to 18 year-olds acquire the speaking and listening skills they need to overcome their lack of experience and confidence. These insecurities prevent so many young people from fully engaging in their communities, schools, and workplaces. When people exercise their rights it not only makes a difference in their participation in civil society but also improves the quality of their community.

What’s the most interesting or inspiring moment that you’ve witnessed at a Speakers’ Corner?

The one which comes most readily to mind is when a ninety year-old man in Lincoln told the crowd at the Speakers’ Corner that he had two things he wanted to get off his chest: The need to bring British troops home from Afghanistan as soon as possible and the duty of MPs to pass a law obliging pedestrians to walk only on the left-hand side of pavements in order to avoid collisions. It’s the unexpected and the whimsical, as well as the trenchant and passionate, at the Speakers’ Corners that is so rewarding and humanizing.

About the Author  

Ryan Black is an impending graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a double major in Nonfiction Writing and Urban Studies. He plans to pursue a career in journalism and magazine writing.

 


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