Freedom of Speech and Burchill's articleAbout a decade ago Stewart Lee along with Richard Thomas created a fantastic and very funny musical called Jerry Springer the Opera. It was a bit hit, and after some negotiation appeared on BBC television. Unfortunately at this point a moron by the name of Stephen Green (who was later accused of spousal abuse), leader of an obscure religious organisation named Christian Voice organised a massive number of complaints to the BBC for broadcasting it, on the grounds that it was blasphemous. It does indeed involve Jesus and God, but in a prolonged dream sequence which is clearly poking fun at Jerry Springer and not God. But one would need to have watched the production to realise this.
The organisation picketed various productions of the show as it went on tour, which is where the producers expected to make money, and then took it to court for blasphemy. Said law is no longer present in the law books, pretty much directly because of this case.
Thanks to their efforts, many of those involved in the production made nothing out of it, including Stewart Lee (read his fascinating biography/insight into show book "How I Escaped my Certain Fate" for more details).
So why do I recount this tale? Well as you may well be aware, Julie Burchill was recently published in the Observer for a comment piece (which can be found at the Telegraph, having been rehosted by the almost entirely odious Toby Young) which included some extremely prejudicial language against transgender individuals. [Brief aside, I think that the transgender community is somewhat split on quite the appropriate terminology to refer to its members. I choose transgender which I believe is fairly inclusive, but apologies to those offended. Unlike miss Burchill, I am willing to mend my ways if my language is inadvertently offencive].
The content of said comment was on the behaviour of certain transgendered individuals towards Suzanne Moore, who had equally made some rather ill judged comments earlier, and then compounded her problems rather than just apologising. Its entirely possible, I haven't checked, that there were some extremely abusive messages sent her way: I would not be surprised, twitter and the internet in general can be a brutal place. The actual content of Burchill's piece was not without merit, even if ultimately incorrect.
Unfortunately, as mentioned, Burchill chose to coat her article full of nasty invective of an extremely regressive nature. Reading it I was genuinely shocked by the content, more so perhaps than even Jan Moir's snide remarks about Stephen Gately's death, perhaps because of the location of the publication.
I am absolutely certain that had these remarks been addressed at women, or at people of a particular ethnic group, there is absolutely no way this piece would have been published in the first place. At the very least, the editor would have requested a strong rewrite of the piece to make it fit to appear in the Observer, a paper which at least gives the impression of being right on. I, and a considerable number of people of a similar opinion, made our voices heard to the Observer in particular, and some (including myself) to the PCC.
The Observer, after a nearly unanimous comments thread, chose to withdraw the piece. A few hours later Toby Young decided to rehost it (and good god are there a lot of articles at the Telegraph about this issue, you'd think they have nothing better to do).
So why am I writing all this anyway, and what has this got to do with the start of this piece? Well as these events unfolded, there started to be a backlash on twitter, particularly from journalists. Journalists do not like to see their fellow members turned upon, and they began to make this a freedom of speech issue.
My response to this was thus: the Observer made a choice to publish this piece. They are not obliged to, and that is not the meaning of freedom of speech. After all, I have no doubt they have hundreds of comment articles of similar levels of hate submitted to them, and choose not to publish them. They made a deliberate editorial choice, and thus imply that this article is something that they believe is of interest to their readers, and is to a standard of other comment pieces published in their paper.
I disagree that said piece is to that standard, and chose to tell the Observer as such and that they had disappointed me by posting such language. I do not believe in banning such language, but would protest a particular publication, especially one I hold in a reasonable amount of esteem, choosing to publish an article containing it.
I do think that if said individuals want to find an outlet to publish such nasty language, they shouldn't be stopped from doing so, but its perfectly within my rights to suggest that nobody reads said article.
So here's my problem... isn't this what Christian Voice did? Ignoring the whole blasphemy nonsense, they protested outside theatres, thus making many not want to take on the show; a similar strategy has led to many American cinemas not carrying particular R rated films in the past to avoid controversy. If I, and others like me, protest enough, then very few outlets will publish this Burchill article. And that's good for me because I don't like the Burchill article, but bad for me if people get set against something I do like.
The protests against Jerry Springer the Opera ended its show life, perhaps prematurely, just as puritanical concerns against sexual content in GTA III San Andreas meant that few publishers have tried anything so bold again.
I want to live in a society which avoids that kind of concern, but also want to avoid hateful stuff like Burchill being published. Can I avoid both? Probably not, and that's why I do tend to argue in favour of freedom of speech. That said, I would argue that my actions are different because of specificity. I was calling for one particular publication not to publish this article, not all of them, and don't have a particular problem with the Telegraph choosing to rehost it, even if I think it is typically tedious.
So, on one final point, was I right to complain to the PCC? Its certainly true that the Observer has agreed to not publish discriminatory language, and they did so, so they have definitely breached the PCC guidelines (by my reading). But should those (enforceable) guidelines be there in the first place? Aren't they antithetical to a free press? Maybe so. One major issue with free speech as the only priority, and something which I believe Leveson needs to address most of all, is power imbalance between the media and individuals. National newspapers operate with a great deal of power that individuals do not, and when they choose to use language to slur a minority, especially one with such a small population, it is difficult for said minority to find redress. The kind of popular campaigning they did here is one way, which appears to have worked, but the PCC provides a formalised way of protecting minorities when such methods do not. Is that a good idea or not? I'm really not sure.
I do want to hold to the principle of free speech, because I believe it massively important, but I don't know what costs that brings. I'd love to hear your thoughts about all this though.