The weird thing about this conference season is how happy it is. The Lib Dems were all pleased as punch, as if nothing had happened since the last time they got together. Labour had this frenzied sense of joy electrifying the conference, not because they thought they were going to win – almost none of them really think that – but because things were chaotic and remarkable. And the Tories… Well, the Tories won the election. They actually improved the share of the vote for a governing party and secured their first majority since 1992. They've earned the right to be pleased with themselves.
They're trying to be understated about it, although it must be said they're not doing a very good job of it. Michael Gove told delegates he found commentators' mistaken predictions of a Labour coalition "hilariously" wrong. In the bars of the conference centres, there is a background hum of guffawing and back-slapping. But dig beneath the happiness and there is very little political content here.
The stands, which are usually dominated by pressure groups and charities, are now mostly shops. They sell scarfs, posters, clothing – there's even a Harvey Nicks one. You could quite literally do your Christmas shopping here. The fringes are deathly dull. I haven't heard anyone say a good word about any of them. The speeches from the conference floor are predictable. Theresa May says immigration is bad – surprise! Jeremy Hunt thinks cutting benefits makes people work harder – surprise! It's standard, meat-and-potatoes Tory party conference material. There's not even a story for journos to grab hold of, except for the first rumblings of a leadership fight which will take place in four years' time. It's hard to get excited so far in advance.
You can feel it in the conference hall. Speakers – even the big beasts like Gove or May - struggle to get any applause. And you could see it in the selection of Zac Goldsmith, on just 6,514 votes. He would have come fifth in the Labour London mayoral vote, behind David Lammy on 8,255. The Tories are where Labour was after Tony Blair was done with them: gutted. Hollowed-out. This is what cynical electoral strategy does to a political party.
You see the truth of that inside the secure zone, a nightmarish world in which everyone looks exactly the same - businesslike, in a smart navy-blue suit.
The Lib Dems are often hilariously similar to their stereotype – you really do see lots of brown socks and sandals - but they are also wonderfully diverse. You see teacher-types in scruffy jumpers next to Alan Moore look-a-likes with black hats, trenchcoats and long wirey beards. They're a diverse bunch. Labour has always had its androids, the smart-looking vacuous young men who rise through think tanks to become special advisers and, in their dreams, MPs, seemingly without ever having encountered a political conviction. But this conference was a strange combination of wild-eyed young people (the full army of Corbynistas had not had time to join in time for conference, but a few were there) next to august former ministers. It was eclectic and passionate.
Not so in Manchester. Here it is mostly men and they mostly wear the same suit. You don't even see those elderly couples falling asleep quite so much anymore. The Tory conference is now a corporate event, sanitised to the point of consumerism.
And yet outside it's a very different world. The protestors line the steel passage into the conference centre, shouting "Tory scum" at whoever walks by, like a red carpet walk of shame. They're not representative of anything really, except for a brand of left-wing protest which has been around for decades. They don't represent the north's rejection of Toryism, as they would have you believe, or Jeremy Corbyn's 'new politics', as the Tories would have you believe. They're just kids protesting – no more, no less.
A Tory source with close contacts in the police told me yesterday that they may be allowing the protestors so close to the entrance as a way of showing the middle finger to May, who officers particularly detest (the feeling is mutual). I don't believe that for a second and I'm not sure my source did either. But it was a nice story. Too good to check.
More likely, it is easier to control the interaction between protestors and delegates in the narrow corridor of the entrance, rather than by pushing them out to the side streets, where delegates could be attacked more easily.
But the fact those sorts of calculations have to be made at all tells you something important about the Tory conference. Regardless of how representative they are, those protests on Sunday – and the rally yesterday – were incredibly well attended. This will likely be the face of the Tory party conference for years to come: an increasingly empty corporate event, with protestors outside, spitting at those who walk in.
There is a very telling moment in Owen Bennett's account of being spat at at an anti-Tory demo in Manchester yesterday. It's not when the Huffington Post reporter is actually spat at. There are always aggressive lunatics on protests. They don't indicate anything wider about their movement except that it, like all other movements, has its fair share of idiots. It comes afterwards, when police had separated him and fellow journalist Kate McCann off from a section of the crowd.
As Bennett recounts:
"I shouted out that we were journalists, and flashed my National Union of Journalists issued-press card. They didn't leave us alone, apparently we were fair game. I deserved to be spat on, according to more than one person in the crowd. The police told Kate and I we needed to move out of the area or we would 'get lynched'. I didn't doubt it. The crowd was getting larger, and angrier."
Similar accounts came in from a variety of journalists attending the conference, most of them not writing for publications which could be called right wing.
Journalists should not fool themselves into thinking that this is just a phenomenon on one side of the political divide. A day spent on Twitter will show you that Ukip supporters are every bit as viciously against the media as their counterparts on the left. As much as they hate the comparison and each other, the hard left and right share many of the same psychological instincts.
