Russian media mogul Lord Lebedev has warned against the “erosion of free speech” in the UK in his second ever contribution in the House of Lords.
Lord Lebedev, the owner of the London Evening Standard and shareholder in The Independent, used his rare appearance in the upper chamber to claim that Britain’s enemies are “laughing at us” over cancel culture.
The independent crossbench peer also claimed he has seen “industrial quantities of falsehoods” about himself in the press – but added it was a good thing journalists did not fear for their lives in this country.
Speaking during the fourth day of debate on the King’s Speech, as peers discussed issues around science, technology, media and culture, he argued it would be “insane” to throw away the freedoms that make the UK a hub of innovation.
Lord Lebedev started by speaking about his great-grandfather, who was in Stalin’s war cabinet, and who his family say was “never able to speak openly about anything out of fear”.
The businessman, whose father is a Russian oligarch and former KGB agent, said: “The downright terror that afflicted the country where I was born of being punished for saying the wrong thing…
“That is why this country’s great tradition of free speech has long aroused such admiration in my heart and around the world.
“Ten years ago I told the Leveson Inquiry that a free and independent media was essential for Britain today.
“It has been alarming since then to see the erosion of free speech that is taking place here.”
Lord Lebedev criticised JK Rowling being “forbidden from speaking at great universities”, Nigel Farage having his accounts closed at Coutts, Roald Dahl books receiving modern edits and the BBC taking down Fawlty Towers from iPlayer.
Insisting that he applies these values to those across the political spectrum, he defended Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and MP Andrew Bridgen in having controversial views about Hamas and the Covid vaccine respectively.
He added he was concerned that the recently passed Online Safety Bill, which aims to protect people from illegal and harmful content online, would “give further legal basis for censorship and self-sponsorship that is already under way”.
The 42-year-old peer said: “When you muzzle people, cancel them, sack them, merely because they champion their honestly held opinions, then you are playing with fire.
“By allowing people to be censored right, left and centre, we are making a huge mistake.
“By suppressing free speech, we are not contradicting the nutters and conspiracists, we are giving credence and foundation to their otherwise bonkers assertions.
“Worst of all, we are allowing the most deadly enemies of freedom to claim an equivalence between cancel culture in Britain and the suppression of free speech around the world…
“We are giving our enemies precisely the stick they need to beat us with. They’re not laughing with us anymore, they are laughing at us.”
Lord Lebedev was controversially given a life peerage in 2020 amid reports Boris Johnson went against advice from British security services that it posed a national security risk.
Mr Johnson denied he overruled advice, stating it was “simply incorrect”.
He said it would “obviously be extraordinary” if the security services deemed Lord Lebedev a security risk and the Prime Minister had intervened to ensure a peerage was granted.
However, his former aide Dominic Cummings claimed he was “in the room” when Mr Johnson was informed of security concerns.
Lord Lebedev has said he is not a security risk and this his family “has a record of standing up for press freedom in Russia”.
Since his appointment three years ago, he has never voted and has only spoken once before on the floor of the chamber, during the Queen’s Speech debate in May 2021.