Theresa May's proposal to "censor" television programmes was attacked by a Cabinet colleague on Thursday, with Sajid Javid dismissing the Home Secretary's pre-election promise to vet television programmes for extremist content before they air as a potential infringement on free speech.
In a leaked letter to David Cameron, published by the Guardian, Javid revealed his concerns that May's plans would amount to "a fundamental shift in the way UK broadcasting is regulated, away from the current framework which is designed to take appropriate account of the right to freedom of expression".
Javid pointed out that other countries which have imposed similar powers "are not known for their compliance with rights related to freedom of expression and the Government may not wish to be associated with such regimes". He sent the letter on March 12 when he was culture, media and sport secretary to inform the Prime Minister that he could not support May's counter extremism strategy and sent a copy to the Home Secretary.
The letter was written in response to a request from May for approval for the strategy from ministers in the Cabinet's home affairs committee and the national security committee. The publication of the strategy to tackle non-violent extremism was delayed around the same time the letter was sent, with many observers believing the Liberal Democrats in coalition had blocked it.
Cameron last week outlined plans to fast-track powers to tackle radicalisation, including a commitment to give Ofcom a strengthened role in taking action against channels which broadcast extremist content, alongside banning and disruption orders for people who seek to radicalise others or use hate speech in public.
It is not clear whether the Government has revisited May's plans since taking office, or whether they could be included in next week's Queen's Speech. In the letter published by the Guardian, which is on Department for Culture, Media and Sport-headed paper, Javid wrote: "Ofcom does not have the powers to approve programmes before they are broadcast and nor do we consider that it should have these powers as has been proposed in paragraph 111 of the strategy.''
Friday's Guardian front page:
Tory attack on May’s ‘threat to free speech’May 21, 2015
The letter continued: "Extending Ofcom's powers to enable it to take pre-emptive action would move it from its current position as a post-transmission regulator into the role of a censor. This would involve a fundamental shift in the way UK broadcasting is regulated, away from the current framework which is designed to take appropriate account of the right to freedom of expression."
"Whilst it is absolutely vital that Government works in partnership with individuals and organisations to do all it can to ensure that society is protected from extremism, it must also continue to protect the right to freedom of expression and ensure that these proposals do not restrict or prevent legitimate and lawful comment or debate," it read.