And it's not just on left and right, but across political campaigns. The last Israeli bombardment of Gaza provided an absurdist portrayal of protestors' priorities. When the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire fell apart, where were the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War and the CND? They weren't at the Israeli embassy, or the Foreign Office, or the American embassy, or tsome arms manufacturer's HQ. They were blockading New Broadcasting House.
Their press release attacked the BBC for interviewing Tony Blair about the issue. The idea that the interview may be aggressive or critical did not seem to occur to them. In a parallel of the way some identity politics campaigners treat people's right to speak as an act of violence, the very presence of someone on air is considered unacceptable, regardless of the context in which it takes place or the questions they are asked.
The media is increasingly treated as a hostile force. And it's not just anti-war protestors and Ukip cyber warriors. The distrust and agitation towards the media is increasingly mainstream. Alex Salmond's campaign against the BBC's former political editor Nick Robinson has been a case in point. First the BBC reported about a possible relocation of RBS if Scotland voted Yes during the independence referendum. Salmond attacked Robinson in public and soon 4,000 people with Scottish flags were marching to the BBC's headquarters. The attacks on Robinson were particularly personal and aggressive. As many noted at the time it was akin to Putin's Russia. The fact a democratic leader was encouraging it was particularly revealing. And indeed, Salmond was still going on about it this August. Far from calming things down, he was beset by the same fever.
You see a similar attitude from Jeremy Corbyn, who does not seem to recognise the distinction between broadcasters, websites and tabloids. The Labour leader is understandably agitated at the deranged viciousness of the right-wing press attacks on him. But his response has not just been directed at the Mail and the Telegraph. He has cancelled interviews with regional press at the last minute. He refused to give interviews to the BBC after winning the election. And he returned to the theme of the hated media several times during his conference speech. It was the closest it had to a theme.
Conservatives are no different. Every single morning, without fail, they take to Twitter to lambast the BBC for its imaginary left-wing bias. This is a phenomenon which touches every part of the political debate.
What do all these groups have in common? They are all motivated by the sense that everyone would agree with them if only the information they received were not filtered through a biased media machine. This is a direct result of social media. The deafening echo chambers people have surrounded themselves with make them increasingly outraged to discover that not everyone agrees with them. They must somehow explain away people's inability to grasp the reality of the world as they do, so it follows that the media must be responsible.
People's anger about the the press is not completely misguided. Political journalism is often a trivial failure. The reliance on advertising and a market-failure proprietorial model reliant on a handful of very wealthy owners means the press is inevitably skewed towards the status quo. After all, the people funding it have done rather well out of the status quo and have a lot to lose from it changing. That political instinct does affect the BBC. Even though very few people read it, the press still forms the political agenda which the broadcasters follow. It's not a conspiracy. It's old school Marxist analysis – a function of a system in which the wealthy own the means of production.
Political journalists are far too often interested in tittle-tattle about leaders than they are the consequences of their policies. They also engage in political compromises of their own, in which they give average ministers good write-ups in expectation of stories in return. It's all part of the machine. But the key to understanding it is not conspiracy, but economic and personal incentives.
And those warped incentives do not just lie with journalists, but with readers. The brutal truth is that stories about policy failure – the effect of welfare cuts, the reality of life in prison, the hardship faced by asylum seekers – does not get anything like the attention of a piece about the latest ministerial faux-pas or whether it’s still OK to say 'first world problems'. The web offers editors unparalleled information about what people choose to read. If they read more investigative journalism – the kind which takes time and money – more of it would be written.
There is much to be critical about in the British media and British readers. But the way to fix it is not to succumb to some raging conspiracy theory about evil media manipulation. It’s to take an honest look at the structures around media ownership and our own behaviours as reporters and readers of the news.
Of course, it’s much easier to engage in angry paranoia about media conspiracy. And indeed that is what people seem intent on doing.
For the first time in a long time, the censors are on the back foot. Efforts to ban secular campaigner Maryam Namazie from speaking at Warwick University have been reversed. Then yesterday, feminist campaigners Caroline Criado Perez and Julie Bindel pulled out of the Feminism in London conference in protest at efforts to no-platform fellow panellist Jane Fae. We are seeing the first signs that the tide is turning in the free speech debate. Event organisers are finally coming under as much pressure from free speech defenders as they are censors.
(Quick declaration of interest: I went to Warwick for my MA, I'm close friends with Perez and Fae regularly writes for this website. None of that has any bearing really, but it's worth mentioning because online censors – from the Corbynistas to the safe spaces lot – struggle to accept that anyone holds opinions for any reason other than self-interest. I might as well beat them to it.)
The Warwick debate started just like all the other travesties of this sort, with the dull thud of comparison between offence, psychological damage and warnings of disorder. This has been the pattern for years now. Political disagreement has been increasingly equated mental trauma in a university culture dominated by a form of therapy-style political discourse. 'Safe spaces', where students are protected from different opinions or people of a particular gender or skin colour, have been largely accepted by authorities. There have been few efforts to challenge the students who demand emotional protection from challenging ideas.
