3 Lord Harries of Pentregarth debates involving the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport

Social Media: Deaths of Children

Lord Harries of Pentregarth Excerpts
Thursday 20th January 2022

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB)
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My Lords, most deaths are sad and some are tragic, but a death from suicide is particularly devastating. It leaves the survivors with a question that remains on their minds for the rest of their lives: what went wrong, what more could I have done? The death of a young person from suicide is especially gut wrenching. How can anyone, let alone someone so young, find existence so unbearable that they choose to reject the precious gift of life? Self-harm, which sometimes leads to death, belongs in the same category.

I am very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, has secured this debate before the online safety Bill comes before the House and has pursued this issue so tenaciously for so long. I support what she said about the need for parents of a deceased child to have access to their child’s digital data, which was reiterated in the 10-minute rule Bill by Ian Paisley. If it is possible to add further pain to parents whose child has committed suicide, it is by them not really knowing, or not knowing fully enough, why their child took their own life. This happens if, for example, they leave no farewell note. The parents whose child has committed suicide, partly as a result of what they have seen and heard on social media, may have some idea of what has happened, but they will want to understand as fully as possible and to have access to their child’s data.

I will not repeat what the noble Baroness and other people have said about the terrible difficulty at the moment of parents getting access to the data and the need to do something about it. As I say, this adds to the distress of the parents, who want to know more and try to understand. As has been mentioned, the failure to allow access means that we cannot learn from it to ensure that the same or similar material is not recommended to other children.

Further than this, I simply add my support to the other measures proposed by the noble Baroness. We know how serious the problem is. We have been told that there is no exact academic data, but the surveys we have indicate that there is a link in about 25% of suicides and cases of self-inflicted harm among young people. It is very difficult to doubt that link if one has seen some of that material.

As the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Benjamin, reiterated from their experience of this, it needs to be set within a wider problem. As they will know better than I do, there is a particular fragility among young people at the moment, partly because of Covid and partly because of the intense pressure of social media.

A voluntary code is not enough, of course, so with other noble Lords I look to the Minister to support the recommendations of the Joint Committee. We need clear, firm, enforceable legislation, which is essential to prevent the circulation of harmful content and to ensure that young people simply cannot have access to it.

Freedom of Speech

Lord Harries of Pentregarth Excerpts
Friday 10th December 2021

(2 years, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB)
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I thank the most reverend Primate most warmly for initiating this debate and for his truly excellent speech.

Truth matters, and we are truth-seeking animals. To give up on truth and to take the view that one opinion is simply as good as another is not so much to sell our human birthright for a mess of pottage as simply to throw it away. When I was growing up as a child, to tell a lie was the worst crime you could commit. You might do something wrong but if you admitted it and did not lie about it, all could come right. You simply did not lie. How does that obligation to tell the truth stand in our society now, I wonder? Does it still stand strong? I am glad it is still a crime to lie in court, and a punishable offence to lie to Parliament.

I mention this because the primacy of truth provides the moral background for our debate today. Freedom of speech matters because truth matters, and we are truth-seeking animals. Of course, people have different perspectives and they weigh facts differently. Above all, some speak from a position of power; others from one of extreme vulnerability. How right the most reverend Primate was to remind us that we should not enter into any of these debates without an acute sensitivity to the relative power relations of the people who are engaging in them. But, that said, the objective of any disagreement or debate must be to get at, or at least closer to, the truth, and we do this by rational debate.

After all, there are only two alternatives: to go on trying to resolve difference by rational discussion, or to impose one’s view by force. That is of course the policy of vast numbers of countries around the world where there is no or very limited freedom of speech. But we claim to be a democracy in which freedom of speech is fundamental. If this is so, it has to characterise all our institutions, especially our universities.

However, before getting on to that, I pay tribute to those reporters in the media who are committed to discovering and reporting the truth. At what is now the main entrance to the BBC in London is a statue of George Orwell, with his words inscribed on it:

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”—

and this of course especially means telling Governments what they do not want to hear, speaking truth to power. This can come at a price. On the altar of the church of St Bride’s in Fleet Street are the names and photos of all those reporters who in recent years have done this at the cost of their lives. There are scores of them.

Returning now to debates in universities and other institutions, we have to accept that a view might be legal but still hurtful for someone to hear it. It is fundamental to good debate to recognise that some people are very vulnerable and can, understandably, be hurt. This is obviously the case with people who are in the process of changing or have already changed their gender. They are vulnerable and need to be treated with respect and sensitivity. Nevertheless, there is a real and serious debate here between feminists about the social and political implications of someone being transgender, and it needs to be heard.

The way JK Rowling was treated for expressing one side of this debate was quite disgraceful. The way Professor Kathleen Stock was treated at Sussex University is even more shaming, for universities, above all, should be places where the truth is sought by rational discussion. I do not do social media—perhaps I am not brave enough—but Rowan Atkinson has described cancel culture on social media as a place where a medieval mob is

“roaming the streets looking for someone to burn”.

On this issue we have to be aware not only of organised lobbying and campaign groups but of some foreign countries that are interfering in academic discussion in this country. I read recently of an academic conference on what is happening now in India, which is of course very serious. Pressure was put on some academics to withdraw their names from speaking at the conference—which, sadly, they did.

The law is quite right to forbid any kind of stirring-up of hatred because of a person’s race, religion, gender or sexuality. But if an opinion, however disagreeable and however wrong, does not do this, it has to be heard and combated only by rational means. For example, I have long supported gay rights and argued that the Church should have accepted permanent, stable, loving relationships and offered a service of blessing. But I accept that a conservative evangelical can still treat someone who is gay with respect and sensitivity while holding views that are mistaken and hurtful. Their views are hurtful to gay and lesbian people, but it is as wrong to label such people as in principle “homophobic” as it is to label others “transphobic”. There is hurt, but it still has to be resolved by argument, not by ostracism and no-platforming.

This is a serious issue, absolutely fundamental to true democracy, and right at the heart of what we are as human beings: rational, truth-seeking animals. We need to get at the truth by free discussion, to uphold freedom of speech in universities and society as a whole. In recent years, it has been seriously under threat.

Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation

Lord Harries of Pentregarth Excerpts
Wednesday 21st November 2018

(5 years, 7 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Harries of Pentregarth Portrait Lord Harries of Pentregarth (CB)
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I thank the Minister for the Statement and his responses. I am delighted that one of my successors as Bishop of Oxford has been appointed to the centre’s board. I know that with his experience and background he will make a very valuable contribution to it.

Is there an academic moral philosopher on the board? I ask as a former member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the HFEA. It was always thought valuable, particularly with the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, to have a philosopher or two on board. It is not that they will come up with a better answer than anybody else—their judgment is neither better nor worse than anybody else’s—but an academic philosopher can tease out unexamined assumptions. So many of these agreements and disagreements on ethics are about the assumptions that need to be teased out and looked at. I have not had a chance to look at the document yet, I am afraid, but perhaps I could ask that question.

Lord Ashton of Hyde Portrait Lord Ashton of Hyde
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I am glad to say that there will be. Professor Luciano Floridi is Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford—so another Oxford man.