Instead, a terrible combination of managerial impotence, financial caution and political timidity has allowed the campus censors to run amok. It is costly and legally risky to police demonstrations against an event. And student groups have proved very effective at framing their demands for censorship in the language of a 'duty of care' from the university. This is partly to do with the changed relationship between students and the institutions they study in. Fees turned what was once a teacher-pupil relationship into a service-consumer one.
When Warwick Student Union looked into the writing of Namazie, who had been invited to speak to the local secular society, they found that "a number of articles written both by the speaker and by others about the speaker indicate that she is highly inflammatory, and could incite hatred on campus". They added: "This is in contravention of our external speaker policy".
It's worth interrogating that sentence. It suggests that any idea which raises passions must be banned on campus.
The campaign against the ban exploded overnight, helped by the high-profile support of people like Richard Dawkins, Nick Cohen and Ben Goldacre. This online response is crucial. The armies of censors online can be terrifying. There are thousands of them and they are extremely aggressive. They scare individuals and they scare institutions. People, naturally, don't want to spend days under an avalanche of abusive tweets and Facebook messages. They also don’t want the blogs and social media accounts of their friends and loved ones to be trawled over by these strange online armies for material to be used against them. Most normal people back down in the face of this type of attack. It’s partly why institutions have proved such easy targets.
But the strong response on Twitter to Namazie's ban turned the table. Suddenly, there was an opposite and equal pressure not to ban her.
I do a lot of talks for universities. With regret, I will never talk for Warwick now they've banned Maryam Namazie. http://t.co/4nXxnsj97b
After a few days' pressure, Warwick student union announced it was looking at the decision. Later, they reversed it. In a statement they said:
"We want to assure everyone of Warwick Students' Union's continued commitment to free speech. We also want to take this opportunity to apologise to everyone who has expressed concern, or disappointment, or who has been hurt by this significant error and we will be issuing a full and unequivocal apology to Maryam Namazie."
A similar situation played out yesterday, when it emerged that Fae was stepping down from the Feminism in London (FiL) conference. Fae is a moderate, articulate and very well-read commentator on a range of issues, including pornography, obscenity law, efforts at online filtering and a range of other matters. She is also transgender. Some radical feminists took issue with her supposedly because of her views on pornography and sex work, although the vitriol aimed her way afterwards suggests there is a significant element of transphobia at work too.
"The problem is that certain peeps had created a situation via a whispering campaign in which backing became irrelevant," Fae wrote to me in an email. "We were damned if we went ahead, damned if we didn't...so I attempted to tiptoe away quietly...which was sort of working until yesterday, when it all went nasty. I am now at the centre of a shit storm, as are some of my nearest and dearest. My ex, for instance, has had to take her old blog offline because people appeared to be mining it for dirt to use against me."
This is the standard tactic adopted by the online censors: demands that organisers remove someone from an event followed by an intimidation campaign against them online. In this case the organisers did not remove Fae from the event. Everyone involved praises them for their intentions and their good nature. But they did not necessarily support her either. They told her of the situation and tried to manage it, but Fae, keen to avoid it costing them the conference, stepped down. This is how free speech is destroyed in modern Britain – not by laws, but by taking the easy route in the face of organised campaigns.
Perez, who was due to attend as a speaker, had had enough of seeing events like this policed according to a narrow consensus on what could be discussed and who was entitled to discuss it. She wrote on her blog:
"It is with great regret therefore, and apologies to the organisers, who I am sure feel stuck between warring feminist factions, that I feel I must pull out of the conference too. I wish the conference every success and I know it will still be a great event organised by fantastic and committed feminists. But this is an issue of principle for me. I cannot in good faith even passively condone what I can’t see as anything other than an effective no platforming."
Hours later, Bindel, who has herself often been the victim of no-platforming policies, did the same.
"It is particularly difficult for me to do so because FiL is one of the few feminist conferences that dare include me on their programme (in case of disruption from anti-feminists claiming I am transphobic, biphobic, Islamophobic and whorephobic). In fact, FiL had, in previous years, left me off the programme (but had me speak) in case the smooth-running of the conference suffered as a result. This year I told the organisers that I would only agree to speak at the event if my name were included in the programme, to which they agreed. It therefore feels particularly upsetting to find that the organisers are once again being bullied about one of their speakers, Jane Fae, this time on the grounds that she has expressed and still holds some pro-pornography views."
It is sad to imagine the organisers, who clearly support broad inclusive debate, seeing their event fall apart around them as these warring factions challenge the other side's right to speak.
But applying this sort of pressure to organisers is the only way to ensure free speech is no longer degraded in this country. Until this week, all the pressure came from one end, with just a handful of commentators raising the alarm about it. Now we are seeing social media being utilised to support free speech. And we are seeing prominent voices from within feminism standing up to the censors. In both cases, they put equal pressure on organisers to keep speakers on the agenda, despite the demands of the online lynch mob.
With any luck, it might finally be the start of a fight back against those who would limit our rights to free speech. The tide may finally be turning in Britain's new culture of offence.